Voices of Simmons

National Day of Racial Healing: The Possibility of Human Connection

In honor of the National Day of Racial Healing, Debra Pérez shares her thoughts on the benefits of celebrating our common humanity.

January 22 marks the third annual National Day of Racial Healing, hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. In honor of this day, Senior Vice President of Organizational Culture, Inclusion & Equity, Debra Pérez, shares her personal experiences with racial divide and healing, and encourages the Simmons community to take collective action toward a more just and equitable world.

When I was a kid growing up in Trenton, New Jersey, we were told that we should never cross the park. The park was the dividing line between the Italian neighborhood known as Chambersburg and the rest of Trenton. We were warned that it was dangerous for people like us. I lived in a segregated community of mostly Latinx families; we played, lived, and went to school on different streets than the white kids. 

When I went to middle school, everything completely changed — we had to walk across Chambersburg to get to our majority white school. It was scary and I was afraid that I wouldn’t have anyone with me if something happened. On my first day in middle school, I met Juliet Zottoli. She was the first non-brown kid I met, and she was warm, funny, talkative and loving. She was also Italian and my first white friend. 

What I learned from this experience, and what has remained with me all these years later, is that I should never fear difference. In fact, I look for it, I am better for it, and I grow because of it. Although structural discrimination permeates all around us, everyone has the capacity to be my friend, ally and partner at work and in life. 

When I think about racial healing, I think about the possibility of human connection and the increased capacity to love. I think about the relationships, friendships, alliances and partnerships that aren't being formed because of bias, prejudice, discrimination and the false hierarchy of human value. I think about the oppression that divides us and the systems of racism which benefit from this false separation.

What I learned from this experience, and what has remained with me all these years later, is that I should never fear difference. In fact, I look for it, I am better for it, and I grow because of it.

On January 22, W.K. Kellogg Foundation is hosting a National Day of Racial Healing, which includes a live stream curated by Ava Duvernay. This day marks an opportunity for communities to come together to talk about race and racism and of what could be possible if we could overcome racial hatred and this country’s legacy of discrimination, and work towards becoming a country that celebrates our common humanity. Simmons University will be live-streaming this event as well as creating opportunities for sharing and exchanging ideas about what we can do to promote racial healing at Simmons.

What would Simmons and the world look like if we took collective action toward a more just and equitable world? How would we look, feel and be different if every individual could honor the value of different races and ethnicities? If all of the institutions we belonged to were committed to undoing these legacies? What if we could truly bring our full authentic selves to every space we encountered? 

Why focus on racial healing? As we are working towards making Simmons University the most inclusive campus in New England across all areas of underrepresentation, it is important to acknowledge the unique challenges of advancing underrepresented racial and ethnic diversity on campus. As such, we must strike a "balance between the broad range of diversities we support and the need to develop targeted efforts to address the particular legacies of racial disparity," as Boston University notes in their Diversity and Inclusion Report and Recommendations.

Juliet and I are still dear friends. And, like most good friends, she has been there for me in the highs and the lows. I can’t imagine my life without her. Knowing her has made a difference in my life, and I know that when people overcome their biases and create relationships across differences, the possibilities and rewards are endless. 

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