Remarks for Women of Color Trailblazers Conference

March 1, 2014

Thank you for inviting to me to share a few thoughts at today’s Trailblazers Leadership Conference.

I don’t think Mary Lyon ever used the word “trailblazer,” but I think she would have liked it.

We all know her stirring charge, don’t we?

“Go where no one else will go.   Do what no one else will do.”

I can’t think of a better definition of “trailblazer” than those words.

Your conference today reminds us how far Mount Holyoke has come since the 1880s when Hortense Parker became the first woman of color to attend the seminary. 

And your reflections and conversations remind us how far we need to go to create a community in which everyone’s talents are welcomed.

Three years ago, Karen Cardozo was a LITS scholar-in-residence whose project examined how Mount Holyoke evolved from its institutional origins into a culturally and intellectually diverse community. Cardozo discovered that Mount Holyoke had only 39 women of color alumnae before 1964 when the American Civil Rights Movement and a multiplicity of other forces pushed the doors of higher education open. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tremendous growth in diversity at the College and the work of many of those courageous and principled students of color made Mount Holyoke College a much better place.

In her study, Cardozo argued that “to sow and reap the benefits of diversity, the institution had to adapt its cultures and structures.”

I believe the work of ending discrimination is never over. We must continue to examine our cultures and structures.  We must change them when needed. And we must continue to teach our community that diversity enriches us all.

Last year Breonna Ligon-Hollinger won a Weed Research Fellowship for work with Professor Amber Douglas.  They studied how women of color cope with stress and racial discrimination, and especially what they termed “the daily stressors of racism.”  Research has shown that times of transition—to new homes, to new schools and to new jobs—are times of particular stress for women of color when feelings of isolation and estrangement can occur.  What Breonna’s work revealed was that support is vital, particularly support from communities of color.  Finding allies can ameliorate alienation and can offer a sense of what is possible.

Offering support, demonstrating what is possible, and charting the work ahead are three of the many contributions you have offered today.

I’d call that “trailblazing.”

I’d call that pointing the way to the future.

Thank you for your energy, imagination, and engagement today, and my best wishes as we work together to strengthen the College for the next generation of women leaders.