“Reflecting the Kingdom of God,” with Sandra Mayo
Dr. Sandra Mayo joined Seattle Pacific in July 2017 as vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion. With a doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, she was formerly an associate professor and director of the doctoral program in educational leadership at Azusa Pacific University. Her scholarly work has explored historical perspectives on racial disparities. As a member of the leadership team, Dr. Mayo is part of SPU's ongoing efforts to reflect the kingdom of God in this community.
Amanda Stubbert: We’ll get into the work that you do here and the work that you’ve done other places, but can we just start from the beginning? I am so fascinated by your upbringing and your childhood, and I feel like someday someone’s going to make a movie about you.
Sandra Mayo: Sure. Let’s see, so I was born in New York to parents who had immigrated from Jamaica, so I was first generation born in the United States. We lived on Upper Manhattan, in Washington Heights community, a diverse community. I was the middle of three children, and I think most of childhood was part of my parents just trying to navigate life in America, and figuring out how to sort of bridge their culture from home in our new home, and really experiencing life through their eyes, and really trying to make sense of all of those cultural elements.
We moved to New Jersey when I was 5 years old, and it’s interesting, you know, when your parents come from a different country, they don’t necessarily have a sense of where they want to live in the United States, so we didn’t have familiarity with different neighborhoods or cities. New York was a natural destination. Many people coming from the Caribbean Islands either end up in New York, or England, the former mother country, or Canada.
So when we were looking to move from New York, my father’s an electrician, and he had been working at a post office doing their electrical work, and it was the post office in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He came home one day and told my mother, “We should probably look at a home in this place called Bloomfield. I’m doing some work there and it looks nice.” So that sort of became the destination for us. We were able to find a home, and purchase a home in Bloomfield, New Jersey. So we started again our new lives in this little town about 12 miles outside of New York City, a suburban, residential community.
Amanda: I’m guessing not quite as diverse as it was in Manhattan.
Sandra: Not nearly as diverse as Manhattan. So I started my schooling right away. In fact, I was two weeks late to kindergarten. I remember being the new kid. But I was usually one or just one of a few students of color throughout my schooling in Bloomfield, New Jersey.
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sandra: I don’t think I made much of that early on. Of course, as a kid you’re just sort of playing and making friends and going through life as normal. But going through school in Bloomfield, it became challenging. It became difficult to sort of experience the types of racial comments and questions about who I am. I remember growing up, that was a question I heard probably as frequently as “What is your name?” is “What are you?” And I really didn’t know how to answer that, and I didn’t have a language for it. I could certainly-
“It became difficult to sort of experience the types of racial comments and questions about who I am.”
Amanda: Especially when no one around you is getting that question.
Sandra: That’s right.
Amanda: It’s one thing if every kid is getting that question and you don’t know how to answer, but if you’re the only one who’s getting asked that question, where do you learn the answer?
Sandra: Yeah. You know, as a child you recognize differences, and I think that’s just a normal human inclination, so I certainly knew that, okay, I don’t look like my peers, but I didn’t attach meaning to it. It wasn’t until fifth grade, and I sometimes share this story, but in fifth grade I remember we were doing a reading on the Underground Railroad.
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sandra: And my fifth grade teacher asked me to stand in front of the class and explain to my classmates what the Underground Railroad was because those were my kind of people. I just remember, at the age of 10, just feeling really embarrassed, mostly because I didn’t know the answer. You know, I was learning along with my peers, so this was supposed to be-
Amanda: I was going to say how were you supposed to know more of the history than they did? Oh, wow.
Sandra: Yeah, and I think what struck me in that moment too was just the look on my teacher’s face. I think it was the first time that I realized this thing called race has meaning, and it has weight. Again, didn’t have a language for it, didn’t have a way of making sense of it, but it was certainly a turning point, and a shaping experience for me. Even to this day, I remember the feeling in my gut. It was the first of a series of sort of incidents like that throughout school, where it was just made very clear you are different, and that’s not always a good thing.
“I think it was the first time that I realized this thing called race has meaning, and it has weight.”
