From family ties to occupation, political ideology to religious beliefs, sexual orientation to ethnic background, we all hold multifaceted identities. And to see the fullness of others—and be fully seen ourselves—we must acknowledge those identities and consider how they intersect. So was the message brought by two of the fall assembly speakers at Commonwealth School: Elizabeth Parada and Rev. Irene Monroe. Keep reading to learn more about how their identities shaped their paths to advocacy work.
“Hold onto the essence of who you are”: Elizabeth Parada
There is a difference, Elizabeth Parada says, between empathic curiosity that invites dialogue and the kind of misguided curiosity that makes people feel maligned and marginalized. It’s the difference between questions like “What is it like to live in Bogotá?” (where Elizabeth grew up) and “Is it true that you all live in trees?” As a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, she educates organizations, teams, and individuals about these distinctions and much more, drawing on deeply personal connections to the work.
Over her 25 years in education—most recently as Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Loomis Chaffee School in Connecticut—Elizabeth has helped make concepts of race, gender, sexuality, and beyond more accessible while helping organizations be more equitable. The key, Elizabeth says, is understanding identities and how nuanced and personal they can be. That understanding comes from a place of genuine empathetic curiosity, and she urged Commonwealth students to cultivate it in themselves.
Elizabeth shared her story as Commonwealth’s first assembly speaker of the 2021–2022 academic year and a special guest for National Hispanic Heritage Month. She began with a pointed lesson: though often used interchangeably, “Hispanic” and “Latino/a/x” are not synonyms. The former refers to Spanish-speaking individuals; the latter, to people from countries colonized by Spain. More importantly, the people who identify as “Hispanic” and “Latino/a/x” come from a broad swath of countries and backgrounds, with vastly different experiences. And they are not a monolith.
Born in the United States but raised in Colombia, Elizabeth’s return to the U.S. as a teenager thrust her into an unfamiliar language, culture, and country where she was suddenly no longer “Colombian” but simply “Latina.” As one of three Latinas in her 2,000-person high school, Elizabeth didn’t want to be seen as a representative for the entire community. Yet she encountered the stereotypes and misconceptions that follow many Hispanic and Latina/o/x individuals: that her family was fractured, that she knew about the illegal drug trade, that she grew up in a jungle village with animals roaming the streets. Such microaggressions (“at the time, we didn’t call them that, but that’s what they were”) wore her psyche down and complicated her relationship with her heritage.
“I felt like I was being set apart,” she says. “I hated that people made these assumptions, so I didn’t want to make a big stir about who I was. But I loved my heritage, I loved my language, I loved my family, my customs. That was a constant source of internal conflict, and I’ve heard that from others who have migrated as well.” Elizabeth also noted the privilege of her citizenship, her education, and even her lighter complexion, which spared her some of the more blatant racism often levied at people with darker skin tones. But the backhanded “compliments” stung, too. “‘You don’t look Latina,’” people would observe. “And I was very proud to be Latina,” she says. Even friends giving her the nickname “Colombo” made Elizabeth feel reduced to her place of origin. “I wanted them to see the fullness of me,” she says. “I wish that I had someone to talk to about it [then]. But I didn’t.”
Despite some reticence to join affinity groups in high school, Elizabeth decided to join La Unidad, an organization for those who self-identify as Latina, as a student at Mount Holyoke College, where she was studying public health. It was a game changer. The sense of belonging and depth of shared experience she found instilled a deep belief in the importance of affinity groups. “We are put in these experiences to learn and to grow and to expand. I needed that,” she says.
People contain multitudes, and how they connect with the various facets of their identities will vary from person to person. (Elizabeth recommends Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on the dangers of myopic storytelling.) Elizabeth says her background helps her stay attuned to others’ differences, too. And to those students who might be struggling with facets of their identity—or how the world perceives them—she urges: “Hold onto the essence of who you are. Go back to what matters and expand from there.”
“God can be a verb”: Rev. Irene Monroe
Like Elizabeth, Rev. Irene Monroe advocates for her own brand of empathic curiosity, encouraging students to “meet people where they are.” During her recent assembly talk, she discussed holding onto hope and helping others in the face of seemingly intractable challenges.
A public theologian and “accidental activist,” Rev. Monroe recalled for her Commonwealth audience what it was like living in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Newly graduated from Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, Rev. Monroe returned home to Brooklyn charged with reviving a flailing church and excited to reconnect with friends. But she arrived just as AIDS, then a mysterious illness, began tearing through the gay and African American communities—her communities.
“All of a sudden, there was this virus that was going around, “ she says. “We didn’t have a name for it, but we were seeing people just drop.” And long before the CDC said heterosexual women would be the “new face of AIDS,” Rev. Monroe saw it in her personal life: “My girlfriends were dying,” she remembers. “Why is this happening?”
As the virus raged around her and claimed the lives of many of her friends, Rev. Monoroe kept waiting for the government to help, for churches to mobilize, for people to come together in a time of crisis. But with the disease largely affecting marginalized communities—like LGBTQ+ people and individuals wrestling with addiction—the help never came. Rather, those communities faced compounded stigma and saw religion used to justify their condemnation.
Rev. Monroe realized she needed to talk to Black ministers, engaging their influential churches to address the crises in their communities. She also hoped to disabuse them of the notion that it was just gay men getting the virus, or that they “deserved” to get AIDS due to their “sinful” lifestyle. “‘We need to talk about the problem of AIDS in our community,’” she urged them, only to be met with denial from other (mostly male) ministers. It took a reframing of the issues—like disentangling the AIDS crisis from the sexual mores of the church and relating the struggle to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s—and persistent effort.
Looking back on the journals she kept, Rev. Monroe is struck by how far we’ve come, from AIDS no longer being a death sentence to the legalization of marriage between people of the same gender to the election of Barack Obama. (“I never thought—and I would have bet my last penny—I would ever grow up and see a Black president.”) But there is no shortage of suffering in the world, with so many dispossessed by social and political divides. The climate crisis, in particular, looms large in her mind and serves as a perfect example of how disparate issues—environmental racism, classism, anti-intellectualism—can compound problems. So how do you fight back?
Start in your own backyard, Rev. Monroe says. Meet people where they are, teach to shift the status quo, and simply start having conversations.“I try to learn with compassion,” she explains. “I don't give up on anyone”—though she acknowledges the difficulty of “meeting people where they are” when their worldviews are inherently oppressive to others. If you hit a wall, it might be a sign that you can’t be the messenger, that you might need to reach out to someone closer to the community you’re trying to reach. “Sometimes your message might be profound, but you might not be the right one to deliver it,” she says, reminding the crowd that allyship is rooted in relationships and coalition building. (“And if you get weary, call me up!”)
Along the way, you must see the people you’re trying to help for the multifaceted individuals they are. Like Elizabeth Parada, Rev. Monroe reminded that crowd that no culture is a monolith, and no societal ill happens in a vacuum. “You must be intersectional,” she says. “You don’t want to leave people behind.”
Change doesn’t happen quickly, but it will happen, Rev. Monroe insists. Keep doing the right things, and they will add up over time. She quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., saying “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—but is quick to add Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s coda: it bends toward justice only “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”
And we need steadfast commitment: still, now, always.