What was your transition like to Landmark College and to Vermont, as a person of color coming into very White environments?
I was okay with the transition only because I had already processed what it was going to look like. So I was already ready for it.
And I felt like I connected to the community as soon as I got here. I was also able to connect with the students of color on campus. There were a lot of African American students here and the basketball team was thriving at the time, so I met a lot of students from the inner cities who played on the team and a couple of students who were student leaders on campus.
And then having a resident dean who was a person of color definitely made me feel comfortable. It was like I had a little family.You’re the founding coordinator of the Centers for Diversity and Inclusion. Tell me a little bit about how the Centers came into being.
When I first arrived [as a student], I saw that there was the Woman’s Center here, and one of my friends at the time worked in it. I thought that it was cool that the women on campus had somewhere where they can connect with each other, since women are a minority at Landmark.
Then during the time after Trayvon Martin was killed and the trial of George Zimmerman was going on, Mike Brown and Ferguson happened, and that’s what really made me say, “Wait a minute, you know, something’s wrong here. We need a center for students of color here. We need a place where we can come together.”
Trayvon Martin’s death really sat with me, and Mike Brown’s death really sat with me, with all the police brutality and issues happening within our communities. And we were here at school, and I just felt like the conversational piece wasn’t happening.
So as a student I wanted to get involved as soon as possible.
The first act of diversity work I did was to connect with a few other African American students. We all went to the poetry slam, which was held in the art building, and we said, “We’re all going to wear black, and we’re going to take over.”
We came in peace, of course, but just how we walked in made a statement. Then we were able to get on the mic, and I was able to say a poem speaking on police brutality, speaking on Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and just what I see through my eyes.
And it struck a chord. The place happened to be packed, so it was just the right time, the right day to do it. Another student with us started rapping. It felt so good because our voices were heard.
After that, I said, “Okay, we need a center.” And I just started working towards that, along with the with the resident dean, a person of color who worked at Landmark.
And we just went from meeting to meeting, trying to get a center for students of color, which is now called the RiseUp! Center.
Because when you have students who are of color from another place, they want to look for a community that they feel a part of, that can make them feel that they are safe. Then they can learn in the classroom.What sort of work do you do in your role as coordinator?
With the Women’s Center, we’re able to connect to the women on campus, let them know that they have a voice. We just started Girl Code, a group discussion where women on campus can discuss and connect.
Along with, that I called a Bro Talk, which was the same atmosphere for freshmen students coming in.
With it being Black History Month, there is a lot of programming happening within the RiseUp! Center, not just for students of color but for all students. Within Stonewall Center for LGBTQ people and the Women’s Center, there is a lot of energy to connect and do programs together.
It speaks volumes when you see the students come together. These students are coming up with these great ideas. The students are coming up with these conversations.
When they connect with me, it’s more like, “Well, how do I do it?” And I’m able to help them break it down, set the program up, and help them figure out how to get the word out, what topics work, what the conversational pieces are like, and so on.
I’m able to sit with them and hear their ideas and help them structure what they want to do. You know, the same way it was for me when I first started. I felt like I’m just doing what the leaders that I looked up to were able to do for me. So I feel like I’m able to give that back.What’s your sense of how the the CDI and your work has impacted the larger Landmark community in terms of things like curriculum or people’s attitudes?
To be honest, I feel like the centers give a lot of students a sense of belonging.
I’ve seen what the RiseUp! Center has done for students of color here, and it’s been amazing, and I have also seen what Stonewall has done for students who are connected with the LGBTQ community, because they have a voice, they have a place.
I’ve seen positions grow within the Women’s Center, and seeing women wanting to come together and connect and put out programs and talk about topics that are not normally talked about.
I feel like we’re just putting a dent into moving forward. We’re able to shine a light on what’s happening outside of the Landmark community, and we’re able to talk about topics that can be uncomfortable.
But I think the great thing about it is these conversations are happening with students, and students who have learning disabilities, where some outsiders may think that students like these are incapable of having these conversations, which is not true at all.
At Landmark, we’re already ripping off the mask, allowing ourselves to be who we are because we have learning disabilities and are accepted here. But just imagine ripping off the mask and talking about your race and gender and talking about what your beliefs are. Now, that’s a whole different conversation. That’s a whole different battle.
But when you see that with students who are 18, 19, 20, 21 years old, we’re doing something here that’s only going to make that person better.
So I feel like CDI is just putting a dent into how things are going to start moving forward. I feel like students are able to find that within CDI, we are not only only giving you a voice, but we’re also letting you be who you truly are all the way around.
You don’t have to hide. You don’t have to feel uncomfortable. And even if others are uncomfortable, your voice still needs to be heard. And we’re saying, “Here is the microphone, speak into it. We all in here together.” Because that’s what diversity and inclusion is about. It’s a family. It’s all about us coming together and getting to know one another.I wonder how the students you work with experience the local community, whether it’s Putney or Windham county or Brattleboro. Are there tensions? Or is that working pretty well?
You know, when you go home, the environment is safe. But sometimes when you go out, it’s not going to be the same kind of caring, love, or connection you want.
When it comes to students of color being pulled over or being looked at strangely, that’s still a factor in the real world. This is the way it’s always been, you know, and I understand that, but change is also a part of that as well.
And I believe that the students of Landmark College, with the diversity work that we’re pouring out, helps to add to that change.
Sometimes the community can be adaptable like, “Yeah, we’re cool,” but sometimes you run into those ditches and you’re like, “Well, we had a moment here.” It is still a work in progress.
As my friends would say, it’s not all good. We just have to constantly work at it. And the community is only going to get better with what we’re doing here.How do you experience your role at Landmark as a person of color who is also the point person for diversity and inclusion on campus?
Kelly O’Ryan is the dean of students, and I feel like she’s Phil Jackson and I’m Michael Jordan. You know, that’s the kind of connection that we have, and I am learning so much from her. I’m able to go in and speak on matters that I feel are important, and not be afraid to speak up.
So when you have someone who’s saying, “Hey, here’s the mic, go do what you need to do,” it only makes me more comfortable here.
Am I tired some days? Oh, yes, I’m tired. Could it be hard some days? Oh, yes. When you’re in a room full of people that don’t look like you, it can be. It can be terrifying for some. But for me, I’m like, I’m here. And I have to speak up — not only for myself, but so that students start being heard.
And that’s why I’m in this position. I want to be able to help any trans student who walks through the door, any person of color who walks through the door, any woman who walks through the door and feels like there’s no way — I want to show that there is a way.
That’s why I’m here. And I see myself speaking up for them when they feel like no one’s listening.
My birth name is Altraz, and it means “speaker.” And that’s what I am. And I want to use my voice to speak for those who can’t speak. I want to speak for those who have lost their lives so that I can even sit in this chair.
And the list goes on.
So for me, I always, always look at Trayvon Martin. I look at Mike Brown. I look at others who were taken away so early.
And I have to be dedicated to the work. We could be helping and saving someone. We could be educating someone who needs to be educated. I need to be ready.
That’s where I see myself going. Continuing that work. I can’t stop.