Reflections on Dr. Jason Mendez


I always have heard that iron sharpens iron. Last semester (Wednesday, Sept. 25), I was reminded of that once again as we welcomed Dr. Jason Mendez to the Center for Multicultural Affairs. During my time as a multicultural and social justice educator, community organizer, higher education professional, etc… I have come to learn the painful truth that this work can be tiring. It is easy for us to want to retreat, give up, or submit ourselves to the un/written rules and procedures of society. For many of us, deviation from our true and authentic self can slowly chip away at the core of our soul while making the compromises that we make doing this work. Sitting down and having a Down To Earth Dinner with Dr. Jason Mendez, Visiting Assistant Professor of the Practice in Education at Duke University, was a breath of fresh air. He is truly one of the hidden gems at our institution. I am extremely excited that we will have him back as a guest to highlight our annual 14th Annual Unity Through Diversity forum on Arts & Activism. It is gearing up to be pretty exciting.

I want to recap a non-exhaustive list of the much-needed refreshers that Dr. Mendez delivered to approximately 25 students, faculty, and staff members on the evening of September 25.

1) Sport that cap – As Dr. Mendez threw his NY Yankees cap on his head and shared with us his journey from Hunts Point Avenue in the Bronx to Duke, I instantaneously flashed through the 33 year journey of my own. From time to time, you might see me walking into the office with the black Detroit cap, sporting our beloved Old English ‘D’ (or as many of us native Detroiters call it, “the Detroit D”). That cap has an entire journey tied into it that I could share many stories about. But at the core of it, that ‘D’ is me. It is where I’m from. It is who I am. In many ways, it is what made me who I am today. I might have bought that cap for $5 at a gas station in Detroit but that cap is worth millions to me. There is an irony to me wearing that cap though. I have to take it off when I come into work and I put it back on when I leave. There lies the symbolic reminder that although I can be me in many ways, there is much of what encompasses that cap that I might have to hide, change, and alter in an environment like Duke. That struggle to find a balance between my true authentic self and who I am expected to be in certain environments is nothing new to many of us. It is important to find your own rhythm.

2) Oppression/privilege – Many of us experience marginalization in a variety of ways. Many of my colleagues (and students) of color experience it because of their race. Many of my female colleagues (and students) experience this because of their gender. Many of my queer colleagues (and students) experience it because of their sexual orientation. Many of my colleagues (and students) from poor and working class backgrounds experience it because of their class background. To make it more complex, it all intersects. However, when we experience marginalization it can become a more salient identity because we are having experiences regularly that reinforce that difference or “otherness.” This is where I can appreciate Dr. Mendez. Despite having to navigate oppression being a person of color (more specifically, Boricua), he discussed the dynamics of heterosexual and male privilege in his life. I can only imagine what his experience is like. Not many people are confident and transparent enough to put themselves in such a vulnerable place. But he takes that step, to share the intricacies of his work and its relationship to his personal journey. He doesn’t wrap him self up in a blanket of oppression or privilege like many of us do. An intersectional lens will open us up to the complexity of the lived experience as Dr. Mendez shared.

3) Leading the youth - As a visiting faculty in the Education Department, Dr. Mendez shared some of his journey working with Duke students to engage them in working with local youth. His critical pedagogical approach is a breath of fresh air. As a former Michigan Campus Compact AmeriCorps* VISTA I can tell you how heart-breaking it was to work with well-intentioned colleagues who aimed to “Help People Help Themselves.” This was the actual motto. Many of my colleagues were entering communities like the one I came from. Some were actually entering my actual stomping grounds. None of them came from these kinds of communities. The in-group/out-group dynamics along with the paternal/maternal approach often hinted of internalized superiority. Dr. Mendez does an excellent job bridging theory and practice to engage his students in issues that impact those at this school and our neighbors in the broader Durham community. All too much, in a college setting, we have very detached conversations about the intricacies of the human experience. He certainly bridges that gap for his students and his colleagues. Additionally, his creativity in engaging his students is wonderful. This is part of the reason that he has such a large following among our students. They appreciate his work to find creative ways to keep them engaged. This is part of the reason why he will be our guest star at this year’s Unity Through Diversity.

In closing, I hope you get the chance to connect with Dr. Mendez if you have not already. He is inspiring. He is hard working. He is creative. He is truly a hidden gem of Duke University. His presence can serve to continue the progress that Duke has made over the years in opening up an environment that provides one of the best educational experiences in the world.

I salute you, Dr. Mendez! Looking forward to you bringing the Bronx to the Bryan Center on April 2, 2014 for our 14th Annual Unity Through Diversity forum.