By Emily Freehling
Brianna Reaves ’22 was looking for a sense of community.
When she arrived at Mary Washington for her first-year Welcome Week, she immediately sought ways to find her niche on campus.
As an African-American, “I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me,” Reaves said. But that didn’t stop her from getting out and seeking a place to make her mark.
Reaves was asking a diversity speaker about how she could get involved to pursue her goals of activism and public service when she met Christopher Williams, assistant director of the James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC).
“He told me to come by the center the next day, he said we could talk, and he would have a senior there to help me figure out what I wanted to do,” said Reaves, who is from Culpeper.
She did, and immediately found a home on her new campus.
“From that point on, I was kind of in the Multi-realm,” Reaves said, using the Multicultural Center’s nickname. “I was constantly in the center.”
In less than two years at Mary Washington, Reaves has worked with other students to establish the university’s first-ever campus chapter of the NAACP, a group she hopes can help students connect issues on campus with a national audience.
A sociology major with a social justice minor, Reaves wants to one day hold elected office. She’s learned a lot about how to make change on her college campus through her involvement with the JFMC, which for three decades has been helping students of all ethnic and racial backgrounds and sexual orientations feel welcome at Mary Washington.
The center was founded in 1990, when civil rights leader James Farmer was teaching at the college. In 1998 – right after Farmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – students petitioned to rename the center for Farmer.
Celebrating our differences
In 1990, the cultural club offerings at Mary Washington consisted solely of the Black Student Association and the Asian Student Association. Cultural events were limited to Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January and Black History Month in February.
Today, JFMC Director Marion Sanford points to nearly 20 multicultural and social justice clubs that form the center’s leadership council.
The JFMC sponsors more than 11 cultural celebrations throughout the year. The latest addition to the lineup is the Native American Cultural Celebration.
“When we start in August and September, we don’t stop until mid-April, and we are very proud of that,” Sanford said. “It is very important that our students know how important it is to celebrate who they are. It doesn’t matter whether there is one student in that community on campus or 200.”
In addition to its cultural awareness series, each year the center also sponsors a Social Justice and Leadership Summit, Social Justice Teach-In series, and Human Rights Film Series.
The JFMC is best known in the wider Fredericksburg community for its annual Multicultural Fair in April. For the first time since it began in 1991 as the Multicultural International Festival, the 2020 event was canceled to comply with health recommendations related to COVID-19.
The event has helped change attitudes at the school about the importance of celebrating students’ backgrounds.
Forrest Parker remembers that when the fair was first proposed, not everybody on campus was on board. Parker was the first director of the Multicultural Center and helped found the Multicultural Fair. He is now CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of the Rappahannock Region.
“Some people thought the campus wasn’t ready for it,” Parker said of the fair. “I was thinking just the opposite – how can you make a dent and change the thinking until you create a campus that is inclusive?”
Helping more people feel at home
The central driver behind the creation of the Multicultural Center was inclusivity.
Parker had come to Mary Washington from James Madison University, where he had helped that school greatly increase black enrollment. Parker believed motivating students from different backgrounds to be leaders was essential to helping them find their footing. He had helped create two groups for African-American students at JMU – Brothers of a New Direction (BOND) and Women of Color. He brought those organizations to UMW, where they remain active today.
Student Government Association President Jason Ford ’20, from Culpeper, was president of BOND before he took on his campuswide leadership role. His involvement in that organization helped him get to know the JFMC better.
“I found my home at Mary Washington,” Ford said of the center. “I really just felt compelled and energized by the people there and their dedication to social justice.”
Reaching a larger audience
Helping individual students find their footing isn’t enough without educating the wider student body about diversity and making differences something to celebrate.
That belief motivated Parker to encourage the creation of organizations celebrating Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, and other heritages in his first two years as the center’s director.
“We really worked hard in trying to embrace the uniqueness that each person brought to the table – and the likeness they brought to the table,” he said.
Today, the Multicultural Center holds art and artifacts sent in by students and alumni from trips they’ve taken to visit homelands as far-flung as Africa and the Middle East. Sanford, the current director, treasures these items as signs of the strong bonds the center and its staff form with students.
“That they thought enough about the JFMC when they are away from this place speaks to the relationship this center has with students,” Sanford said.
Experiential learning that opens minds
Sanford is proud of the success of the JFMC’s annual fall social justice trips. She sees students return from them with a newly ignited passion for working toward equality.
In October 2019, 45 students, 20 alumni and community members, and five faculty and staff boarded buses to retrace the route of the 1961 Freedom Rides. James Farmer organized and participated in that effort to test a 1960 Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate transportation.
A fall 2018 UMW social justice trip took students to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, to visit the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
“When we came back, the students were so impacted by what they witnessed,” Sanford said, “They were determined to get out there and be agents of change.”
It was on return from Montgomery that Reaves and others founded the UMW chapter of NAACP. Ford returned from the trip with renewed passion to lead for equality and inclusion.
“Anyone can go out and make noise,” Sanford said. “It’s important to be able to be strategic and to have a vision and a goal.”
Lessons for a lifetime
As a student, Charles Reed Jr. ’11 learned a lot about how to build an inclusive organization when he worked with the James Farmer Multicultural Center.
As he helped plan events and construct programs that spread awareness of the importance of diversity, he developed a strong appreciation for the role the center plays on campus.
“The Multicultural Center is pivotal to making sure that people recognize the importance of understanding different values and beliefs and people from different backgrounds,” he said. “It creates a more interactive environment, especially as we think about college as a time when young adults are beginning to shape their beliefs around how they want to contribute to society.”
Because of the center, Reed learned in his senior year that PBS was seeking college students to participate in a 50th-anniversary commemoration of the Freedom Rides. The journey through the South by bus would be filmed for a documentary.
Reed was chosen from more than 1,000 individuals who applied for the trip, and he missed his own 2011 commencement ceremony to go. He said the journey was a fitting culmination to a college experience that opened his eyes to the contributions Farmer made in the fight for equality, and to the ways he can continue that work.
In his professional life as a financial adviser, Reed has served on committees to help his employer create a more inclusive work environment. He also serves on UMW’s Farmer Legacy 2020 planning committee, which is promoting a yearlong series of events to honor Farmer and his legacy at Mary Washington.
Seeing students like Reaves, Ford, and Reed inspired to take action based on things they’ve learned through the Multicultural Center is one of the most rewarding parts of Sanford’s job.
“That is one of the reasons we were originally started. To celebrate culture, promote diversity, to help provide racial harmony on campus, but also to educate,” Sanford said. “We take that charge and that sense of purpose very seriously.”