2013 Founder’s Day: Brenda Martinez, ’15

If you missed the 2013 Founder’s Day events on campus, the speech is posted here in full, and with no editing. 

2013 Founder’s Day Keynote Address

Brenda Giselle Martinez ‘15

Photo by Christa Neu Lehigh University Communications & Public Affairs

Photo by Christa Neu / Lehigh University Communications & Public Affairs

I am a first generation college student. My parents emigrated from El Salvador in hopes of finding the American Dream.  They settled down in South Central, Los Angeles which is what I call home. I was raised within the walls of my home or the library because it was not and is not safe for a young woman to walk in gang-infested streets. I remember my dad waking up every morning at 3 a.m. to go to work while my mom stayed up to prepare her 3 children for school. The loud barks of loose pit bulls, the sirens from police cars, ambulances and hovering helicopters, the barbed wired fences, the constant gunshots and the tagged playgrounds is what I call home. As I grew up I understood, without being told, that education was the key.  The key to a better life, the key to the “American Dream”.  Yet not everyone has the resources or even access to resources to reach this American Dream. Everyday I, along with other neighborhood kids, fought for our piece of the dream. I now stand here in front of you as a proud student of Lehigh University. I want to build a strong foundation for change and continue the work that others before me have begun.  My name is Brenda Giselle Martinez.

I came to campus as a participant of the Real World prelusion group expecting to sit through a week of cheesy icebreakers.  And yes that did happen but I also walked into a room full of student leaders and life mentors. I was welcomed into my new family, the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

I have to be honest and admit that I arrived on campus ignorant and angry. I had one worldview as a Latina from South Central and Lehigh challenged every part of my identity.  Sitting in classrooms listening to professors such as Charles French introduce the teachings of Socrates, Edurne Portela recreating the struggles and victories of the Zapata movement, James Peterson speaking on the Prison Industrial Complex and the injustices we face today, or sitting in offices of Seth Moglen, Margarida, Arsenio, Rita Jones, Kashi Johnson, and Tyrone Russell (to name a few) challenged me intellectually and gave me a new found love for education. Everything I learn in the classroom inspires my work outside of it.

Some of the work I’m most proud of has been possible with collaborative leadership. I’ve worked with my Dream & Act LU team in bringing the first Mexican-American Pulitzer Prize winner, Jose Galvez to campus, worked with my sorority Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority Inc., in establishing the Ladies of Tomorrow Mentorship Program, and worked with the Muslim Student Association in bringing the first Islam Awareness Week to campus. All of this has been inspired by the need to educate, as I’ve been educated.

It also stems from the need to address the Lehigh culture and the issues that are often swept underneath the rug.  Are you aware of the Lehigh bubble? Are you aware of the prejudice that many students face on campus? This pandemic spreads beyond the Lehigh hills and into the “real world”. If we cannot challenge our own institution then how are we supposed to challenge society?

You deplore the recent demonstrations and tactics-taking place on campus and I am deeply sorry to hear that you do not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. As a community Lehigh needs to take care of its condition as much as it does its reputation. History continues to repeat itself based on the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily and so it must be demanded by the underprivileged. Lehigh is scared of chalk, Lehigh is scared of mysterious fliers, Lehigh is scared of a silent protest and march. But what Lehigh is really scared of is dialogue. Lehigh’s records of discriminatory incidents are forgotten as time passes by. Let us turn to more concrete examples.

Lehigh is scared of chalk. Back in November 2005 Lehigh encountered hate-related graffiti 4 times in 2 weeks on the walls of residence halls. Lehigh is scared of mysterious fliers. In 2006 residents of the UMOJA house came home to a skinned deer head on their doorsteps.  Lehigh is scared of a silent sit in and march. In 2008 when President Obama was first elected there were rampant reports of intimidation and vandalism aimed at Obama supports and minority students. In 2013 a student wrote on the free speech wall, “I am Lesbian and I don’t feel safe here.” What Lehigh is really scared of is dialogue.

President Gast promised to help foster a more accepting environment and was quoted saying, “No one should transfer out of Lehigh based on fear.” But what are you, Lehigh, doing to retain us? To change the Lehigh climate? Students transfer out of Lehigh based on fear, prejudice, and isolation.  Lehigh prides itself on creating global leaders yet yearly we are reminded of the Lehigh climate. Reminded with the incidents such as Black Face, Latin gang theme parties, CEO & Corporate Hoes theme parties and so on that occur on our hills. Does this mean we endorse this message globally as well?

Lehigh has come a long way in diversity with the enrollment of women since 1971 and the increasing number of minority students in general. Lehigh has excelled in the wonderfully established programs such as Diversity Life Weekend, variety of Pre-Lusion programs, and Leadership Lehigh amongst some. I can testify for these programs because I was privileged enough to be a participant of Real World LU and Leadershape! But again what does Lehigh do to ensure that we feel safe on campus?

About two -three weeks ago, two of our own peers fought off campus over a racial slur. The media, however, depicted it as a one sided story and described it as an attack over “an exchange of words” leading to the criminalization of some of our own students, peers, friends, and classmates and our University Leadership ceases to speak publicly on the matter. Just because no one has yet to address it does not mean it did not happen, we are not living in a colorblind society.

