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Justin Mallett's adjustment

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Justin Mallett, a man who works relentlessly to help underrepresented students transition onto a predominantly white campus and community, may not feel welcomed himself.

When speaking of the experience of underrepresented students, Mallett, the associate provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Northwest, often repeated the words “adapt,” “conform” and “adjust,” emphasizing each word with a tap on his desk. The majority population requires the adaptation, conformity and adjustment of underrepresented identities, oftentimes without the willingness to learn or understand different backgrounds themselves.

In many ways, Mallett’s decision to live in Maryville is of the same experience — a sacrifice. And he’s OK with that. 

As he recounted his journey to Northwest, shared stories of his family, reflected on his responses — both as Dr. Mallett and as Justin —  and as he spoke of his identity on and off campus, the heaviness of race and identity became apparent. 

To some degree, Mallett is involved in all discussions on issues related to race in the community and on campus. If not planning and leading a seminar himself, he is listening, observing, taking note of all the happenings, fielding questions. Toward the end of 2020, his heavy involvement caught up to him. 

“And when they talk about the whole concept of racial battle fatigue, that’s a real thing. I was fatigued. I was tired,” Mallett said. “I was wondering, ‘Is all of this worth it? Is it worth putting all this effort into these workshops and presentations and news articles and doing all these different things to educate people on issues of race? Is it really making an impact?’”

Mallett received relief at a height of fatigue while listening in on a Bearcat Diversity Bookclub meeting. The unexpected, appreciative words of a student helped clear the murkiness of doubt from his mind. Mallett was reminded of his purpose, one that was sparked in him during college: to use his access and privilege to help underrepresented students.

At the age of 9, Mallett’s view on race began to change as he boarded a school bus from Kosciusko, Mississippi, to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, for the first time. A participant in Project Self Help and Awareness, an exchange program for students with the goal of improving race relations, he lived with a prominent white family for two weeks every summer.

As a child in Kosciusko, race was one-sided, segregation the norm. 

“Living in a segregated environment and a segregated community, it was just the norm. You didn’t think twice about it,” Mallett said. Schools were integrated, enforced by Brown v. Board of Education, but activities within were still segregated — his high school didn’t integrate prom until 2009. 

After highschool graduation, Mallett took the familiar trip north, this time with college on his mind. He arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point on a tuition waiver where he had signed to play basketball.

His Blackness stood in stark contrast on a predominantly white campus. In a discussion on the Civil War, his white classmates turned to him, offering an apology for his experience of slavery.  

“I didn’t experience that,” he said, baffled. “My ancestors did but I didn’t.”

The assumptions of his classmates soon turned into a barrage of questions, white students seeking to understand the Black community. Mallett felt pressured to answer, to help his fellow classmates understand. As if a 20-something-year-old man, one just forming his own racial identity, had the capacity to explain hundreds of years of oppression or speak on the behalf of the whole Black population. 

Trying to navigate the stereotypes and bias of being an underrepresented student, Mallett had enough to handle. 

“The last thing I needed to put on my plate was educating other white people as a student,” Mallett said, especially when students could seek understanding through the resources offered on campus.

After his first semester, he unknowingly lost his tuition waiver. Before Mallett even had the chance to realize the loss, Ron Strege, the director of multicultural affairs, approached him at basketball practice. Strege offered Mallett advice on how to continue in his education, as well as gave him a job in the multicultural resource center to help meet the financial gap. 

“Ron Strege removed a lot of barriers, not just for me, for a lot of underrepresented students and marginalized identities,” Mallett said. “Not only did he make sure that they persisted and graduated, but gave you the blueprint on how to be successful as well.”

Strege’s act, along with the interactions Mallett experienced while working in the multicultural resource center, were the building blocks for the work he would later go into.

Ironically enough, educating white people is now a part of his job description. Now, Mallett finds himself in another predominantly white community, serving as the face of Diversity and Inclusion in a city where 92% of residents are white.

From the South to the North with stops in the middle, his family didn’t keep him from pursuing his career. Instead, his wife accompanied him, adding a few children to the mix as the years went on. After pursuing multiple jobs, living in several states for a couple years at a time, Mallett, his wife and his growing family settled down in Maryville in 2017.

Mallett is deeply entrenched in the community, a decision he and his wife, Dana, made at the start of their marriage. With a strong social personality he was, and still is, happy with their decision. But carrying the moniker ‘doctor,’ along with his association to the University, everywhere he goes is tiresome at times. 

“It’s never, ‘Hey Justin, how’s it going?’” he said. “It’s always, ‘Hey, Dr. Mallett.”

His presence in Maryville is strictly professional. As he reflected on the friendships he has formed here, none came to mind quickly, suggesting a lack of roots.

“What I can say is that we have adjusted well to the Maryville community,” Mallett said, though it's hard to say if he makes the personal choice to remain detached from the community, or if that choice is enforced by a community that hasn't yet adjusted to him. 

The community doesn’t provide adequate resources for Mallett and his family, or other underrepresented identities for that matter, to thrive. He has to drive to St. Joseph, Missouri, 40 miles one way, just to get his haircut. His wife drives to Kansas City, Missouri, double the trek, to get her hair done. 

If Maryville desires to create an inclusive environment, Mallett said, business leaders, churches and other community organizations need to appeal to the needs of underrepresented students and families. 

Mallett isn’t naive to the consequences that come along with living in a small town  —  inadequate resources, microaggressions, assumptions and biases were to be expected. He understands the one-sidedness that is often rooted in small communities, having been raised in one himself. 

“We know how to handle ourselves accordingly in how much we put ourselves out there in the community, in what we do and what we don’t do,” Mallett said.

He doesn’t mind keeping to himself and his family, he almost seems to prefer it. They enjoy resting at home together, playing games and driving to St. Joseph on the weekends. 

The line between work and home can become blurred at times, no matter the intentionality of Mallett to separate the two. Try as he might, shedding his professional attire to “just be Dad” comes with it’s own set of challenges. 

“Just because I’m at home and I say that I’m Justin, am I really Justin or am I still Dr. Mallett?” he questioned. “Am I being Dr. Mallett or am I being Dad?” 

Being Dr. Mallett at home is a good thing sometimes. Where Jusin would say ‘no,’  Dr. Mallett says ‘yes,’ he said with a smile and a laugh in his voice. 

While Mallett considered his decision to constantly uproot his family in pursuit of his career, he voiced the effects on his children, quickly justifying his decision.

“Have my kids had the opportunity to just really nestle me in and relax? No,” he said. “But every opportunity has been an adventure that will allow all of us to grow.”

Mallett’s children were further denied the opportunity to “nestle” him in with his decision to coach basketball. As a basketball coach for a travel team based out of Wisconsin, Mallett was pulled away from his family nearly every weekend. After a six-week period of relentless work and travel, he knew something had to give. 

Leaving his wife as a single mom while he was away wouldn’t work, especially as his children grew older in his absence. The desire to be home with his wife and children led Mallett to retire this summer, after almost seven years of coaching the team.

Mallett’s privileges have allowed him and his wife to raise their children in a way that they see as fit, and he’s OK with that. The chance to grow and progress with each new experience is worthwhile. 

He doesn’t consider his professional identity to be a negative. He’s comfortable with the sacrifices he has made to further his work, a work he will continue to pursue.

If Mallett is able to reach just one individual, if he is able to inspire Black men to pursue higher education, if his title gives him access into conversations and into rooms he wouldn’t normally be invited into, the sacrifice is worthwhile.  

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