“The message was so special,” says Mable L. Millner, smiling as she reads a card resting next to a bouquet of flowers on her desk: “‘Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.'”
The Shirley Chisholm quote, signed with words of gratitude from an alumna, is just one of the many notes, texts and calls Millner has received from alumni since last fall. In October, she announced her January 2020 retirement as associate dean of students for diversity and inclusion and director of multicultural education.
After nearly 20 years of service striving to make Holy Cross a more inclusive home for all students, Millner sits in her office, the sun setting out the window on Hogan Courtyard, and reflects on a career deeply informed by her own life journey. “You wanted to do it. You had to do it,” she explains. “There were people who gave their lives for us to be able to go to school … and so it wasn’t necessarily a choice. It was kind of understood that you would contribute with the time, talents and skills that you had.”
Millner speaks at the 2012 Aptissimi luncheon.
Millner grew up in the segregated South, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which still enforced Jim Crow laws. “I wasn’t allowed to go to white schools — or anything else that was white,” she says. “We had two Woolworth’s because you couldn’t go into the white Woolworth’s. Going to the Greyhound bus station, there was a white side and a black side. So the white people got on the bus first, and then the bus went around to the back and then black people were able to get on the bus. And if you ordered food, they would give you food out of this window because you couldn’t eat in the station. I remember all of that as a child.”
But from within the African-American community and her family, Millner found incredible examples of strength that sustain her today and inspire her work as a mentor. “In my neighborhood, there were principals, there were attorneys, there were teachers, there were doctors. The president of a black college in my town lived two streets over. So you saw these people as role models,” she says. From her mother, who gave “unconditional love and support,” to her aunt, who “encouraged her nieces and nephews to pursue education and become the best of themselves,” Millner says “family and education” were the core fibers of her upbringing.
When Millner was 11, her community helped African-American activists travel safely through the area on their journey to what would become the largest human rights demonstration in the United States — the 1963 March on Washington.
Travelling long distances in the South was challenging for African-Americans. “You could not go to most restaurants. You couldn’t go to every gas station. There were very few hotels that you could go to,” Millner says.
“Our church was one of the churches that helped participate in terms of providing food and lodging for those who were headed to Washington.” These activists joined more than 250,000 others at the Lincoln Memorial as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Millner is proud to have participated in the 25th anniversary of the historic march. She reflects it was “a moment to measure how far we had come, yet realize how much further we needed to go.” Her work was still needed.
Millner attends the 2015 Rites of Passage ceremony with Jennifer Gomez ’15 and Vanessa Reyes Kranwinkel ’15.
At Spelman College in Atlanta, Millner recalls an immersion in King’s message of nonviolence and social consciousness, as well as a near-constant presence of civil rights leaders on campus. “As college students we also realized we were in the struggle for social injustices, every day,” she says. A “mesmerizing” speech delivered at Spelman by Howard Thurman cemented the theologian, civil rights leader and King mentor as one of the most profound influences in Millner’s life. King and Thurman have remained recurring threads woven throughout her professional life, as well.
After earning a master’s and working in administration at the University of Pittsburgh, Millner found her way to Boston University, where Thurman served as the first black dean at a predominantly white institution and mentored King there during his early 1950s doctoral studies. When Millner felt it was time for a change, Holy Cross came to mind.
“I read that Holy Cross had hired a non-Catholic, black woman as a vice president and dean of students, and I thought that was a very smart and courageous move for an institution that hadn’t had a lot of people of color,” Millner says. When she saw the College’s 2001 opening for a director of multicultural education, she says the opportunity spoke to her, noting that Thurman’s philosophies (which included a belief in a “common humanity”) complemented Jesuit values.
She found a new home on Mount St. James, where she would spend nearly two decades breaking ground for generations of Holy Cross students.
Millner stands with Peyton Shubrick ’15, Boyce Watkins, Black History Month 2014 keynote speaker, and Jackie Peterson, former vice president for student affairs.
As leader of the Office of Multicultural Education (OME), Millner used education as a way to change systems and make campus a more accepting environment. “A lot of biases, a lot of stereotypes, a lot of misconceptions, a lot of fear and apprehension are not because people don’t want to be good people — it’s because people are lacking knowledge about these issues,” Millner says. “We tried to create that bridge to educate them and provide them with as much information as we could through trainings, workshops, programming and bringing speakers to campus.”
This push included the College’s first mandatory diversity training for all students, employees and faculty. “It was groundbreaking at that time,” she says.