Here at Lehigh we take great pride and efforts when speaking on multiculturalism but multiculturalism by itself does not mark the defeat of racism, sexism, homophobia and so on. The rise of multiculturalism as proof of the decline of racism is a dangerous assumption. This is my Lehigh education speaking.

You may view the efforts of FBR (FROM BENEATH THE RUG) as dramatic or threatening but they seek to only dramatize the issues that can no longer be ignored and will not be ignored.  Yes, it’s created tension on campus but this tension will help students to move from prejudice and racism to an understanding and brotherhood. FBR is not unmindful of the difficulties involved. Lehigh take pride that some of your students have grasped the meaning of the social movement and committed themselves to it. We are small in quantity for now but we are big in quality. Too long has our beloved school swept things underneath the rug in an attempt to keep the reputation intact and live in monologue rather than dialogue.

I had the pleasure of having dinner with the author and activist Luis Alberto Urrea, Civil Rights Leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the first woman secretary of state Dr. Madeline Albright. These opportunities would not have been possible if I were not a Lehigh student. An experience much more powerful than sitting in a comfortable dinner with these notable figures is sitting inside the Northampton Prison speaking to inmates and learning about their day to day fight for survival under our criminal criminal justice system. These experiences were a blessing as much as a curse.  Both extremes serve as a reminder that change is possible but first we must accept that things need to change.  I was asked to speak about how Lehigh has shaped me into a leader and I want you all to know that I am so grateful for how it has. It has redefined the meaning of leadership for me. Being a leader does not mean being on the front line it means serving your people. It means sacrifice.

Lehigh is far from strong because it refuses to acknowledge its weakest link. However, Lehigh is shaping global leaders. It’s driving many students on campus to not only challenge this institution but greater systematic oppression beyond Lehigh. I am not the only one speaking up here today; my experience is a shared experience. We are one voice:

And I will now share some of the voices that make up this campus. Listen.

QUOTE

“Lehigh doesn’t fight for the groups I feel safe and at home with”
“When I was here for my first 2 years, I absolutely hated it here but then I realized that as much as I don’t want to be here, this place NEEDS me here because it must change.”

“Sometimes when I walk around I wonder why I’m here at this school, then I tell myself I have to make sure no other minority every feels this way on this campus.”

“I am an LGBT student and I have been called a dyke”

“Lehigh has given me a thicker skin and stronger sense of purpose because of the racism and oppression that occurs, and the institutions repeatedly asinine attempts in helping marginalized groups.”

“I thought I was safe here at Lehigh until the day I was called a terrorist”

“Lehigh often makes me feel like if you don’t have money, you don’t belong and won’t make it here.”

“The Hill is a microcosm of our society and Lehigh condones it”

“When I first came to Lehigh, I was given a choice: conform to Lehigh’s status quo and culture or stay on the outer bubble. I’ll never change and students should never feel what I felt.”

END QUOTE

It’s about time we get some airplay of our version of the truth. Truth does not change, only our awareness of it.  Lehigh has driven students to unite, to challenge each other and the status quo. FBR is a new form of leadership. A collaborative leadership model. Look at this as an opportunity to bring about change. I came to Lehigh ignorant and angry but I will leave Lehigh educated, aware, conscious and ready. As far as my future after Lehigh, God willingly you will see me in office one day or challenging those who are and holding them accountable.

I hope that one day you understand that when these students took over campus night after night they were standing up for not only students at Lehigh but also for the best of the American dream.

We currently live on a planet where 2.7 billion people (40% of the world population) live on less than 2 dollars per day while the richest 10% owns 85% of the total wealth in the world. Universities produce the leaders that will soon be driving our world. Is Lehigh the perfect place to brew the leaders necessary to reduce this dehumanizing inequality? I strongly believe Lehigh can be. Let’s ask ourselves, why do we have to fight for our rights? Why do students need to plaster the university with flyers at midnight to be heard?

Some of you may be thinking, “If these students aren’t happy they should leave.” We will not. We are here because injustice is here but so is opportunity, an opportunity to move forward and progress because whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. There are structures in place that reinscribe the same systems we say were are trying to change. Let’s change ourselves before we graduate and then try to change the rest of the world.

I am a low-income, Latina, Muslim, woman and I do not fit the main characteristics of a Lehigh student. I also do not fit the preconceived notion of an American but I AM the other face of America, the one that it does not want to recognize but one that it will. This is what it means to be Lehigh strong and in that I take great pride. Thank you.

****

What does it mean to be a leader? Be a good listener. Keep the conversation going. Do not let this issue slide into the mound of distraction. Whether you are a student, staff, alum, or community member, this is an issue that bears great thought and greater action. So many places for dialogue. We don’t need to wait for a town hall. Some ideas for further reading:

1. here is a link to the remarks on the 135th Founder’s Day by of our biggest moral supporter, AsaPackersGhost.
2. REDDIT has a good conversation thread going here:
3. Follow #FBR on Twitter
4. Like open groups on Facebook that offer discussion groups and programs that open discussion.

 

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