by Jonathan Romero ’13 

Yesterday (January 17, 2012) Kalamazoo College announced the largest grant in its 179-year history: a $23 million endowment grant from the Arcus Foundation that will support the  ongoing and future work of the College’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership and help the College develop its preeminent role in linking social justice leadership development and the liberal arts.

One of the most important outcomes of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership will be its effect on students. We asked ACSJL to suggest a student to write about the question: What has the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership meant to me? ACSJL recommended Jonathan Romero ’13, and he enthusiastically consented. His words follow.

When I stepped foot on to K’s campus I had an idea of what social justice meant based on the learning experiences I had in the public education system and the South Central Los Angeles community where I grew up. The idea of becoming an advocate for social justice is rooted in the social injustices I experienced as a low-income Latino, including the educational inequities that are rarely questioned in the Los Angeles Unified School District and the racism I experienced when stepping out of my “minority community.” I say “minority community” because my community was predominantly black and Latino and therefore we paid little attention to the term “minority.” Terms like “minority” or “social justice” are not words that I grew up using because people in my community have other frightening issues to worry about: earning an income sufficient for you and your family to live, gangs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, drugs, and public school inequities, just to name a few.

In the 2009-2010 academic year, Kalamazoo College began to experience many changes on its campus, from what the College calls “diversity” to the launch of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (ACSJL). Along with many other students that year I came to “K” with a socio-economic, cultural, and racially diverse background. I knew that Kalamazoo College was a predominantly white liberal arts college, which meant several things to me before I arrived. I suspected I would experience a culture shock and perhaps experience discrimination in different shapes and forms. To better prepare me for possible experiences and dialogues at “K,” POSSE through its pre-collegiate training program trained my posse and I (a group of 10 students from Los Angeles) in mediating conversations about race, gender, sexuality, and religion. However, mediation training was only the first step I needed to take into becoming a social justice advocate.

Initially I thought of the ACSJL as a guide for social justice and a center that created the space and time to have dialogues about race. For some reason many students on campus, including myself, always thought of social justice as something regarding race. Students on campus continue to shut down when they hear “social justice” because they are afraid that race will be brought up. The ACSJL began to make it clear that social justice is more than just about race, it was about highlighting the many issues that can be analyzed through a social justice lens. Therefore, the ACSJL broadened my horizons and helped me to think critically about the issues that matter most to me and where these issues originate from.

For the ACSJL it was not enough for me to be a social justice advocate. The center wanted me to carefully observe multiple issues through a social justice lens, analyze them, and reflect on them at a personal level. Observing the issues no longer was about going out to “help” groups of people because I thought I was superman. Rather, it was about acknowledging and accepting that there was an issue in a community that I knew little about. Analyzing no longer was about how “I” saw the issue, but how members of these communities saw such issues and how I could assist them in implementing the changes they saw fit for their communities. Lastly, reflection was not about patting myself in the back for the things I had accomplished. Reflection became a time to assess my initial thoughts and goals and an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the approach I took in fulfilling those goals.

It was ACSJL that brought to my attention the importance of knowing myself before presenting myself to others. At first I thought, “of course I know myself.” I am from South Central, I am Mexican-American, my blood boils when I see injustices, and I can probably relate to the experiences of minority students from other urban public schools. Knowing oneself does not mean that you know where you initially came from or who you were before you got to Kalamazoo College. It also includes acknowledging your place in time and reflecting on what is new about you and how others can perceive that. The ACSJL helped me understand that, despite who I was and where I came from, I obtained privilege by simply stepping foot on K’s campus. Privilege does not only come from family wealth and the people you know, but also the knowledge one obtains and the intellectual level one reaches by learning at a prestigious institution such as Kalamazoo College.

