• Community Engagement

Marcy Schwartz receives Human Dignity Award

Marcy Schwartz in front of mural

Professor Marcy Schwartz takes Rutgers students beyond the borders of the New Brunswick campus and outside their usual range of college experiences.

Last year she organized a group of students to provide translation to and from Spanish during the first in-person parent-teacher conferences at Livingston Elementary School since the Covid-19 pandemic. Some students translated during the individual conferences while others served as guides for the Spanish-speaking parents, many of whom are new immigrants.

“To have a friendly face greet you and say, ‘I will walk you to where you need to go,’ makes parents feel comfortable and connected, and more likely to come back to school for events in the future” says Schwartz, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Since arriving at Rutgers in 1991, Schwartz has been one of the university’s most insistent and effective proponents for teaching approaches that take students into the broader community, especially the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods near campus.

Her work recently earned her one of the university’s most hallowed honors, the Clement A. Price Human Dignity Award. Named after the late and beloved Clement Price, a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor, the award recognizes extraordinary contributions to diversity, inclusion, equity, and access at Rutgers.

Besides Schwartz’s accomplishments as a teacher and scholar, she is also being honored for her work with People and Stories/Gente y Cuentos, a non-profit organization that presents short story readings in prisons, homeless shelters, and other settings.

Marcy Schwartz presented with the Clement A. Price Human Dignity Award“Professor Schwartz has demonstrated a relentless determination to make a lasting difference beyond the university’s borders,” Jorge Marcone, an SAS associate dean of humanities, wrote in his nomination letter for the award that Schwartz received from the university’s Committee to Advance Our Common Purposes at a Nov. 15 ceremony. “She represents the best among us of a generous and versatile faculty committed to diversity, inclusion, equity and the common good in marginalized communities in New Jersey and Latin America.”

To Schwartz, the work is both a moral calling, and fun.

“It’s a way of giving back and a way of helping students, whatever their major is, find ways to be civically engaged while they are at Rutgers, and later in life,” she said. “It’s opening the door so they have kind of an entrée, hopefully making it less scary.”

A Chicago native, Schwartz gained an early facility for Spanish from a childhood friend from Mexico. She earned her PhD at Johns Hopkins University and is a scholar of 20th century Latin American literature and culture, specializing in urban studies, exile, and photography. Her most recent book, Public Pages: Reading along the Latin American Streetscape, explores the rise of community reading programs.

But it was a job she held outside the academy that helped set the stage for her community-engaged work at Rutgers. Prior to getting her doctorate, Schwartz worked for Catholic Charities in Syracuse, N.Y., as Hispanic Outreach Coordinator – a role that brought her into homes, churches, schools, and community centers in a struggling, rust-belt city.

“I was the person that went door to door to get people to sign up for programs at the neighborhood center,” she said. “I was in people’s homes all the time.”

She loved the job. And when after three years she decided to return to graduate studies, she vowed to stay involved with community work. That mission fit well when she came to Rutgers in the 1990s, a time when faculty were developing experiential and service-learning pedagogies that combine classroom learning with community engagement.

Schwartz soon saw bold new possibilities in humanities courses like “Literature of Latin American Exile and Displacement,” where students read Spanish-language writers in exile from their home countries.

“I thought it was a really good venue for having students go into the community and participate, such as tutoring kids after school or working with Legal Aid and other organizations,” she said. “The Mexican and Central American communities in New Brunswick are displaced for various reasons, whether it’s economic, services for their kids, or violence in their towns.”

In another of her courses, “Spanish for Community Engagement,” students improve their Spanish learn Spanish in class and volunteer off campus at social service agencies, such as the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance.

And Schwartz’s Byrne Seminar, “Getting to Know Your Neighbor,” introduces students to the neighborhoods of New Brunswick, covering everything from the evocative murals to community centers and food banks to bodegas and bakeries.

“We know that some students come to Rutgers and never step off campus to walk down French Street and buy a papaya,” she said.

In the late 1990s, Schwartz began volunteering with People and Stories, holding short story readings in Spanish with groups of inmates at federal and state prisons. She has gone on to train facilitators for the program in Latin America. The program is simple and powerful: No tests. No requirements to speak. Participants discuss the details of the story and use it as a springboard to speak about their lives.

“They may talk about their church, or about something that happened growing up, or how their cousin did something that was kooky,” Schwartz said. “We all have life experiences that are valuable. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, or what you earn, or whether you are incarcerated.”

She recalled one inmate who remained silent throughout the program yet filled out the evaluation form at the end. Curious, Schwartz decided to take look while getting into her car in the prison parking lot to drive home.

The man had written: “Life is beautiful, everything is important.”

Schwartz cried in her car.

“He never talked,” she said. “You don’t always know what is sinking in.”