Of what she’ll look back on fondly from her body of work at the College, Millner says, “It’s the small, day-to-day interactions.” And, yet, a few moments come to the forefront: She remembers the joy of taking a group of students to witness history at former President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and listening to them discuss what they had seen on their way back to campus. She recalls the healing that took place at the 40th anniversary of the Black Student Union (BSU), where an alumnus told her, “I walked this campus by myself and I made peace with the campus.”
She smiles at the memory of Ron Lawson ’75 grabbing a bread basket to pass around at that same reunion, raising impromptu thousands of dollars in donations from classmates for the Bishop Healy Committee. Most recently, she takes pride in the introduction of the Ogretta McNeil Emerging Scholar Lecture Series, named in honor of Holy Cross’ first black female tenured faculty and administrator.
From celebrating the anniversary of coeducation at the College to transforming Hogan Ballroom into a softly lit music club for Blues on the Hill, there are many highlights over her 19-year career. Millner supported BSU members in securing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as one of the College’s recognized holidays, creating robust educational and commemorative programming for the entire campus.
She is quick to acknowledge that any achievement was not realized alone and is grateful for the support of co-workers throughout the campus community. A visible presence on campus, Millner enjoys the many relationships formed throughout the years. Although “students have been my inspiration and motivation, I cannot overlook the encouragement and validation offered by colleagues,” she says.
Millner visits Worcester North High School with students Elizabeth Parker ’11 and Ryan George ’10.
“The reality is Mable is a pioneer here at Holy Cross, and I say all the time that the ground we stand on is because of the foundation she laid,” shares Michele Murray, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “She came here to do this work when nobody else had done it and found a way to help students who otherwise felt like — or were made to feel that — they didn’t belong, that this was their home.”
Of the “phenomenal works” and contributions many alumni are making in the world thanks to the support they have received from Millner, Murray says: “There’s nothing better to honor a career in higher education.”
“Dean Millner taught me that no matter what type of challenge I was going to face, I had the strength to face it head on,” says Brianna Turner ’11, who majored in psychology with a concentration in Africana studies and currently works as a behavioral specialist in the Worcester Public Schools. “She reminded me that I have the support of other strong women (including her) behind me to help me overcome anything.”
Gerald S. Dickinson ’09, who double majored in political science and sociology and is now a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, shares: “As the student government director of diversity, I spent hours and hours with Dean Mable in her office talking about and thinking through ways to bridge divides across the student body in an effort to make Holy Cross an inclusive space and place for the increasingly diverse student population.
Today, over a decade later, I still employ those same collaborative skills in higher education (as a law professor) that I acquired working alongside and learning from Dean Mable.”
When Millner talks about her career, it always comes back to the students: “It’s all about helping them to realize their full potential. No matter how they’re packaged, no matter what their experiences have been before coming to Holy Cross … they can take this education and have a fulfilling life.”
And it is with a particular pride that she shares how historically underrepresented students have found a voice and created their own havens through OME-supported multicultural student organizations, including groups like Caribbean African Student Association (CASA), Latin American Student Association (LASO), Asian Students in Action (ASIA), HCF1RST Scholars (first-generation and/or low-income college students) and Pride (LGBTQIA+ education and advocacy). “That’s where they find community,” Millner says. “That’s where they find solace.” And for some students, she says, these groups have made all the difference.
Millner presents a stoll to Harry Chiu ’12 at the ALANA Baccalaureate Dinner in 2012.
“Despite the bumps that a 20-year career at an institution in diversity work can bring, Mable remains hopeful and forward-looking,” Murray says. “Lesser souls would have been beaten down and she remains in it. She remains in it for the students.”
As Millner gestures from her desk out over the courtyard — the same view she’s had for two decades — she says she’s seen some positive shifts: “I can look out this window at any given day and time and see students of color. And that just didn’t happen in 2001 and 2002. In diversity philosophy, we always say that, ‘Diversity is not about counting heads. Diversity is about making heads count.'” During her time, the College has shifted from focusing solely on quantitative results to providing qualitative experiences that foster the sense of belonging, increase the sense of unity and develop the sense of campus community.
While the work to ensure every student finds acceptance and inclusion continues, Millner knows where to turn her gaze: “I’m passing it on to the next generation. They need to pick it up and go on to see what the [next decade] will bring.”
Written by Meredith Fidrocki for the Winter 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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