By Jen Maldonado
Several decades ago, a close friend asked Don Brown, now retiring as head of the Multicultural Center, to do her a favor and drive with her to what is now Rowan University to hear a young black preacher from Georgia speak.
Brown decided to go, despite his father’s protest that the speaker was far too radical. Little did Brown know he would hear something that would totally change the way he thought about the world.
The speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and from that day on, Brown adopted a whole new outlook on life, which he has continued to promote throughout his 24 years at Rider.
Brown, pioneer of the Multicultural Center and professor of the Race, Class and Gender course, is retiring at the end of the semester. It was 1989 when Brown was asked to come to the university by a former student of his, Rubin Joyner, to help rebuild the university’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). While working with EOP, he noticed the campus was in need of a multicultural center.
“We wanted to have a means of addressing issues of valuing diversity on a university-wide basis,” Brown said. “Students that were here at the time were looking for a way to create it. After looking at the candidates that came in, I didn’t feel anyone could do this job like I could, so I applied.”
Brown became heavily involved with developing the center and ultimately got the job as its director. The Multicultural Center is set up in what Brown refers to as “the heart” of the Bart Luedeke Center and serves as “a place where students can lounge and discuss multicultural issues without being in a classroom setting.”
The center now sponsors programs such as the Celebration of Lights, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Appreciation Month, Women Studies’ Month and gay appreciation events, including Coming Out Day.
Brown’s desire to give back to his community and instill a service value into Rider students was inspired by King’s speech.
“He changed my entire life around,” Brown said. “I listened to Dr. King and decided I was going to get involved with civil rights.”
Brown’s crusade began in the small New Jersey town of Salem, where he worked with a group to get people of color involved with the police and fire departments. He went on to work with the New Jersey Education Consortium, whose objective was to get black history textbooks in public schools and prepare educators to teach the material. After doing that for several years, he began to train students from Ivy League schools as well as those returning from the Peace Corps to work in urban areas, which was done through what are now The College of New Jersey and Kean University.
“I’ve just always been involved with civil rights in both formal and informal areas,” Brown said. “I’ve found to it be the most intriguing thing about my career. Growing up in the mid-’60s, there was nothing more exciting for a black man than to be involved with the Civil Rights Movement.”
In 1993, the Lawrenceville campus attracted national media attention over a fraternity’s racially based hazing incident. Brown and the Department of Communication responded with a day of workshops on campus about topics related to tolerance and other cultural issues.
“We wanted to create training about cultural diversity, which has now evolved into Unity Day,” Brown explained. “Each spring, I try to pull together issues on campus that students will have to deal with. From that, we develop a program that will involve speakers and workshops dealing with those issues, along with a celebratory aspect.”
In addition to helping found Unity Day, Brown reinvented Rider’s Black History Month activities. Prior to Brown coming to the university, the campus celebrated King’s life and talks without putting much emphasis on his active role in community service, a topic Brown is very passionate about.
“We at Rider are very privileged,” he said. “The whole idea of higher education is to prepare our future leaders, and they must understand realistically who they’re helping through forms of community service. We must learn to give back, and it’s a reciprocal thing — not only do we give something to the community, but the community gives something to us.”
During his time at Rider, Brown has also been an integral part of the monthly Midnight Run service trips in which students take clothes and food to the homeless living on the streets of New York. Brown feels these programs are essential to students’ understanding of giving back.
“One of the most fascinating people we met on the streets of New York was a man who spoke seven languages,” Brown said. “Each time we went, he would be there. One month he wasn’t there anymore, and we found out he got a job as an interpreter. He did end up back on the streets due to his substance problem, but the idea that the homeless are individuals with histories of their own is an incredible learning experience for our students, who often think of them as statistics.”
Brown has additionally been responsible for sponsoring many well-known figures as speakers at the university including poet Amiri Baraka, civil rights advocate and singer Harry Belafonte, author and advocate Irshad Manji, and filmmaker Michael Moore.
Brown said Baraka, who was named the Poet Laureate of New Jersey, was one of the more controversial speakers Rider has seen. He had a reputation of being anti-Semitic, anti-female and abusive. A number of professors were very critical of having him on campus and tried to ban his speech, according to Brown.
“I was going against my friends on campus to have this man come,” Brown said. “To me, whether he was all those things or not didn’t really matter, because the students had invited him, and we need to have faith in our students to critically assess who can come to campus. That’s the importance of the academy: You don’t censor. There was a great deal of conflict, but it’s important for freedom of discussion.”
Another speaker Brown said he’s particularly proud of getting to come is Belafonte.
“I was hesitant for him to come at first because I knew what he meant to my generation, but to the younger generation he wasn’t anything more than the guy who sang ‘Day O,’” Brown explained. “It was hard to market him to contemporary Rider students, and I was ready to give up. But Dean [of Students Anthony] Campbell convinced me that it is the responsibility of the adults of this community to make someone like Harry known and appreciated. I really felt that was a revelation.”
Brown has left a lasting impression on the members of the campus community.
“Don has touched many lives during his time at Rider,” Campbell said. “As a teacher, mentor and friend, he encouraged the entire Rider community to live our community values statement and celebrate our differences for they are our gifts. Personally, I will always be grateful for the perspective and balance he brought during difficult moments on campus, the leadership and service opportunities he provided for our students and the wise counsel and friendship he provided me on a daily basis.”
Joyner, who serves as the EOP director, agrees with Campbell’s sentiments and feels Brown has been “phenomenal for Rider.”
“He’s an advocate, team member and a true Renaissance man,” Joyner said. “Don has been a rock for Rider. When you lose someone, you don’t want to lose what they’ve done. We want to continue his advances and celebrate the differences that make us stronger as a university.”
Vickie McLaughlin, administrative specialist in Student Affairs, said she will miss having Brown as a supervisor.
“First and foremost, Don is a gentleman,” she said. “Don is all about empowering the students. He would always say, ‘You know me, Vic. If I can get through to one student, that’s what it’s all about.’ He was satisfied when he made a positive difference, and he’s passionate about education.”
A jazz brunch will take place in June to honor Brown and will additionally serve as a fundraiser for the Distinguished Writers Series for EOP students, in which they get to spend time studying the work of Pulitzer-prize-winning and other recognized writers. The series has lost funding over the years, so Brown wants to use his retirement as a way to raise money and awareness for the cause.
Brown simply wants to be remembered fundamentally for being an educator, since he will continue to teach a few courses at Rider after he retires as director of the Multicultural Center.
“What I consider to be my personal legacy is my interaction with students and I’ve found that to be my most rewarding experience,” he said. “If you’re going to deal with something like cultural diversity, it’s a process as much as it is a product. The process happens with the personal interaction between the students and myself. What I find most effective is the day-to-day interaction with students, and that’s where my legacy lies.”
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