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sandra: So I think for me, going through school there was just a sense of I have to navigate this world a little differently, and I always tried to find that place where I could fit in. I remember even in high school, in the cafeteria when we would have lunch, my table in the cafeteria we would be jokingly referred to as the United Nations because it was sort of the table where every kid who didn’t fit in somewhere else was seated.
Sandra: People who maybe couldn’t fully identify how they were going to identify themselves racially or ethnically.
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sandra: And we were all just trying to figure it out in a very, I would say, racialized terrain, and I don’t think that people, particular people from majority culture, often realize that we are always navigating racialized terrain. But it’s made very evident to those of us for whom race has been mark for us where it’s clearly identified as something that’s not positive.
Amanda: Right. Right. We’ve had this conversation before, and I think many, many first generation American children have the same thing where you don’t fit at school because you look differently, and are treated differently, and asked different questions, and expected to know things differently. Yet at home, there is still a disconnect, because some kids didn’t feel even if they look the same as everyone else around them, they don’t really fit in at school, so that feeling is familiar, but they could go home and fit in at home.
Amanda: But a lot of other first generation students have talked to me about how you don’t really feel like you fit in at home either because your parents are of a different culture that they’re almost shielding you from. So you’re not allowed to be Jamaican, but you’re really not quite American, and so you don’t fit anywhere.
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah, and that was certainly the case in my experience. My parents had difficult circumstances in Jamaica, and so leaving Jamaica was sort of this hope and aspiration for something better, opportunity in the United States in terms of work, but also a distancing from what was a painful history for them. So as children we were definitely told, you know, sort of, “You’re American, you’re not Jamaican.” But for me there was always that curiosity, and I think because I was always asked, “What are you,” there’s a natural question that forms for me to determine who I am, and what my legacy is, what my ancestry is, what that history that passes that my parents came from.
So it was difficult, and I know that my parents, they didn’t have a language either for what I was experiencing in school. In fact, race was something that really wasn’t talked about a whole lot in my household. When you are coming from a country like Jamaica that is majority black, no one’s really thinking about racial differences, right? So it takes on a unique meaning within the United States, and I think for families that are coming to the United States, it’s a new experience, and it’s something that we end up navigating together. So my parents were learning along with me when I was a child.
But for me that understanding our Jamaican history was really important. It’s something that, as a young adult, I really invested a great deal of time in, and really went on a personal journey to understand my Jamaican roots. It was probably my early 20s when I went back to Jamaica for the first time, and started to make a series of trips back to Jamaica. That was really important for me because we really didn’t have an understanding of who our family was. Neither of my parents grew up with their parents. My father was orphaned by the age of five, and technically he would be considered a social orphan, so his mother had passed away, his father was still living but was not in his life.
And my mother was what was referred to as a “barrel child”. So there were a lot of parents in Jamaica who had to seek work in England, which is where there were opportunities. So her mother left Jamaica very early in her life. She didn’t know her, and my mom grew up with her aunts, and uncles, and grandparents, different homes with extended family members. The idea with barrel children is that parents would go abroad, seek work, and then they would send goods, and supplies, and money in those big, huge barrels. It’s this concept that was pretty popular in Jamaica during the 40s and 50s, and before emancipation in 1962.
So this idea of family separation is a huge part of my background and experience. I didn’t meet my grandmother, on my mother’s side, until I was 16, and it was a long process of healing, and really trying to reach out on my own, and then try to convince my mom that maybe it’s time to make those connections again. But I can only imagine now as an adult how painful that must have been for her.
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sandra: But I think my story just sort of lands at the intersection of this really complex history of what colonialism in Jamaica really meant for people, and their lives, and their experience, and what it means for the generations that follow that then don’t have a real sense of their family history, their culture, and their connection to any particular land.
I actually went back to the orphanage where my father was raised. That was something I had always wanted to do, but I knew that it was very painful for him, so I sort of did some research on my own. I reached out to the oldest living nun at the orphanage, and I asked her a picture. I wanted to see a photograph of my father as a young boy. That was something that I was just curious about.
Amanda: Well, it’s something I think a lot of us take for granted that you have access to that kind of family history.
