OCE Student Profile Series
by Laura Stephens
Dynamic, driven, compassionate and fun are all words I would use to describe Mary Ellen Garrett. With her wide variety of social justice interests, including protecting the environment and advocating for immigration reform, it is obvious that she understands that community engagement is complex and multi-faceted. However, she never loses sight of what it is all about- she also has a strong desire to meet individuals where they are and make personal connections. Also, she’s been skydiving, so that’s pretty awesome.
Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?
Mary Ellen Garrett: Well, I think it depends on your definition of community engagement. I’ll first mention my most conventional “community engagement.” I co-lead a Catholic Campus Ministry service learning trip during spring break. We travel to Richmond to engage with the elderly poor, the formerly incarcerated, and low-income Hispanic families. I also volunteer with CCM’s Hispanic ministry and teach a class for local 5-year-olds. I also coordinate a sustainability campaign called Take Back the Tap which aims to eliminate disposable plastic water bottles on campus.
Now moving to less traditional conceptions of “community engagement.” I direct public relations for William and Mary’s TEDx conference. I am also a trip leader for the Tribe Adventure Program. I also went to the US-Mexico border to do anthropology research last winter break. Finally, I worked as a medical interpreter at a rural community health center on the Eastern Shore of Virginia over this past summer.
OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?
MEG: I would say the common denominator in all of my community engagement is that I try to connect with people and communities that benefit less from the status quo than I do. With the spring break trip, the aim is two-fold. Firstly, it is deliberately local. It is the opposite of exotic. It forces me to acknowledge ingrained and persistent problems within my own community. Secondly, it is designed to engage with especially marginalized communities. The elderly poor, the formerly incarcerated, and poorer Hispanic people do not get a large share of attention.
My work for Take Back the Tap is an acknowledgment that pollution and deterioration of public water supply affects poorer folks more. That’s why, for me, environmental justice is social justice. Part of creating more equitable communities is creating more sustainable communities. This requires changing mindsets and changing assumptions. Bringing disposable water bottles to the front of everyone’s minds is a way to do this.
OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?
MEG: Active citizenship, for me, is rooted in a deep investment in the idea of “community.” It is an acknowledgment of our interconnected futures. It means that I must endeavor to pay attention to injustice: everywhere and every time. This is an overwhelming and exhausting proposition. It leads to uncomfortable questions and infuriating answers. It means questioning my assumptions. In practice, it means that I ask “why” a lot. I try my best to pay attention, think deeply, and take action.
OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?
MEG: Working in the community has given my education teeth. It is a constant reminder that I should never measure my life with my resume or with my awards. Instead, I am forced to recognize that my responsibility is so much broader. My responsibility is to actively pursue justice; especially when it is difficult.
OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?
MEG: I’m not sure yet. I think that my job right now is to keep listening and learning. Every time I work in the community, I realize how much I don’t know. I realize how many structural issues I had never considered. I realize how many benefits I derive from the current state of affairs. And I realize that some things need to change. That, in my opinion, is my duty upon leaving William & Mary.
OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?
MEG: My most striking moment was nothing particularly thrilling. It was sitting at the simple lunch tables with elderly folks during my service trips to Richmond. I remember sitting there and thinking that they were some of the coolest people I had met. We talked, we listened, and we shared. I asked them about themselves without regard for the length or complexity of the answer. They did the same for me. We raved about Julie Andrews, shared opinions about food justice, and recounted crazy travel stories. In those moments I was reminded of the duty we have to listen to each other, care for each other, and fight for each other. That’s what it’s all about for me.