Brighton, MA, native Kathy Martinez sees herself as an “institutional change agent”.
Since 2013, 30-year old Martinez has served as Director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence at Framingham State University (FSU). The Center was developed in response to a campus-wide student survey that revealed a need for a diverse, more inclusive campus.
In addition to working with university leadership, Martinez attempts to build self-advocacy and empowerment by involving students in the creation of programs and initiatives.
“If students don’t organize or make their needs known, organizations will continue to do what they’re doing,” Martinez stated. “What do you want? What do you need? Talk to us!”
Given the needs of changing demographics in our universities, “there is no shortage of issues,” Martinez declared. “We can’t do it alone. Diversity is everyone’s work.”
In 2014, FSU received the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award, the only national recognition honoring colleges and universities that exhibit outstanding efforts and success in the area of diversity and inclusion throughout their campuses.
“Diversity hits me personally,” shares Martinez, who identifies as a queer, Afro-Latina activist.
Born in the United States, Martinez saw racial differences among her Ecuadorean immigrants. With an indigenous mother and “visibly Black” father, she witnessed colorism in the Latino community, “but it was never explicitly defined.”
Then last summer, at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education, Martinez heard the keynote speech by Rosa Clemente, a Hip Hop activist, community organizer, freelance journalist, and 2008 Green Party vice presidential candidate. “It may have been Rosa actually who ‘woke’ me to what ‘Afro-Latino’ is.”
Similarly, growing up with “terribly rigid gender roles in a Latino frame of reference,” Martinez always felt that in terms of sexuality and gender expression, she was the “other”: “I felt all these things, but I don’t know what it was called.”
Though she used to identify as lesbian, “I’ve also recently come to embrace the word ‘queer’, mostly because of my college students.”
This umbrella term critically recognizes the diverse identities and politics of sexual and gender minorities. To Martinez, identifying as queer meant, “I’m a part of that fight, too.”
But these decisions raised serious questions. “Does this [labeling] make problems worse?” She wondered. Yet “these words are important because you’re hungry to find community.”
And community building is at the core of Martinez’s professional career.
Leading the education initiative of the Black Lives Matter Cambridge chapter, Martinez and Black Lives Matter leadership are collaborating with the “Somerville 18”, the diverse activists—Pan-Asians, Latinos, and white activists, some of whom are queer and transgender—who blocked the I-93 highway in Medford and Milton in January 2015 in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Holding regular standing meetings with the Somerville mayor’s office, these collaborations have helped rally the mayor to recently publicly challenge the charges against the “Somerville 18”.
Martinez is also working within the Cambridge school system to “place racial justice issues at the center their superintendent search because of the disproportionate impact of policies on Black students in Cambridge.” Poised for wider impact, Martinez has been recently appointed to the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s Task Force on Race.
Yet fights for social justice coexist with critical reflexivity.
When Martinez first approached the Black Lives Matter Cambridge chapter, she considered her racial and ethnic positions. To her, the prefix ‘Afro’ before ‘Latina’ in “Afro-Latina” acknowledged African heritage in her mixed background.
But, still, she wondered, “As an Afro-Latina, is this my place?”
Martinez interrogated semantics and politics of color. “Does ‘Black’ also include us? Do Black Latinos have a place here? Am I Black enough?”
Critically reflecting on potential biases in her own questions, Martinez pondered, “Are these issues of colorism at work here?”
The intersection of Afro-Latino self-identity and the Black Lives Matter movement still remains an issue, as discussed by Rosa Clemente in her keynote address at the Raising Our Voices conference hosted by Encuentro Diaspora Afroat the University of Massachusetts Boston on Sept 18, 2015. “It is about black as a politic, not just a phenotype,” Clemente asserted.
With police brutality and national conversations that have “sparked a new wave of activism” among people of color and other minorities, solidarity and social justice require critical consciousness and mapping our personal positions to structural systems.
Martinez sees her activism as an opportunity to meet like-minded people, build community, and pressure elected officials to serve their communities.
But in the face of systemic struggles and daily trauma, activism also provides “outlets and open healing spaces for people of color given the racial injustice we see everyday.” She fights not only for others, but also for her own sanity and healing.
To Martinez, these struggles have “changed me as a person because the world is changing.”
“Millennial Change Agents” is a series of interviews that profile young, Boston-area Latin@ professionals who are leading change in their communities.
Tariana V. Little is a researcher, writer, artist, and co-founder of EmVision Productions, a story-driven media production start-up in Boston, MA. Tariana’s work embodies what she calls “intentional creativity for social change.”