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The Professor Is In: Denise Santiago

News Story

Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs Denise Santiago chats with Opportunitas about ōMA, what she loves about Pace, and plans a thrilling dinner party.

Denise Santiago, PhD is the Director of Pace’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. This month, Santiago took a break from her busy schedule to discuss the aims and ongoing mission of ōMA, and reflect on both student and faculty-led accomplishments at Pace. 

You’re the Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (ōMA). What does that entail?

Reflection. Inquiry. Programming. Our office defines multiculturalism in its broadest sense. Fundamentally, when we look at multiculturalism and develop programming, we look at the cultures of race, gender and gender-identity, violence, poverty and aging—rather than just looking at race and ethnicity. Some of the panel discussions we’ve organized that speak to these issues include: Microaggressions—To Respond or Not to Respond; Black Deaths Matter Revisited; Sanctuary Cities; and The Ties that Bind: An Examination of the Mexico/US Border Wall, the North Dakota Access Pipeline and the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

A second component of our office is student involvement. As such, we created the Shades Women of Color Collective and the Urban Male Initiative mentoring programs with the goal of engaging and retaining historically underrepresented students of color.

We also do fun things but always with a purpose. On Fridays, we host the Knitting Circle which is open to students, faculty, staff and external guests. This semester our group consists of students, staff, a retired prosecutor and a judge—ranging in age from 18 to folk in their 60s and 70s. Just two weeks ago we were listening Motown circa 1960’s and commenting on the lyrics! We’re multi-generational, trans-racial, and diverse in political thought. It’s just a snippet of another aspect of diversity and volunteerism in action—for all of our finished products are donated to Bellevue Hospital’s pediatrics unit.

Yet another related initiative that we’ve been working on for four years is volunteering for the New Roots Community Farm in the South Bronx which is managed by the International Rescue Committee. Our students learn about the relationship between food apartheid and diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, and hypertension. We volunteer during the planting/harvesting season, which is from March through November, and perform tasks such as composting, preparing raised beds, and weeding. More importantly, students have opportunities to speak and learn from community farm members. My go-to Pace partner for soliciting volunteers is the Center for Community Action and Research.

What are you excited to be working on right now?

Three years ago, my colleague Tamara Kelly from Lubin and I conceptualized the program, Beyond the Skyline: Domestic Travel Study for Social Justice and Leadership. A year later, our colleague from SDACA, Michael Cordova, joined in, therefore completing our vision.

The premise of the initiative is to travel to locales that are experiencing the vestiges of colonialism, as well as the challenges of gentrification and food apartheid. Students have an opportunity to speak with and learn from community leaders, volunteer, and reflect on the similarities on the politics of exclusion across geographies. Last year we traveled to Charleston, South Carolina. We remain hopeful that we’ll be able to travel to Puerto Rico in Spring 2018. Needless to say, Hurricane Maria altered our plans, however, there are several organizations that work with food and environmental justice initiatives that we’re looking to collaborate with. Future locales include Hawaii, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

We’re also reigniting our Brown Bag Lunch series on Diversity and Social Justice for staff and faculty. We haven’t facilitated the series for several years and given the current political climate, this informal space provides opportunities for our community to share, reflect, and perhaps strategize on addressing various issues that are impacting the University.

Last year we started a petition called our Pledge Against Oppression. The pledge is fundamentally a result of the outcome of the presidential election. One of my concerns is that there were people whose voices were silenced—and I’m talking about people from all different political camps. Regardless of my political affiliations I need to be inclusive, and not leave anyone out of the conversation. People that have signed the petition commit to challenging xenophobia, anti-Semitism, transphobia, racism—everything that makes us a dysfunctional society. ōMA’s goal this academic year, is to develop programs that speak to those issues. We have over 600 students, faculty, and staff that have signed off on the petition, and it will be going live on the homer screen shortly, and posted throughout the New York City Campus.

What’s your favorite thing about working at Pace?

The students. It’s amazing to see their transformation from first-year students to young adults that have become politicized, conscientious, and developed their own voice. I also enjoy working with my colleagues. Given ōMA’s mission, we rely heavily on the support of faculty to participate in panel discussions and other programming. I have a roster of 20+ colleagues in the faculty that are always available to lend their support. People like Emily Welty, Satish Kolluri, Ellease Oseye, Antonia Garcia Rodriguez, Amy Foerster, Patricia Gloster-Coates, Ida Dupont and so many others that are invaluable to ōMA.                                                        

What four people, living or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?

Most of the people I would invite are dead. I would start off with my father, who passed away a few years ago, at 93. He was a real homeboy from Puerto Rico. He was also a merchant marine with an 8th grade education that had the opportunity to travel the world. He was an admirer of my next guest, Pedro Albizu Campos, who was a leading figure of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement. He was born in the late 1800s and became such a thorn in the side of the US government that he was arrested for 26 years. He was affectionately called Don Pedro throughout Puerto Rico. My father used to tell me, “I’d be hanging out with your uncles and friends taking mangoes and coconuts from places we weren’t supposed to—and we’d stop dead in our tracks to hear Don Pedro speak on the radio. Man, could he speak!”

Then I would have Billie Holiday—my guests, for the time being, are all contemporaries. As you know, Ms. Holiday was born in the early 1900s during a time flux in the US. I envision her talking about what compelled her to sing Strange Fruit. Then, I would have Stéphane Grappelli— a gay French jazz violinist, also born in the early 1900s. My vision would be Grappelli playing the violin as a backdrop to Campos’ speeches and Holiday’s Strange Fruit, while my father would be drinking Cuba Libres (basically rum, coke and lime).  

Then, all of a sudden, there’s a knock on the door—and we have 2 party crashers: Abel Meeropol the author of Strange Fruit and members of Calle 13, the Puerto Rican lyricists, musicians and activists adding some contemporary soul to the mix. And that would be my dinner party!

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