Called to otherness: an interview with Gilberto Perez Jr.

Photo by Brian Yoder Schlabach ’07

Gilberto Perez Jr., senior director of intercultural development and educational partnerships, answers questions about intercultural learning at Goshen College. This story originally appeared in the spring/summer 2015 issue of The Bulletin.

In 2014, Gilberto Perez Jr. took on a new role in the college’s Center for Intercultural and International Education after two years as an associate professor of social work. He previously served the larger community as a therapist, a regional Mennonite conference minister, a facilitator and a program director of a mental health center. He comes to this campus leadership role with a passion for bringing diverse people together and increasing trust and relationships between local law enforcement officials, neighborhood associations, Goshen College and the Latino community. Meet Gilberto!

Q: How have your personal experiences and identities prepared you for this work and shaped how you approach it?

A: I grew up in a South Texas community that was predominantly Mexican-American, but in a home where we were very involved in the broader Mennonite church. We would make our trip up north pretty much every year to church conferences. So even at an early age, we were some of the only ones who were Latino, but played games or talked with people I didn’t know and people who were different than me.

Later I interned with Mennonite Central Committee U.S. with their summer service program, interacting with young people across the country in terms of how they view themselves in their home community and the work they wanted to do. And then I was a resident director at Hesston College, seeing students of color, international students, white students, Native American students and Asian students live together in dormitories and try to navigate the different cultures that they brought. I also worked with immigrants the last 12 years as a behavioral therapist, learning the strengths immigrants bring to our communities along with the complexities of not having proper documentation.

It has helped me understand – all throughout – this notion of “otherness.”

Q: What does “intercultural” mean, and how is that different from such terms as “multicultural” or “cross-cultural”?

A: When we think of “multicultural,” people live alongside of each other. They value tolerance. They celebrate one another’s culturally-distinctive cuisine, dress, music, dance, etc. It is really about standing side by side.

When we think of “cross-cultural,” it is this notion that we are actually reaching across boundaries. We are trying to build relationships with people. We share. We listen. We are open to change.

But when we think of “intercultural,” it is understanding that our everyday interactions should be about justice, equality, freedom, peacemaking and understanding. There is disciplined intentionality in building relationships, becoming transformed. We don’t think of this as ethnic work, but rather as cultures intersecting among difference. ‘Intercultural’ requires us to look at racial and cultural power imbalances among people, which sometimes rubs people the wrong way. It gets at the hard work of saying, if we really want to build this intercultural community, it will mean we have to look at our role in society, and our responsibility and accountability to change the way we do things, and how we relate to people that are different than us. We have to think of our motivations, our attitudes, our behaviors. We must move towards people, not just stand alongside people or celebrate our diversity in numbers alone.

I think that’s what makes Goshen College unique because we are working at this at a deeper level. We are challenging our students to go deeper in terms of the cultural imbalances of power. We are having our students struggle with that, own it and grasp it so that it doesn’t lead to a polarized community.

Q: How do you see our Christian faith – rooted in the Anabaptist tradition – informing and shaping the intercultural teaching and learning happening here?

A: I think of the Old Testament Scripture concept of jubilee. People often think of jubilee as just a sharing of the land, but it is so much more. It’s really a sharing of power, understanding the work that people have invested. When I think of my faith, it is how we as a people can extend ourselves, extend jubilee to others. Christ calls me to focus on the limitless possibilities of my interactions with people. That means pouring myself out for the other. I think to live in to that right relationship with each other, we must let God’s Spirit participate in the holiness and in the justice work that we will do with the other.

Q: How is Goshen College becoming a leader in intercultural development?

A: Goshen College is leading in intercultural development because no one is left unchanged in our intercultural learning. We are challenging our students, faculty and all whom we come into contact with to examine their culture more closely, live in justice, mutuality, respect and equality. It is our hope that our interactions and our example will allow us to build a stronger community near and far.

We are also being innovative. We have the Master’s of Intercultural Leadership degree and are launching the Institute for Intercultural Leadership. We created the Saving for College Conference, an Intercultural Leadership Academy for middle managers across the county, an intercultural mentoring program with our students, a community-based English language program and a leadership academy for high school students. We are charting the course of relationship building and helping our college community and beyond understand difference, engage difference and live in difference. Goshen College is a recognized leader in intercultural development.

Q: When you think about this college in 50 years – in relation to bridging differences – what do you envision?

A: I think Goshen College will be a place where people from all over the world will come to learn about difference and practical things about engagement and servant leadership skills. People will come to Goshen College because they want to learn how we have mastered how to live with the other, lead change through people, and that we teach people to achieve a radically different future. People will go back to their communities to be the intercultural leaders we have prepared them to be. Our students and alumni will continue to be the change makers of this world. It will be amazing.

– By Jodi H. Beyeler ’00