Junior Courtney Flowers was writing a high school paper when she stumbled upon a name she didn’t recognize.
“It was James Farmer,” said the Los Angeles native, who spent that day on a UMW website, researching the late civil rights pioneer and Mary Washington history professor. “What ultimately drew me here was the James Farmer Multicultural Center.”
In 2020, the University will celebrate the centennial birthday of Dr. James L. Farmer Jr. – who died in 1999 – as well as the 30th anniversary of the James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC). Created in response to an uptick in enrollment of students of color and a rash of racially biased incidents that ensued, the Center aimed to promote harmony between all groups. It fulfills Farmer’s legacy, educating the UMW community through engaging – and often life-changing – programs, from the spring Multicultural Fair to the fall Social Justice Trip. JFMC also supports 22 campus organizations and offers a welcoming haven for underrepresented students.
“Students often call us their second home,” said Director Marion Sanford. “They know we’re here to celebrate, educate and advocate for them, and to provide the tools and resources they need to make a difference and be a force for change.”
Sanford, who came to UMW in 2010, works with Associate Director JoAnna Raucci and Assistant Director Chris Williams to expand programming and services to address prevalent social justice issues like systemic racism, economic inequality and environmental justice throughout the year.
The fourth annual Social Justice and Leadership Summit, planned for March, will provide a deep dive into these issues. The event will partner with Gladys P. Todd Academy, Germanna Scholars, the Gear-Up initiative at James Monroe High School and UMW’s James Farmer Scholars program to invite local high school and community college students. The Social Justice Teach-In series explores critically important topics like civic responsibility and immigrant rights, and the Human Rights Film Series is curated this year around the topic of health care access.
In April, Mary Washington will mark the 30th anniversary of JFMC’s signature event, the Multicultural Fair. Attracting 4,000 to 6,000 people annually, this beloved tradition – second in size only to commencement – showcases global entertainment and cuisine, children’s activities and ethnic crafts.
Cultural awareness events like the Step Show, Taste of Asia and Kwanzaa are also a major draw, Sanford said. So are visits from esteemed figures like activist Angela Davis, journalist April Ryan, former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis Jr., who will be the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in January.
Next October, the JFMC staff aims to replicate the success of this year’s Social Justice Trip, when 45 students and 20 community members traveled the same bus route as the 1961 Freedom Rides orchestrated by Farmer. This journey through the American South gave the UMW group the chance to explore the painful truths of segregation and racism, and honor the heroism of those who fought for justice and equality.
These types of experiences help students connect the dots between past and present-day civil rights struggles. “They begin to recognize these issues are intertwined and not segregated from each other,” Williams said.
For everyone, including faculty and staff, JFMC has diversity training to make the campus more inclusive and accessible, while Safe Zone offers programming, services and workshops for UMW’s LGBTQ+ community and supportive allies.
Some students learn about JFMC before setting foot on campus, like Courtney Flowers, who enrolled in the RISE Peer Mentoring program to ease her college transition. Now as a mentor, she helps others acclimate to life at UMW. Williams himself is a graduate of the James Farmer Scholars program, which provides a pathway to college for local underrepresented youth.
Others gradually found their way, like first-year Bilqiis Sheikh-Issa, who said she instantly felt at home in JFMC’s third floor office in the University Center. She assumed a leadership role with UMW’s NAACP chapter and became an active member in the Black Student Association and African Student Union.
“I’ve had upperclassmen reach out and ground me,” said Sheikh-Issa. “Now I try to remind others we all belong here.”
Senior Kuljeet Singh, a commuter student, hangs out at JFMC between classes, chatting with staff and fellow students about British football and Punjabi cuisine and music. It’s a peaceful place to connect with friends, he said, especially when dealing with the stress of finals.
“During the civil rights movement, there were spaces where people went for a cup of soup and to recharge before protesting the next day,” said Raucci, who believes JFMC offers that type of respite to UMW students hungry to bring about change of their own.
“Here, they feel like they’re heard, they’re seen and they matter, so they can keep on fighting and doing the work.”