Activist Takes the Fight for Social Justice to Kalamazoo College

Beck Starr

Jaime Grant
September 05, 2010

When Jaime Grant got a phone call suggesting that she leave behind two decades' worth of social-justice work in Washington and move to Kalamazoo College, in Michigan, which enrolls about 1,400 students, she said the caller must have the wrong person. But after hearing more about the job offer—to lead Kalamazoo's new Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership—and visiting the campus, she decided on a big change of scenery.

When she talked with Kalamazoo students during her visit, she said, "there wasn't a student who was there who wasn't really thinking about service work." The creative possibilities and potential to have an impact won her over.

Ms. Grant, 49, has long focused on the goals promoted by the Arcus center: leadership development and social justice. Most recently, she was the Policy Institute director at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and she has spent more than 20 years working on women's rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. After she starts at Kalamazoo this month, she says, she'll be able to dig deeper into social-justice issues and help train people interested in those causes to become leaders.

"Any time somebody is in a job they love, it's hard to pull them away," said Michael A. McDonald, Kalamazoo's provost, who was part of the search committee. "People seemed to have preconceived notions of what a city like Kalamazoo could do on the social-justice front," and he had to get candidates past that.

Although Ms. Grant said it was hard to leave the task force, especially at such a crucial time for its issues, she couldn't pass up the chance to broaden the scope of her work.

From 1993 to 2000, she was director of the Union Institute Center for Women, in Washington, from which she earned her Ph.D. in women's studies in 1999. One of her projects there involved training 24 female organizers to document their work to leave a more visible trail for others to follow.

The project "aimed to lift up the practice of women leaders, whose style of leadership tends to get less notice than their male counterparts', but who often form the backbone of social-justice movements," Ms. Grant said.

Perhaps her most pertinent experience for her new job, Mr. McDonald said, was her work from 2004 to 2007 as program director for the Ford Foundation's Leadership for a Changing World program, which developed a national network of community leaders. Ms. Grant said she hoped some of those leaders would get involved with the Arcus center.

She also looks forward to being back in the classroom by teaching a course once a year on the fundamentals of social-justice leadership. She taught a course on women's social movements at Georgetown University for two years in the 1990s.

"The best thing we can do with students is help them have really good critical-thinking heads so they can see the big breadth of any social movement and how they fit into it," Ms. Grant said.

Kalamazoo Goes Global

Kalamazoo students have already gotten involved with the Arcus center, which was established in May 2009 with two grants, totaling $2.3-million, from the Arcus Foundation, a global organization that supports social-justice and conservation efforts. So far, 25 students have received money to help them work on projects or attend conferences, said Carol Anderson, a religion professor who has been serving as the center's interim director. One student documented life on a farm in Panama to highlight local farming practices and the issue of "food justice," a belief that food should be distributed more fairly. Others have taken "Stop the Hate" training to learn how to respond to hate crimes and bias incidents.

The Arcus center complements the college's Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning, which provides students with money and opportunities for community-based research and activism. Both reflect the college's longstanding commitment to human rights and equality, said Mr. McDonald. He noted that Kalamazoo enrolled many women and minorities before the majority of other colleges did; it graduated its first African-American student in 1861 and its first woman in 1870. About 85 percent of the college's students study abroad.

Ms. Grant is preparing for her major transition, moving with her partner, M'Bwende Anderson, and their two children from the national hub of politics and policy to Kalamazoo, which she anticipates will become a place that drives social change globally.

"Good leaders make more leaders, and they're able to tap into the leader in every person," she said. "I hope we're going to end up defining a practice that other people look to. We're involved in ways other institutions haven't thought about yet."