Michael Benitez, the new Director of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership, wants to add some food for thought to all the real food at cultural events on campus.
Benitez has noticed that there is a lot of dancing, food, partying and celebration at multicultural events, which he agrees are important. But he wants to add an extra element.
“It has to be balanced,” he said. “Especially in a place like Grinnell, a certain level of social intellectualism needs to be displayed through our programming.”
Benitez’s hiring is one of a number of organizational moves after the resignation of Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Elena Bernal ’94 in June, whose position will not be re-filled. Benitez’s office is now under Academic Affairs instead of Diversity and Inclusion, which he hopes will help ensure students’ academic success.
Benitez said he sees himself as a representative.
“The first thing I do is to assure that there is a particular level of dialogue and development with respect to students on campus,” Benitez said. “The office of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership is to represent underrepresented students, which includes racial-ethnic minoritized students, first generation, LGBTQ and athletes.”
Benitez is also Grinnell’s liaison to the Posse program. He will help the program recruit students.
Before coming to Grinnell, Benitez worked at Iowa State University with the Vice President of Student Affairs as a graduate research assistant. He studied “Racial-ethnic Minoritized Students” for four years. He was simultaneously working on his PhD, which he plans on completing in May.
Benitez decided to come to Grinnell because of its prestige and because it keeps him close to Iowa State so he can finish his dissertation. He also gets to stay close to his family and home in Des Moines.
Now that he has arrived, one of his goals is to build up more of an identity for his office.
“No one knows about it and no one understands its functions for the most part,” he said.
After working here for six to seven weeks, he has also realized some of Grinnell’s challenges.
“I’ve gotten a taste of how challenging it is for some underrepresented groups of students to live in Grinnell and to experience what I see as a very close-minded community outside Grinnell College,” he said. “There’s particular closed-mindedness in the broader Grinnell College [community] because of a lack of exposure and awareness and because of distance from anything remotely resembling anything with diversity, and that makes a difference.”
While he respects the goal of self-governance, he said he feels that it can be a bit problematic if there is a lack of regulation or oversight to it. He said he believes that students that are not part of a normalized group end up getting the short end of the stick if their idea is not valid enough for the majority. This concerns him because Grinnell likes to create a welcoming, comfortable and authentic environment for all students.
After meeting some students, he said he found that “liberalism” leads to students not checking themselves. “There’s a lack of cultural sensibility and ‘liberalism’ is used as the lack thereof,” he said.
Benitez hopes to create a space where people can collaborate around significant issues that we should all be engaging and discussing. He would like to move from dialogue into action, where students are not only talking about changing things, but they are actually doing things.
“The students have an incredibly high potential for intellectualism and engagement, which is visible in the classroom,” he said. He wants to use this untapped potential outside the classroom.
So if there’s something on your mind, and you want to talk to someone that “likes to keep it real,” just walk over to Nollen House and chat with Michael Benitez. You will even get free coffee while you’re at it.