This post is written by Caitlyn Whitesell ’20, who serves as the communication intern for OCE. She interviewed Professor Jennifer Bickham-Mendez in Fall 2019.
Professor Bickham-Mendez researches Latinx studies, race, class gender, social movements, and more in William & Mary’s sociology department. Through her research, she engages directly with the Williamsburg community to serve the community and contributes to their knowledge base.
In our conversation, Professor Bickham-Mendez began by discussing her work in the early 2000s. During this time, early childhood programs began to respond to the demographic shift in the community as more Spanish-speakers moved to the Williamsburg area. Professionals in the area “felt ill-equipped to serve this group,” so she focused in. Professor Bickham-Mendez worked with a child development group serving immigrant parents, and with a network of Latinx people in the community. She also led cultural sensitivity trainings for local law enforcement and court officials on immigrant experiences and motivations. While she developed connections to many community partners, she recognized a lack of immigrant voices leading the work.
Professor Bickham-Mendez helped found the Border Studies program at William & Mary while continuing to work directly with the community. To connect community and university efforts she began hosting a symposium in 2013. She convened activists, local parents, and alumni speakers, creating space for the immigrant voices that had been previously unheard. In the classroom, her students discussed the impacts of immigration before traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border. These trips combined service and issue education, with students visiting detained immigrants and observing in the courts.
Professor Bickham-Mendez also engages locally, recently receiving an award for her work in the local schools. She has spent years building connections to ESL teachers in Williamsburg through collaborations with the School of Education. Last year, she and Professor John “Rio” Riofrio developed a course that placed William & Mary students at James Blair Middle School where they offered classroom support, tutoring and mentorship. The W&M students conducted interviews of the JBMS students and offered classroom support, teaching and leading activities in the classroom.
Looking back, the community partnership experienced some bumps in the road due to the changing leadership at the school, but Professor Bickham-Mendez remembers the positive moments better. William & Mary groups such as LASU and groups in the Williamsburg community came together to support newcomer students through community nights and outreach. Now, Professor Bickham-Mendez is working on a course for next semester in collaboration with the ESL teacher at James Blair.
The final aspect to her current work is collaborating with the Village Initiative, a racial-justice activist group. The Village raises issues in the community such as the school to prison pipeline and educational disparities related to race. The Village Initiative helped inform Professor Bickham-Mendez in creating the curriculum and building on advocating for these communities based on preexisting community work.
Through poetry workshops for immigrant children in local schools to advocating for equity and inclusion in redistricting, Professor Bickham-Mendez is dedicated to serving ESL communities. Her efforts have certainly touched the lives of many students, and her favorite aspect of her work has been knowing that the kids she and her students work with really enjoy their visits and contributions. By always seeking out new ways to be informed and new ways to build on community efforts, Professor Bickham-Mendez is a great example of why community engagement is important. To learn more about her work, and stories about her specific involvements, visit her university experts page, and directory listing.