Informal Group of Staff, Faculty Convenes Over Coffee to Advocate and Celebrate
By Lauren Brown
Latinx faculty and staff are hoping to turn informal gatherings into a pilot Latinx employees association to meet and learn from one another, celebrate accomplishments, share ideas and information, and further develop a community of Latinx professionals at the University of Maryland.
Gloria Aparicio Blackwell hears a whisper about a Latina faculty hire over in the School of Public Health. She scribbles that name down and makes a phone call in greeting. A new staff member in University Relations? Confirmed! Onto the list it goes.
This is how, over the past decade, the director of the Office of Community Engagement has compiled a list of more than 150 Latinx professionals working at the University of Maryland.
Building this community isn’t exactly easy—UMD doesn’t require employees to identify their ethnicity. But with the new presidency of Darryll J. Pines, who has made diversity and inclusion a cornerstone of his agenda, Aparicio Blackwell and a handful of colleagues hope to pilot a Latinx employee association at UMD.
Until then, they have coffee. The first Cafecito con Mi Gente, or “Coffee with My People,” event of the academic year will be held tomorrow to encourage networking, professional development and, of course, community building among Latinx faculty, staff and friends.
“This is about empowerment and representation,” Aparicio Blackwell said. “The possibilities of bringing people together to address the challenges and opportunities of being Latino are enormous. What is impacting us? How can the institution be supportive of us?”
At the informal gatherings, which date back to at least 2012, attendees talk about employee recruitment and retention, and ways to help workers, particularly service professionals, advance in their skills and careers. What opportunities can the university offer to those who would like to achieve their linguistic goals? Or to launch a startup company? Or what about creating a mentoring program to match those in high-level positions with those who want to be?
“We have so much talent. Let’s showcase that talent, what they bring to the table. To bring an expert to an event who looks like them, that can be so powerful,” Aparicio-Blackwell said.
The inspiration factor extends to students, said Juan Uriagereka, a linguistics professor in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Hispanic people comprised nearly 20% of Prince George’s County’s population in the last census, but only 8.1% of the university’s overall enrollment last year. Students need to see more people in the university’s higher ranks—not just on the custodial and landscaping staffs—who look like them, he said.
“When you look at those of us on the staff, the demographics are different,” Uriagereka said. “It’s pretty obvious you have an imbalance.”
This moment of reckoning with race, powered by the Black Lives Matter movement, is an opportunity to have honest discussions, he said. “I think the only way out of this mess is by really, really talking to each other, even if the conversation is difficult.”
Jenny Kilberg, director of alumni and donor relations in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, is hoping for new momentum for a formal Latinx employees organization now. She has been involved in the group since around 2013. In that time, she’s seen its ad hoc board disband, its WordPress site go defunct and Facebook page go dark. But she’s also seen its potential.
She recalls that when she came to UMD a decade ago, navigating and learning the university, “I was a staff of one with no training or guidelines or anything, so it was sink or swim.”
At the Cafecito meetings, she said, she connected with colleagues and learned how to navigate the university landscape, “and if I could then share any best-practices and tips, particularly with fellow Latinx colleagues, as a means to provide career development, that was an added benefit to my personal participation.”
She liked meeting a diverse array of employees—housekeepers and dining workers as well as administrators, researchers and professors—and more recently, she appreciated the pandemic-required shift to virtual programming. That makes it easier for nonexempt employees, some of whom start their shifts at 4 a.m. or may be unable to dash across campus during the workday, to more easily access the meetings’ content.
The gatherings might feature a formal panel, such as tomorrow’s, but are also invariably a celebration and sharing of cultures as employees from El Salvador, Argentina, Mexico, Chile and Venezuela mingle. They talk about food, family, their futures at UMD and their hopes for making the U.S. a fair and just place.
“We have great faculty and staff, and we need more at all levels,” Aparicio Blackwell said. “We bring value to the mission of this institution. We have great ideas. We can be part of the solution.”
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