This week I was given the privilege of talking with Mariah Walker, a former Nyack graduate, about what it means to be Intentionally Diverse. Mariah graduated from Nyack College as an Intercultural Studies major in 2013, and has gone on to work at the Hope Refugee Center in Buffalo, NY. Here, she works with a diverse population of refugees to help establish themselves in society. Talking with Mariah gives a new perspective on what it means to be Intentionally Diverse, and her life represents why it is one of Nyack’s core values. Hear what she has to say about it here:
What does it mean to be Intentionally Diverse?
My first instinct is to say “Black Lives Matter”. It seems silly considering I work for a non-profit that specifically services refugees and I went to Nyack as an Intercultural Studies major. I think for me, as a white person, starting there is an important step. So many people at Nyack and frankly the church are passionate about the world and missions but miss such an important opportunity here in the States. If we miss this step, it cripples our ministries and we may not even realize it.
The Black Lives Matter movement is not just a hashtag. It is an organized movement that stems from extreme oppression of Black people in our country. Americans grow up in a society which oppresses its own people. It is engrained in who we are, even if we don’t realize it. Intentional diversity doesn’t come from numbers of how many Black kids, Caucasian kids, Asian kids, etc. in our schools. It has to go deeper in who we are as a society. It is understanding struggles, passions, perspectives and dreams.
I grew up in a white middle class suburban neighborhood. I had 2 MAYBE 3 Black kids in my school and certainly had no neighbors who were Black. I believed that color blindness was the solution to combating racism and I thought I was doing a great job at not being racist. The issue with that was, I didn’t understand the struggle of the Black community. I didn’t understand their perspective because it wasn’t right in front of my face. I think we can learn to be intentionally diverse, but the first step is to acknowledge that we are not truly diverse and go from there. Intentionally putting yourself in learning situations about cultures and not jumping to solutions so quickly that we skip the learning phase. Americans and white people in particular love to jump to solutions. For example saying “All Lives Matter”. Yes, all lives do matter, but we jump to that conclusion because we are uncomfortable saying “Black Lives Matter”. We don’t stay in the place of understanding, learning or lamenting long enough to understand.
I also want to emphasize that this is my perspective as a white, middle-class female.
What made you personally decide to focus on diversity?
In the CMA, missionaries are sort of like the Christian rock stars. Our history is founded upon missions, our school was a missionary school, and I wanted to be included in that history. I loved traveling, but maybe more so loved the attention I got when I was traveling. By the time I was 16, I had been to 8 different countries. I was usually the youngest person on missions trips and there was a constant joke in our church of “Where is Mariah going next?”. I love my childhood church. I love the CMA. I love Nyack. However, I do not love how I got sucked into the glory of it all and to no one’s fault but my own. I wanted to change that. I wanted to learn about other cultures in a way that promoted their diversity and diminished my story of how I improved third world issues. (Yes, I took Personal Spiritual Formation and know my story is important) I wanted to improve the world not just look like I was. I didn’t really understand the true meaning of diversity until my junior year of college.
Explain a little bit about the organization you work with, what you do, and how what you do promotes diversity.
I work for Jericho Road Community Health Center on the Westside of Buffalo, New York. The program I work with is called the Hope Refugee Drop-in Center. We help and empower refugees who are past the resettlement phase. When refugees are resettled, they have 3 months of services (in extreme cases, 6 months) with the agency that resettled them. After 3 months the agency is required by federal law to drop them as new clients. That’s where we take over. We assist anyone who has moved from another state, or who has been in the country longer than 3 months.
We help with social services, school registration, medical appointments, bus tours, house and apartment education, mail reading and so much more. They come to us with their need already identified, and we walk them through the issue, explaining and educating the entire way. Eventually they become self sustaining and don’t need our services. Out of a staff of 15 at the drop-in center, we have four American born citizens. The rest of the employees were previously refugees or currently refugees. We work for the population that diversifies our city. So it’s obviously easy to promote diversity when our population is the diversity. We are also very active in the community, especially recently with the Syrian crisis, educating the public on immigration policy and rights. We recently held a peace rally in downtown Buffalo to show our support for Syrian refugees and our refugee communities who are already in Buffalo.
How did your time at Nyack College help you to learn more about or choose to focus on diversity?
Scott Reitz and Steve Neilson are incredible professors. They have a way of teaching about culture and diversity that is unlike any other venue of education. I saw their heart for their students, the world and diversity. Because of that I was able to engage in a real conversation that didn’t end after I graduated. It seems hoaky talking about it, but they really do a great job.
Between my Sophomore and Junior year at Nyack, I married Ty Walker, a super cool Black guy. He and his incredible family slowly and gracefully introduced me to Black culture, Black struggle and Black perspective. He transformed the way I think about diversity and because of that, it improves my everyday life and the work that I do. I didn’t learn about diversity from my clients, I learned it at home.
For anyone else who wants to be more intentionally diverse, what advice would you give them?
Humble yourself, learn perspective, change your instinctual racism. There is so much fear attached with diversity, but once humility, perspective and change occurs, you can begin living a life where you are not bound by fear of diversity.