Sandra: Yeah, and I think there’s something really important about having that sort of tangible piece of your history. So that was my first question to her was, “Do you have a picture? I’m the daughter of Victor Richards, niece of John Richards.” Because both boys were sent to the orphanage, and she wrote back. She didn’t have a picture, but she did have an essay that my father wrote. I think he was about 15 when he wrote this essay. I remember opening the envelope, and seeing this written document from the father who… that child that I wouldn’t have known sort of what he was thinking or experiencing at that time. It was a moment of clarity for me, but also the beginning of healing, and really getting a sense of what my father experienced, and how he was shaped by those experiences. There was so much of his past that he did share with us, but there was a lot that he didn’t. There were a lot of memories locked away in the pain.
So I just really … that started a journey for me of really trying to better understand my history, and also just understand the influences of Jamaican culture in my life, which was empowering. Because you sort of go through life knowing that there are particular musical influences, there are ways of being, there’s a way of navigating the world that you carry yourself in a certain way, you have certain sayings and expressions, and if you don’t know where they come from, you just sort of feel like there’s just a gap. There’s just a gap. And for me, it was just a wonderful journey of about 10 years following that first communication with the nun.
Opened just doors of understanding, doors of healing with my father, our relationship was able to deepen a bit after that. He actually visited the orphanage with me some years later, and that too gave me additional understanding of who he was, and in sort of the ways that he raised me, and why for him education was so important, and why he emphasized that so much to us. I saw the limits of what was available to him in going back there.
I know all of this sort of connects back to the work that I do today. I think I’m fascinated not only with my own story and history, but also other people’s stories, the way that they’ve navigated to where they are today, how race and identity has played into their understanding of the world. Certainly brokenness is a huge component of that, and I think that I have a particular empathy recognizing how, you know … these sorts of cultural journeys for each of us, there’s pain, there’s loss, there’s joy, there’s hope in all of that.
“I think I’m fascinated not only with my own story and history, but also other people’s stories, the way that they’ve navigated to where they are today, how race and identity has played into their understanding of the world.”
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sandra: So how we’re knitted together through that is something that I really am fascinated by, and just really try to bring into my work each day.
Amanda: I’m fascinated by how embracing the question of who are you, what are you, that in the end, that that journey of trying to answer that question has been empowering, and enriching, and a good experience for you. It’s a shame that it had to come to you from such a broken way, right?
Amanda: To come out of a way of singling you out, and making you feel less than an other as a child, and I love that the work you do now is not only helping, whatever the color of their skin, is helping college students answer those questions, “Who am I? What space is here for me?” College is the time, is it not-
Amanda: … the time to really dig into those questions, who am I? Because I won’t be living with my family, probably, forever, but what am I going to bring with me? What about my legacy am I going to bring with me as I start my own family, and things like that? I’m just so grateful that you’re here to help our students with that because I think it can be seen, all racial work can be seen very black and white.
Amanda: Of we’re just talking about color of skin, and we’re just talking about opportunity and policy, and it’s so much bigger than that. I just love the way you approach this work of really just finding space, and helping to ask those questions in a way that makes them empowering versus taking your power away.
Sandra: Yeah. Well, there’s a piece of the story that I probably should mention here that I think becomes pretty significant when I think about the work that I have opportunity to do today. My college experience was critical to that. I was 19, a sophomore in college, and in an English literature class. It was actually a black literature class, where we were reading Harlem Renaissance writers. It was in that moment that I actually realize it was the first time I was reading texts by black authors, and I don’t think that was my first realization. I think the first realization was just sort of there’s something different in these texts for me where I am actually feeling alive.
I was hearing a voice, and a language, and a cadence, and it’s something I can’t even really fully describe, but there genuinely is a different cadence to the writing that was familiar to me, and connected in a way that there’s sort of like an ancestral memory that it just sort of tapped into. I remember thinking, “Wow, I wish I had had this sooner.” I wish that someone in my educational journey had cared enough to say, “Hey, you know, you might want to take a look at some of these writers. I think you might enjoy the stories that they’re sharing. I think these might resonate with you.” So there was a moment where I was pretty angry. I was pretty resentful towards the education that I had received. I felt as though I had been schooled well, but I hadn’t been educated.
“I felt as though I had been schooled well, but I hadn’t been educated.”
