By Joseph Arruda
The New York lights beam down on a little girl. While shopping with her mother, she notices an older gentleman sitting in a sleeping bag against a building for cover. He held a cardboard sign in his hand that reads: “HOMELESS PLEASE HELP.” His arm reached into the mass of bodies on the sidewalk, holding out an empty can from the trash. Naturally, the young child was frightened. She hid behind her mother in tears, the shopping bags helped to isolate her from the strange and dirty figure of a human that she had just seen. Her mother walked by as if the man was not there.
Walking around Canton, Ohio, young Cherjanét Lenzy was not one of those children. Instead, she urged her mother to donate to people in need, because it was the right thing to do.
Lenzy, the new Assistant Professor of Psychology at Springfield College, began her path in the works of social justice as she was growing up. Her focus has always been surrounded by the idea of inclusion and helping others. Though it may have been out of her comfort zone at a young age, she was not afraid to speak up and encourage even her mother to share with people in need.
“I would not let [my mother] walk past people asking for money,” said Lenzy. “She had to give them money, and I would say, ‘You know, they don’t have money and we do. We should give it to them.’”
But her passion was evident at a young age. Lenzy did not begin her professional career in the social justice field. She began as a journalist.
“I was really passionate about doing stories around diverse perspectives in some way,” Lenzy said.
It wasn’t until a story tracing places in Cleveland, Ohio which had been identified as part of the Underground Railroad, brought her to the realization that she was more interested in exploring the humanistic perspective rather than the historic perspective. It was this story that inspired her to put her career on hold and return to graduate school, where she learned more about diversity and social justice.
After completing grad school, Lenzy held several positions in both Student Affairs and Diversity Affairs at multiple institutions. In fall of 2011, after working as the Director of Diversity Affairs at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, Lenzy decided to participate in the Semester at Sea program as an administrator. Through this experience, she came face to face with unique experiences and ways of life that those of a different culture may be uncomfortable with.
Her open mind and passion for inclusion had never been more important.
The Semester at Sea experience is a 100-day voyage on a shipboard campus, where students are offered a wide variety of coursework from multiple fields of study. The classes are integrated with relevant classes in up to a dozen countries, allowing for an experiential, comparative education that is truly global.
Lenzy described her Semester at Sea experience as “great and challenging all in the same breath.” She emphasized the “great” experience of having the opportunity to explore several different countries around the world, that she would never have been able to explore on her own. But, the prominence of racism and uncomfortable encounters proved to be challenging.
Lenzy described an experience she had in Vietnam when inside a store. She noticed a stranger staring “with a look of disgust” at her hair. They proceeded to ask if they could touch her beautiful, long, braids as they were already inches from it. Her hair appeared different from anything commonly seen in Vietnam. Offended, she respectfully denied their request and left the store. Shortly following this inappropriate encounter, she walked into a different store and noticed again that another stranger was intrigued by her hair. However this time, she felt very different. The individual asked with much more respect than in the previous scenario, “‘Oh, your hair is so cool, can I look at it or can I touch it?”’ Lenzy said, “Though it was still exotification and it was still clear that my hair is strange, it didn’t have the same feeling as [the first] person did.”
The prevalence of exotification is exactly what Lenzy wants to help rid the world of. The unique and eye-opening experiences did not stop there, as the group made their way to Ghana. Lenzy highlighted an “almost out-of-body experience” she had while exploring the Ghanaian slave dungeons.
“I definitely felt like I heard a spirit say something to me. It was a very emotional experience,” she said. It was difficult for her to bear the fact that she was walking where her ancestors could have also walked, and to imagine what they would have gone through in those dungeons.
At the exit of the Ghanaian Slave Dungeons stood a door, revealing a beautiful body of water which Lenzy became particularly fascinated with.
“There’s all these ships and people fishing, so it’s just a weird feeling of like, ‘This is beautiful water, but what happened in that water? What is the history of what was there?”’ she said.
Utilizing both her experiences abroad, as well as those in the U.S., Lenzy wants to teach others how to use the power of activism to create a positive change for what people believe in. Though it is a massive undertaking, she believes it all starts here– with intuitive and adaptable college students.
After the hiring of Dr. Patrick Love as both the Vice President for Student Affairs, and the new Program Director for the Master’s in Student Personnel Administration in Higher Education program, a position opened up for a faculty member to support this program. Lenzy stood out to the Psychology Department Chair, Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, because of “her focus on social justice and diversity in her professional and academic background.”
The college experience presents a unique opportunity, because it is when most begin to make decisions that will guide their futures, pinning them at the pinnacle age of exploration and identifying of who they are and what they believe in.
“I don’t think that we [teachers] are always intentional about taking care of that for students and helping students kind of navigate, ‘How do I be an activist?’ and ‘How do I have a healthy relationship with activism?’” she said.
Activism is the act of expressing complex ideas and topics in several unique and different ways, to create a positive change, despite the negative perception that has frequently become associated it with.
“I think sometimes activism is really looked at negatively, instead of like, ‘What does it teach you? What does it prepare you for?’” she explained.
Lenzy stressed the importance of being able to demonstrate positive resistance, in order to “create environments that are welcoming and supporting; and not just welcoming, but really are concerned about someone’s well being and who they are.”
This is precisely what Lenzy aspires to create at Springfield College, and believes that her passion for inclusion and social justice will establish a strong foundation for positive change.
“I was put here on this Earth to do [social justice] work,” Lenzy stated. “I think we all have that passion, that one thing that is our thing no matter how we choose to manifest it.”
Photos courtesy of Cherjanet Lenzy