Editor’s note: This week, the Greenfield Recorder has dedicated a series to sharing the stories of local people of color and their experiences with racism and prejudice. This is the final story in the series.
GREENFIELD — As a Black woman and immigrant, Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernández said she’s dealt with her fair share of “the -isms.”
“Sexism, racism, all the -isms,” Salomon-Fernández said. “Anywhere you go in the world, you will experience some sort of prejudice.”
Salomon-Fernández grew up in Haiti and moved to Boston at the age of 12. She lived there for about 25 years before moving to New Jersey, and then to Franklin County two years ago when she got the job at GCC.
“Coming to the U.S. was a transition,” Salomon-Fernández said. “I was just at the cusp of moving from adolescence to teenage-hood in a place where I didn’t know the language or the culture.”
Growing up in the dry heat of Haiti, she said the cold New England weather was tough to get used to at first. She learned English as her fourth language, while simultaneously learning Spanish, after moving to the U.S.
She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her master’s degree is from the London School of Economics and her doctorate from Boston College.
Now, Salomon-Fernández is a U.S. citizen and has worked in the education field for more than 20 years, previously working as president of Cumberland County College in Vineland, N.J. She has been married to her husband, Stephen Fernández, for 20 years and they have two children together, ages 11 and 13.
‘Giving a voice’
As an educator, mother, Black woman, immigrant and community leader, Salomon-Fernández wants to make it easier for others to surmount the “-isms.” She said she felt it was important to support structural and systemic change so women, people of color or members of the LGBTQ community do not have to experience the direct or even secondary effects of racism or prejudice.
“The -ism’s are not things we easily solve,” Salomon-Fernández said. “We continue to work on all the -isms. It’s a journey. … We continue on an individual level to be the best we can be. On an institutional level we examine the power structures, systems, practices and policies to be congruent with our values and desire to create a just and sustainable world.”
Salomon-Fernández was hired as the 10th GCC president in 2018, replacing Robert Pura. During her interview process, she voiced support for the installation of gender-neutral bathrooms, despite some negative feedback. She also supported training for GCC staff to better interact with LGBTQ students.
In October 2019, Salomon-Fernández said she was impressed by the activism in the area from both high school and college students who wanted to live “more equitable, just and racially balanced lives.” Speaking Thursday, she said it’s important in democracy that people have an opportunity to voice their satisfaction, or dissatisfaction.
“Whether it’s local, regional or national, giving a voice to all is a value — a principle — that our country was built upon,” she said.
The recent months, she said, have shown that people want to be engaged. She is seeing activism from young people, both nationally and globally, as they push for a more equitable, racially just and environmentally sustainable world.
“For me, my role has really been as a listener,” Salomon-Fernández said. “I listen to experiences, and help think through what we can do to make the college environment more welcoming and more racially just.”
Addressing inequities at GCC and beyond
She said she feels lucky to work with colleagues who ask what responsibilities they have to fulfill to promote a more equitable community. She said the college will continue to build a diverse culture; create a forum for faculty and staff to say “I don’t know” and learn; conduct professional development that promotes racial equity and cultural understanding; and assess the college curriculum, as many schools push for an overhaul of equity and anti-racism education.
Salomon-Fernández believes it’s important for students to learn about cultures first-hand, through the lived experience of students and faculty, instead of just receiving a “textbook-level understanding.”
This May, GCC announced the launch of a program to support students of color by recognizing their unique experiences and by working with them to find a path to succeed in their education. Salomon-Fernández said the program pairs students with advisers who either speak their language, understand their culture or both.
In addition to her role at GCC, Salomon-Fernández is a member of Welcoming and Belonging Franklin County, which is a branch of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments’ Racial Justice Work. According to the FRCOG website, Welcoming and Belonging Franklin County, among others, has received a five-year grant to address racial equity and inclusion in its workplaces and the wider community.
The website states FRCOG’s research has identified troubling health disparities for people of color in the county, and these inequities will be considered in all local and regional planning efforts moving forward.
“The murder of George Floyd and resulting international protests highlight again the dire consequences of systemic racism and inequity in our society,” the FRCOG website states. “We all must proactively work to right centuries of wrong.”