Brittany Roberts was comfortable in a city. Showing her self-described loud and colorful personality while walking around St. Louis was second nature to her. But she gave up the comfort of a packed metropolitan area to move somewhere that made her uncomfortable — Maryville.
Roberts went from a place where diversity was so normal it wasn’t even noticed to a place where children will sometimes look upon her in awe because she is one of few Black people they have ever seen. She doesn’t mind though; she enjoys being uncomfortable. It forces growth.
Her willingness to step outside of the familiar and experience new things led her to Northwest as a student. Now, as a coordinator in Northwest's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, she hopes that same willingness will lead to healing and progress in the community in a community that once made her feel like an outsider.
The always energetic Roberts is on a mission. The mission, she says, is not one that will occur overnight but is one that will take time and work from everyone.
Roberts is now what many in the area would consider a townie. Initially never quite intending to stay after her undergraduate degree, the newest diversity coordinator lives in Maryville with her fiancee Courtney Morgan and their three children.
Roberts first set foot in Maryville as an undergraduate student in 2011. She was a resident of seventh floor Millikan, or as she jokingly referred to it, “the projects.” Roberts became a Bearcat with the intention of becoming a doctor. Unbothered by blood or gore and with “Grey’s Anatomy” at what many consider the height of its popularity, Roberts was ready to embrace the world of medicine, until she saw her transcript.
“Wait, math?" Roberts said. "No one said anything about math."
Staring back at her was a long list of chemistry and calculus classes, so Roberts decided to change to political science, partially because of her love of history and current events and partially because of the influence of another student, who would become her closest friend.
Marlon Oliver first met Roberts on the seventh floor of the high rise while studying with a mutual friend for a test in their Introduction to American Government class. Roberts seemed to be under the impression that Oliver had shady motives for being on a girls floor late at night. Oliver and their mutual friend plead their case saying that the purpose of the hangout was a simple study session.
“Mmm, that’s all y’all better be in there doin’,” Roberts said to Oliver in their first meeting.
The unlikely and somewhat confrontational run-in blossomed into a friendship that both describe as more of a sibling relationship. Oliver and Roberts each said the pair was inseparable during their time at Northwest.
“If people saw me by myself, it wouldn’t even be ‘Marlon, how are you?’” Oliver said. “It would be ‘Hey, where’s Brittany?’”
Both of them still get constantly asked about how their twin is doing, and neither will try to correct the error. For Oliver and Roberts, it’s no issue that they are seen as siblings because that’s how they view themselves.
“We went with it,” Oliver said. “On campus, we were known as twins.”
The always outgoing Roberts loves to make connections. Energetic, empathetic and relatable were the qualities that Oliver said someone could notice in Roberts instantaneously. Roberts is not a shy person. She is willing to power through any awkward barrier in order to engage with someone.
Though she believes being uncomfortable forces change, when Roberts is around campus or in Maryville she strives to be outgoing and caring even while her facial expressions are hidden behind a mask. She wants people to have a friend no matter who or where they are.
“I know everyone in this town knows who I am. They may not know my name, but they know who I am,” Roberts said.
Roberts said that she is a little more conservative in Maryville. Her clapping in church is not as exuberant here, and her demeanor isn’t as “vibrant” at times as it is back home.
For Roberts though, the journey to progress is all about exposure. Just as she exposes churchgoers in Maryville to a new style of worship, she sought to expose students, staff and faculty to new people and ideas.
Roberts vividly remembers a class project during her undergraduate career in which she and Oliver were the first Black people another student in her group had ever met. The student’s previous exposure to Black people had been from the HBO hit series “The Wire,” Roberts said.
“She pulled us aside and said, ‘I just want to tell you guys that you’ve changed my perception,’” Roberts said. “I was like, ‘That’s why I need to be here.’”
For Roberts, the initial culture of a small Midwestern town was jarring. She spent most of her college career on campus, partially because being out in Maryville wasn’t comfortable for her at first. To Roberts, campus and Maryville felt like two different worlds, and she wasn’t eager to travel to the other world. That has now changed for her; she feels more comfortable in the community but understands that there are still students who do not feel safe traveling around in this small town.
It’s important to note that Roberts doesn’t necessarily agree with the statement that Maryville is a “racist town,” a sentiment Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion Justin Mallett brought up at a recent Board of Regents meeting. The town is just new to this, new to progress, new to conversations about diversity and different cultures, Roberts said.
“I don’t think it’s a racist town," Roberts said. "I think it’s a curious town."
The rural Midwest seems to be lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of diversity and acceptance, Roberts said. She noticed people on the coast would be surprised when former President Donald Trump carried the Midwest easily. They don’t realize “how far behind the Midwest really was," she said.
