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Donte Hilliard: Joining students on their journeys

February 14, 2013 By Susannah Brooks

As director of the Multicultural Student Center (MSC), Donte Hilliard brings both theoretical and practical experience to his work. Since Hilliard arrived on campus in 2009, he has led the MSC’s transformation, moving from a focus on cultural diversity to one of social justice.

Photo: Donte Hilliard


“We’re building on the legacy of this campus,” says Hilliard. “A social justice approach is our interpretation of the Wisconsin Idea. If the borders of the campus are the borders of the state, or the world, the educational access that we get by being here in Wisconsin includes a responsibility to help transform our surroundings into more just, equitable places.”

Among its defined goals, the MSC aims to develop multi-issue (intersectional) literacy; reclaim the legacy of student-led movements; enhance students’ capacities to build sustainable coalitions, organizations and movements; and foster (or support) transformative leaders working towards an increasingly equitable and just society.

This innovative approach outlines the roles that each member of a community can play: building the capacities of those most affected by injustice, emphasizing the ways in which all individuals can serve as allies. 

The center’s “Race And…” Symposium is one example of the MSC’s broader approach to the discussion of race. This annual event encourages dialogue and action around the intersection of racial identity and other social justice issues. This year’s symposium, to be held on Thursday and Friday, March 14-15, caps off a year of programming around the theme “Race & Place: Movement, Space, Land, and Power.”

Inside UW–Madison recently talked with Hilliard about social justice, “allyship,” and joining students on their journeys.

Inside UW: Why has the MSC focused on social justice education?

Donte Hilliard: If individual humans are complicated, cultures and societies are exponentially so. Everybody says that they want to live in a diverse world, but few people are prepared for the reality: the messiness, the uncomfortableness.

“If the borders of the campus are the borders of the state, or the world, the educational access that we get by being here in Wisconsin includes a responsibility to help transform our surroundings into more just, equitable places.”

Donte Hilliard

A social justice approach is a structural, systemic transformation: allowing us to live in a world where everyone has access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Each of us has to “own” our role in a given situation. Very few students of color say, “I never met a white person until I got to Madison.” As a person of color, negotiating white spaces is a requirement in order to exist. But it is not a requirement for white people to negotiate spaces that predominantly involve people of color; they’re easy to avoid.

Those are very different needs. Neither should be considered standard. One person shouldn’t have to do something the way another person does in order for it to be valued.

Our approach avoids easy answers – that’s a bill of goods. Transforming social policy is hard work, but necessary if we want a more perfect union. We only got from chattel slavery to me sitting in this position because somebody did the work.

IUW: Why is it so important to build coalitions and “allyship?”

DH: It’s comforting to think, “If we just fix the race or gender issue, the rest will be fine…” No. Oppressions are linked. We can’t get racial justice but keep destroying the environment. In America, who lives in neighborhoods with the worst environmental problems? Poor people – who are, overwhelmingly, people of color. 

In that same way, there is no safe space from oppression. You could think, “Gun violence happens in those people’s community, not mine.” But you can’t escape it: maybe your family members are police officers, or you drive through those communities, or you know someone who was hurt.

Speaking out as an ally acknowledges that our histories, our lives, are interwoven. You don’t really like a community of people? That doesn’t change the fact that our destinies are intertwined.

The only thing that can change is how we address that. Whatever happens to us will happen to all of us.

IUW: Could you speak about UW–Madison’s social justice legacy?

DH: I couldn’t do this work at some other campuses. This campus has an amazing history of student-led transformation. But we’ve lost our understanding of these traditions.

I think of cultural centers as sacred spaces, created through sweat and tears and blood. People died; people lost their dreams for themselves. Students fighting for inclusion were expelled from this institution.

My field didn’t exist until students demanded its creation. That’s mind-blowing. Programs and institutions and spaces are here because some 18-year-olds made that sacrifice. They owned their community; they had the self-determination to decide things needed to change.

I can’t wish away the fact that I had access and they didn’t. But I can ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain – that there’s value to the choices they made. I take that responsibility really seriously.

We now have an amazing opportunity to be national leaders through the Crossroads Initiative, working with the LGBT Campus Center. LGBTQ spaces tend to be pretty white, but this campus has a huge community of LGBTQ folk who openly identify as people of color. They’re not choosing one identity over another.

This challenges how we approach both people of color work and LGBTQ work. So the Crossroads Initiative asks, “How can we proactively address this challenge?”

IUW: How do you balance the many different experiences of the people with whom you work?

DH: I’m an educator and also a trained clergyperson. I see it all the same: I walk with people on their journey, no matter where it starts.

I taught African-American studies for years. At some point in every semester, a student would come to me and say, “I’m angry!” Great! Anger is an appropriate response to oppression.

You can’t stay there. Pain will consume you. But once you acknowledge it, you can work towards something constructive – even if it involves people who contributed to that pain.

I walked with one student from her first year through graduation. She arrived as a powerful young woman, but I watched that grow as we challenged and questioned each other. I thought, “The world is going to be better for this person.”

I may not be able to change the whole world. But if I had any hand in helping an amazing person, who’s about to go into the world beyond this campus, that’s an incredible legacy.

Tags: diversity, LGBTQ