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sandra: I remember at the age of 19, and in all my sort of rebellion and desire to really change things in the world, I said, “For the next year, I’m not going to read any books by white authors. That’s it. That’s it. I’m going to focus on reading about black history, and really understanding what I’ve missed to this point.” It was the first time I fell in love with reading. It was the first time I fell in love with learning. There’s absolutely no way I would have pursued my graduate degrees absent that experience. So I think for me I carry that experience, and I know how critical it is for our students to be able to engage texts where they see themselves, and where they see themselves not as a footnote to history, but as shapers of history, and culture, and art. As thinkers who are contributing to disciplines.
I mean, when you’re reading the Harlem Renaissance writers, you get a very clear idea that black history is centered in literature, and art, and culture. That had not been my experience. Prior to that, black people were what followed the verb. We were objects of history. Things were done to us.
Amanda: You were not the protagonist. Yeah.
Sandra: We were not the protagonist, and that changes everything. It changes everything. You can no longer look at yourself in the world the same when you see yourself as the protagonist, when you see yourself as contributing in a meaningful way to thought, to creativity. So when I think about my role today I’m always sort of the one saying we need to curricularize these efforts. It can’t just be diversity for diversity’s sake, or when we’re saying diversity, let’s just focus on increasing numbers and representation in the room.
“You can no longer look at yourself in the world the same when you see yourself as the protagonist, when you see yourself as contributing in a meaningful way to thought, to creativity.”
All of that’s wonderful, but what matters is I think modeling for young people and giving them a language to really be able to make sense of their experience because they’re navigating life, and they’re navigating this terrain in ways that they are being called to question and respond to who they are, why they’re different. You know, and sometimes even having to answer difficult questions about why their families or they themselves have not been able to achieve certain things in life. I think we have very limited understanding of patterns of migration, and histories of generational poverty that have been created through social policy, and the ways in which that has impacted certain demographic groups.
Young people are having to respond to that, and they need a language, and they need to have a curriculum that provides not only a defense, but also gives them solid ground and footing to have a stake in this thing called life, and to have a place in the world, to demonstrate their agency, to really establish that agency and find their voice. So curriculum to me is powerful. And I think knowing that curriculum, either willfully or not, it has been used as a tool and it has been skewed, and it has left out a big part of the story.
I think for me, at a Christian institution, one of the beautiful things is sort of our commitment to the pursuit of truth, and for me what better way to do that than to tell the whole story. We’re really failing our students if we’re not telling the full story, and I feel like much of education has not allowed for that. That to me is a crucial part of the work, and it goes back to that 19-year-old Sandy in that English lit classroom really coming alive.
Amanda: I think that’s a lot of what we think about liberal arts being across disciplines, but it’s also across perspectives, isn’t it?
Amanda: I mean, we’re going to go out in the world and interact with all different perspectives, and here is the place, now is the time for us to be exposed to different perspectives and realize you can have a different perspective from me, and that doesn’t hurt me. If anything, it should help me grow, right?
Sandra: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: To have a little bit of your perspective as I grow, and I agree with you 100% that the broader we can throw open our educational doors, the better off all of our students will be. Well, Sandy, I appreciate you being with us so much, and sharing your story. I could listen for the rest of the day to your story, but I want to end with the same question I ask everybody at the end.
Amanda: Which is you clearly have a different perspective just like we all do. We’re all completely unique, and we have a different way of looking at the world. So if you had everyone in the Seattle area do something differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have them do?
Sandra: I would say what we’re doing right here. I think the sharing and listening to stories is really important if we’re trying to change the way we engage across differences. I think there’s so much fear a lot of times, and I really, in my own work, I hope to humanize the work of diversity to say, “Let’s break down those walls of fear, and let’s engage.” So I think the stories become important.
I think there is possibility for empathy and bridge-building when we hear each other’s stories, when we realize that there are some common themes throughout our lives, even though they may play out very differently. But I think everyone has experienced separation and brokenness, and hopefully many have encountered the redemptive hope of the cross. I think that there are commonalities that we also find, but if we can share our stories, and really approach the listening to those stories with a deep listening that has the intent of healing, I think we begin to really change the way we engage in this world.
Amanda: Listen, with humility. Tell your story. Thank you, Sandy.