The 2012 election really solidified this idea for both Roberts and Oliver. When former President Barack Obama won reelection in November 2012, there was a stark divide in how the community reacted. Oliver remembers students driving around in trucks with confederate flags yelling racial slurs at Black students on campus and calling Obama a “monkey.” At one point Black students were even encouraged by Northwest University Police to walk in groups for safety. University Police Chief Clarence Green said there were no reported hate crimes at Northwest in 2012 and couldn’t recall whether specific directives had been given by UPD as it would have been “more than eight years ago.”
Roberts sees many similarities between that election and the most recent one that saw President Joe Biden oust his controversial predecessor. Just as signs endorsing the 45th president’s campaign can be seen in the community today, many signs supporting Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and his presidential campaign lingered long after his loss almost nine years ago.
The spring of 2016 brought similar microaggressions as Roberts was finishing up her bachelor’s degree. She kept waiting for the shoe to drop on Trump and for him to eventually lose his following.
“The whole time in my heart of hearts I was thinking ‘Well we gotta see that this isn’t OK,’” Roberts said.
After graduation, Roberts found herself living in Maryville, and despite her initial plans, she decided to stay. She felt she could make a difference. Even though Roberts had an initial preference for large, sprawling urban areas where diversity is ingrained in the community’s nature, she wanted to stay because “change can’t happen in places it’s already occurred.”
Roberts’ first job out of college was at Clarinda Academy just across the border, one which brought her a different level of discomfort. Roberts didn’t enter her new position overly fond or comfortable with children, Oliver, who later joined her at Clarinda Academy, said. Despite being in a state that is one of the least racially diverse in the country, Roberts was surrounded by diversity while working in Iowa.
Clarinda Academy, which will be shutting down later this year amid abuse allegations, is a home for children from all walks of life. Roberts, and later Oliver, spent every day with children from as far as Africa and as close as Des Moines, Iowa, who needed care and attention.
“Sometimes we had kids there that were murderers, and you had to be able to go and talk to them and be there for them and not make them feel like a monster and prisoner,” Roberts said.
Even though Roberts was employed in a different state, she tried her best to stay apprised of the goings-on at Northwest. During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, the now-infamous video of a Northwest student seemingly mocking the death of George Floyd was posted on social media. The story and backlash quickly became the talk of the town. While many current and former Northwest students were calling for a revoking of the student’s enrollment, Roberts agreed with the University’s decision.
“What good do we do by shunning that person away and letting them go back to an environment that made that person feel like it was OK?” Roberts said. “Let’s see if we can teach this person to grow, to be better.”
Education allows people to go and spread their experience whether it’s with family at the dinner table or congregations in church, Roberts said. By educating people properly on diversity and other cultures, these people can be transformed into ambassadors who can bring the message to others.
Roberts inherited a difficult situation when she was hired as a diversity coordinator at the beginning of the spring semester. With COVID-19 still very much affecting the events Roberts can plan, she has been trying to come up with new and inventive ways to get students involved.
Roberts said, however, that the coronavirus has made it easier to not put in the work toward progress
“It’s like ‘Oh, it’s not that I don’t wanna go (to diversity events), it’s just that I can’t because it’s unsafe,’” Roberts said. “Then I see everybody out at Burny’s, when I’m driving by it’s popping.”
Progress is being made, and paths are being laid in the pursuit of an inclusive community, not just in terms of race relations, but also gender equality and the acceptance of sexual orientation, Roberts, a member of the LGBTQ community herself, she said.
“I think it’s easy when they see us (the Office of Diversity and Inclusion) to be like ‘Oh, you’re Black, you’re Black, you’re Black; you guys must be dealing with race,” Roberts said. “No, we hit a lot of different things. It’s just race is the hot topic right now.”
Despite a non-COVID-19 illness that kept Roberts out of the office for the better part of a week, she has been hard at work organizing events and taking breaks to learn TikTok dances for Black History Month, and she is excited about Women’s History Month in March. Roberts, ever the people person, has had to adapt to a new form of discomfort that comes with virtual events. Facial expressions, tone and body language are all key pieces to building relationships that are missed because of the pandemic, but Roberts pushes on.
Roberts wants the events and programs she plans to become part of a tradition at Northwest. The goal is for Black History Month events to be regarded in the same status as Homecoming, events on the calendar that students circle and prepare for every February.
She knows at first progress will remain somewhat lethargic, that these things take time and that it is going to require people to step outside their comfort zones.
“Be uncomfortable. You have to be uncomfortable," Roberts said. "If you’re not uncomfortable, change will never happen."