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Almandrez urges dialogue on social justice

Associate dean discusses her accomplishments and goals as woman of color in higher education

Mary Grace Almandrez, director of the Brown Center for Students of Color and assistant dean of the College, has engaged with multicultural affairs and issues of social justice since her days as an undergraduate. Since then, she has dedicated many years to overseeing issues surrounding life and culture on college campuses, striving to provide a place of solidarity and empowerment for people of color at institutions of higher education.

Almandrez began her own higher education at the University of San Diego, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, going on to receive her doctorate in organization and leadership from the University of San Francisco. After years of teaching and serving as director for multicultural affairs at various institutions on the West Coast, Almandrez brought her passion for social justice to the East, arriving at Brown in July 2011.

Almandrez sat down with The Herald to discuss her experiences prior to and at Brown, her desire to inspire and be inspired by students and her responsibilities as a woman of color in higher education.

Herald: How did you first start getting into education and issues of social justice?

Almandrez: My first moment was actually when I was a freshman in college. It was a square dance — that was the moment when I realized I wanted to work with social justice. Because in that sea of thousands of students, I did not see anyone who looked like me. Then, I just happened to glance at the far right corner, and I saw this group of students with brown skin and black hair, so I wove my way through the parking lot and found other Filipino students. I was with people who I felt I had a lot in common with. There was this moment of relief and believing that I could belong at the University of San Diego. 

What are some of your experiences at Brown that are similar to and different from your previous experiences?

When I meet with students during my open hours, the fact that I can hear my own story in theirs is a sad reality — that there are students who also feel like Brown isn’t a place for them, that they feel so alone or question if Brown made a mistake in choosing them. The fact that this still rings true for students today makes me wonder: Where have we failed our students? Being here, it is sometimes isolating. There are very few times and there are very few colleagues I feel like I can count on to actually speak up against injustice, people whom I would call allies. People at Brown think that we do so well, we recruit such a diverse group of students. But I just don’t think there are enough people talking about this issue as something that needs to be addressed right away.

What is the most exciting part about your work?

Firstly, working with students. I am always impressed with the caliber of students that we bring to Brown, not necessarily in their academic accolades, but also in their commitment to social justice. I actually look up to a lot of students because they inspire me to continue my work around social justice.

The second part is I get to work in a space where the majority of the staff is people of color. There are very few opportunities where I actually get that privilege. So I can come and talk to colleagues about issues that matter to communities of color without worrying about self-censorship.

The third is working with alumni who care about and love Brown so deeply. One of the things I admire about the center is the intergenerational conversations that happen. We have alumni who we know have walked out in 1968 and those who were involved in protests from the 70s, 80s, up until now. To be able to have that connection to people whose legacy we continue to aspire to and be inspired by is something that I haven’t seen in a lot of places. When President Jim Yong Kim was here, for example, he requested specifically to speak to our staffers at the center before his speech.

What social activists or leaders inspire you and your work?

Fred Cordova. He founded the Filipino American National Historical Society. He was someone who was very active in the Filipino-American community and also built a coalition across different racial and ethnic lines. He created national archives for Filipino Americans and produced bodies of work in print and film that captured the Filipino-American experience. He provided narratives to social justice work where my face, my voice and my community were at the center.

Another person who inspires me is a Hmong woman, Doua Thor.  Before she was 30, she was an executive director of a national organization focused on Southeast Asian advocacy and policy work. She is interested in serving all parts of the population, from the teens to the elders and the aging. She’s worked on President Obama’s commission on Asian Americans. She provides this sense of promise and optimism that’s sometimes hard when you do social justice work.

Could you speak to your experience as a minority and a woman with a position in an educational institution?

So I’ve been an assistant dean since I was 28, so over 10 years now. What strikes me is it’s difficult to see other Asian women achieve senior level positions because I believe there are still a lot of institutional barriers. So it’s hard for me because I want to see other role models who look like me. The first time that I had an Asian-American woman as my supervisor, I cherished her deeply. I don’t know when that’s going to happen again in my lifetime, and that’s a sad reality. It’s important for me to see others who have similar experiences achieve senior level positions because it creates for me an optimistic outlook on my own future trajectory.

What work would you say is left to be done, as a minority woman in higher education institutions?

I think that there’s a lot of work to be done in bringing Asian Americans and Asian-American women in particular at the forefront. I found that a lot of times it’s hard for people to identify as leaders, because there’s this reluctance to even claim a leadership title. This notion that leadership is gendered, and that Asian women — or even broadly people of color — are rarely considered when we look at who great leaders are, is problematic. We are reluctant to claim that because of the ways in which we currently articulate leadership today.

— This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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