Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez, IRT ’15 shares his journey with the IRT community in this interview with Brittany Zorn, IRT ’13, Arts and Sciences Programs Specialist, IRT
In an era when there is so much demand on our time, attention, and energy, nothing soothes the soul like returning to the simple pleasures life has to offer, like celebrating our community. Despite an endless and unprecedented amount of challenges this past year, there has also been an endless amount of accomplishments across the IRT alumni network. More broadly, there has also been an unprecedented amount of interest in issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in this country since the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Aubrey sparked a series of protests for racial justice last spring.
I have always found our IRT alumni family to be a great source of comfort, joy, and inspiration- three sensations that have felt in short supply at times throughout this pandemic. One such source of comfort, joy, and inspiration has been the work and accomplishments of IRT alum Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez. In light of a new professional role and an ongoing “side project” that has quickly grown into a space of radical self-reflection, love, and learning, I asked if he would be willing to chat with me about it all for the blog and this conversation is the result.
Shameless pitch: If you enjoy reading about Kevin’s new role and his work, consider contributing something to the blog that celebrates your own personal-professional achievements! You can reach out to any IRT staff member or the general IRT mailbox at email@example.com to inquire.
Brittany Zorn: Thanks for agreeing to chat about your recent accomplishments and projects. It has been a delight to see the success of your Black Men’s Reading Group on social media, and now you’ve got a new position to celebrate, too. Congratulations on your recent accomplishments.
Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez: Thank you so much for the praise and opportunity to be in community with you! The Black Men’s Reading and Reflection Group (BMRGG) has been an amazing space to cultivate deep connections and relationships with Black men. I’m excited for us to be going into our fourth cohort pretty soon! I also recently finished my first working week in my new role, which I’ll talk about shortly. All in all, lots of changes and transitions, but I am incredibly excited for what the future has in store!
BZ: So first I want to hear more about this new job you have accepted at Phillips Exeter Academy. Making the switch to private K-12 education is a fairly big shift for you professionally, is it not? Tell me more about how you came to apply for this position (maybe also include for the readers, your official new title and a brief description of the scope of your responsibilities).
KPM: My new role has aspects that are in alignment with my intellectual and professional training, and other elements that are completely different. So for context, I did my graduate work at Michigan State University’s (MSU) Student Affairs Administration (SAA) program. While at MSU, I was fortunate to have a variety of experiences that gave me a versatile skillset. For example, my graduate assistantship introduced me to the unique work of town-gown relations. I got to support student leaders while also working with local key stakeholders to bring community-based initiatives to off-campus MSU students and long-term residents. In a more traditional student affairs sense, I served as a summer Resident Director at Harvard University’s Pre-College Program. These experiences, coupled with my formal training in diversity, equity, and inclusion work, set me up for my current role as the inaugural Assistant Director of Equity and Inclusion at Phillips Exeter Academy (PEA).
As part of my involvement with the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers (IRT), I came to apply for this role through the referral of Kate Slater, someone who has been affiliated with the IRT for quite some time now and now serves as the Assistant Dean of Graduate Student Affairs at Brandeis University. Kate sent this job my way and was adamant about my skills and experiences being a good fit. I can’t lie, I was initially hesitant about applying. I loved the position, but I was fearful that my lack of K-12 experience wouldn’t be enough. Thankfully, here I am writing to you now as the newly minted Assistant Director of Equity and Inclusion!
My position came out of a commitment PEA made to institutionalize the practice of antiracism. Since I am the first person to serve in this role, there’s so much opportunity to be creative. Generally speaking, I think of my job as having three pillars: 1) working with PEA employees at all levels to help institutionalize the vision and practice of antiracism, 2) engaging the local Exeter community to be a liaison and work collaboratively on initiatives related to racial justice, and 3) support PEA students’ holistic development through a JEDI lens.
BZ: Wow thank you so much for taking us on a brief journey through the trajectory that brought you to the Assistant Director of DEI position. While this role at Exeter is completely new, the Black Men’s Reading and Reflection Group (BMRRG) that you facilitate is about to enter it’s 4th iteration. How does it feel knowing that you have put together a side project that has generated so much momentum and participation/interest?
KPM: Yes! The BMRRG is about to enter its 4th iteration. I never anticipated that a group I started solely to be in community with other Black men and read critical texts would turn into something so much more. I am thankful everyday to be in a space that centers healing, relationship-building, and vulnerability!
BZ: So tell me more about how you actually got started with the BMRRG? How did the first Group come together and what was your inspiration/motivation?
KPM: When quarantine was just underway, I had lots of time to think and reflect. I often preach that an important element of social justice is building meaningful relationships to do “the work” of facilitating social change. While I could articulate the importance of being in community in theory, I struggled to create and sustain those connections myself. I felt a longing to be in community with other Black men, but was (and still am!) scared at the thought of being vulnerable.
On a bright summer day in June 2020, I decided I did not want to live in that fear. I opened my laptop and drafted a syllabus that birthed what is now the BMRRG. Initially, my intention was to create a group to build community with Black men by reading and discussing books together. What the group turned into was a space for us to be vulnerable and really think through our socialization as Black men in transformative ways. Additionally, and the most critical aspect of the group, is to center our dialogue on creating strategies that support Black women and Black trans women. It was not enough for us to convene and talk about how patriarchy is harmful to us and others. We wrestle with the constraints of patriarchal masculinity while also developing tangible commitments towards Black women and Black trans women who, individually and structurally, experience violence from Black men. There is beauty in the difficult conversations we have. Our dialogue demands we (re)imagine a world where we have a moral obligation to be better for ourselves and others.
BZ: Again, wow. The BMRRG sounds like it has become a truly transformative space, and that is incredibly impactful and inspiring, especially at a moment when so many institutions are talking about transformative pedagogy, DEI, anti-racism, and so on. Do you see any natural overlap between the skills and knowledge you’ve honed through the organization and facilitation of the BMRRG and your new role at Exeter?
KPM: Absolutely! The strategies I use for facilitating BMRRG discussions are the same tactics I use in my role. Many of the reflections and lessons that come out of the BMRRG meetings build a framework for how I can better communicate ideas to the students, faculty, and staff at my institution. BMRRG and my current role at Exeter have (re)affirmed the importance of remembering that the work of justice is relational. My active commitment to be in community with others fuel the initiatives and collaborations needed to cultivate and sustain change. It’s important to also acknowledge that building relationships is not always easy. Those connections don’t come without having to work through different tensions and hardships — especially in the realm of DEI. Nonetheless, I want to approach those hardships with principled struggle, love, and accountability that creates an ecosystem of mutually-beneficial healing.
Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez is a first-generation, Black Latino with Colombian and Dominican Roots. He is a 2015 IRT alum who earned his M.A. in Student Affairs Administration (SAA) at Michigan State University in 2018. Kevin enjoys dancing bachata and salsa, playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch, and collecting different kinds of socks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brittany A. Zorn is a 2013 IRT alumna who earned her M.Ed. in Student Development in Higher Education with a concentration in Social Justice Education from the University of Maine in 2016. Brittany is proud to have just celebrated her fifth anniversary with the IRT as the Arts and Sciences Programs Specialist. She can be reached at email@example.com.