Such privilege also allowed me to have the support of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership on and off campus through mentorship and funding. The mentorship and funding allowed me to invest my 2011 Summer in Washington D.C. where I learned how to network with organizations and leaders using the skills I
"The ACSJL helped me think critically about the issues that matter most..."
learned with ACSJL on campus: observe, analyze, and reflect. Using these skills allowed me to communicate with organization leaders and eventually to meet with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol to speak about my family, my college experience, and the importance of continuing federal funding supporting education for students. When I was in the Philadelphia Urban Studies Program last fall, the ACSJL funded Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán de Kzoo (M.E.Ch.A de Kzoo) to meet with other chapters from the Midwest region in Minnesota to address political issues affecting Latinos across the country. Ultimately, the ACSJL provided me with the resources necessary to be an effective young social justice leader on and off of campus.

The ACSJL plays a vital role in making social justice a reality. Without mentorship and funding we social justice advocates are merely philosophizing or theorizing about an idea and doing nothing about real life injustices. Academic learning surrounding social justice is very important, but constructing superficial thoughts or making arguments for the sole purpose of making them (rather than for the purpose of using them as the basis for good and just action) is a kind of mental masturbation. The ACSJL has taught me to take it a step further—to connect in-depth academic work with good action—and then experience the pleasure, for example, that comes from assisting and then shaking the hand of an elderly Latino man struggling to survive. Without the ACSJL it would be rather more difficult for me to be an effective social justice leader.

Photo 1 - Jonathan Romero (left) with Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones. During his study away at the Philadelphia Urban Studies Program, Jonathan worked with Jones to learn the intricacies of the kind of policy-making that gets social justice done.

Photo 2 - Jonathan at home in Los Angeles with his family (l-r): his older sister, Jennifer; his father, Manuel; his mother, Patricia; his younger sister, Vania; and his younger brother, Alexis.

Photo 3 - Jonathan traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for continued federal support of higher education funding to help ensure the financial accessibility of college for all. While there, he met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Photo 4 - M.E.cH.A de Kzoo members, and fellow juniors, Jonathan Romero and Karla Aguilar campaign on campus against Michigan House Bill 4305, a proposed Arizona-style anti-immigrant law. Their T-shirts read: “Do I look illegal?”

Photo 5 - Jonathan (back row, fourth from left) and several other “K” students attended the recent regional meeting of M.E.cH.A in St. Cloud, Minn. An upcoming regional meeting will shortly occur on the Kalamazoo College campus.

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stephen proper gredler on January 18, 2012 at 10:43 am
I am gratified to learn of this. Having been associated with the Southern Poverty Law Center since 1986, I immediately thought to share this with them.
Bob Barnhart on January 18, 2012 at 11:32 am
This is outstanding news. Part of the mission of the organization for which I work (Church World Service) is " promote peace and justice around the world." Eradicating hunger and poverty, which are social justice issues, are the other part of our mission. I am proud to be a "K" alum.
John S Bolin, 1965 on January 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm
Great news! As professor emeritus in theatre and English at Berea College, a sister liberal arts college with shared commitments in social justice, international studies, and diversity, I am proud of "K".
Drew Fisher, '80 on January 18, 2012 at 1:15 pm
Wow! That is big! And wonderful! And this on the day after MLK Day! How perfect! I am very excited for K (and for my freshman '15 daughter). Kudos and congrats.
Calvert Johnson '71 on January 18, 2012 at 3:03 pm
Beautiful! This is so appropriate to the Mission of K College, and will have a major impact on all the students, faculty, and staff there. Social Justice issues are very broad and impact every aspect of one's daily life--as I have learned as a member of the Anti-Racism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, and as a proponent of broadening the repertoire studied by classical musicians to include the wonderful compositions by under-represented groups (women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, even composers from the periphery of Europe and America).
Mike Moore 1964 on January 18, 2012 at 3:38 pm
K College has walked the Social Justice Leadership talk for a long time. As a student in the 1960's, I experienced the excitement and constructive tensions of the Civil Rights movement more at K College than I ever did during graduate work at Ann Arbor or faculty employment at MSU. This grant is wonderful news and is well-deserved. What an opportunity!
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