Jairus Meer Goes to Washington
I am lost. I am lost in a world of endless possibilities.”
With this dramatic statement, Hope College junior Jairus Meer opened his keynote address at the 12th Annual National Summit of the Courageous Conversation Global Foundation (CCGF) in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 3, 2022.
Meer, who is earning a major in biology and a minor in peace and justice, was the only undergraduate invited to speak at the nationwide summit.
It was a long way to go for Meer — not just the 550 miles from Holland, Michigan, to Washington, D.C., and not just the 8,107 miles from his home in the Philippines to Hope College, but also in terms of his understanding of racism and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
“When I was a freshman in spring of ’21, I was an international student. At that time, I didn’t know what racism even meant,” Meer said. “Realizing that I’m different was the first key point.”
His understanding of racism has developed quite a bit since then — in no small part because he knows what it’s like to have people judge him by the color of his skin. The bulk of Meer’s CCGF address explored the question, What does it mean to be someone with, in Meer’s words, a “luscious golden brown color”?
“Where do I belong?” he asked in his speech. “Racially, I don’t belong anywhere.” In both the United States and the Philippines, he experiences his skin color as putting him in the middle, neither white enough nor black enough. “Being in the middle isn’t always safe,” he said.
Meer wears this unique perspective throughout Hope’s campus, where he works to advance racial justice as a fellow in the CCGF’s Courageous Equity Leadership Fellows Program (CELF, pronounced “self”).
“That’s the foundation’s version of doing diversity, equity and inclusion work with college students on their college campuses,” Meer explained.
Meer is working with Ada Rios, a junior at Hope and another CELF fellow, to develop a new training structure for the fellowship. “He’s very joyful,” Rios said. “He tries his best to be a relatable person and create safe spaces for people.”
When it comes to race and DEI, it should really be a collaborative effort. I want Hope to know that people of color are not enough to break racism and are not the only ones who are supposed to
do DEI work.
Thanks in part to her CELF training, Rios is working to start a Pan-Indigenous Students Organization at Hope. “That’s another point of connection that Jairus and I have: Our passion for indigenous cultures,” she said. (Rios will be speaking about colorism’s impact on indigenous communities in Mexico at the CCGF’s 2023 Cumbre Latinx national summit in April.)
“Hope should know that DEI is not easy work to do,” Meer said. “I think people here at Hope just know race based on their skin color. But it really isn’t — there’s more to it than that. There’s so much complexity, so much trauma that hides beneath it all, that it’s not easy to process all those things.”
Meer first became involved with DEI on campus as part of the Asian Student Union when he was a freshman. In 2022, his sophomore year, Meer delivered a TEDxHopeCollege talk titled, “This is who I can be: My international student story.” Now, he is raising awareness on various social media platforms and continuing his DEI work with CCGF and within his communities.
“The work that Jairus is connected with through Courageous Conversation helps to create peer-led dialogue on relevant topics for students,” said Jevon Willis, director of Hope’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI). “This type of learning environment is important in helping to enrich, educate and increase the awareness of our students, with topics and subject matter that creates opportunities for greater understanding, strengthening our campus’s inclusion efforts.”
Margo Walters, assistant director of Hope’s CDI, noted that Meer conducts his DEI work on campus with consistent enthusiasm: “Jairus exudes positivity!”
Positive attitude notwithstanding, Meer spoke about the mental exhaustion that can come with pursuing DEI efforts, especially for students of color, and he’s eager to see more people join in.
“When it comes to race and DEI, it should really be a collaborative effort,” he said. “I want Hope to know that people of color are not enough to break racism and are not the only ones who are supposed to do DEI work.”
He is also passionate about combining his DEI perspective with his future career. After Hope, Meer plans to earn a Ph.D. in the field of genetics. “DEI is everywhere, and STEM is just another space for it. I think there’s still more work to be done,” he said.
Dr. Liz Schofield ’02 Sharda, assistant professor of social work at Hope, said Meer is a “thoughtful, bright, curious learner who easily engages with people holding diverse identities,” noting that his “relational skills and genuine passion for justice, particularly around diversity, equity and inclusion, make him an effective leader among his peers and for our campus community.” Meer was a student in the Celtic May Term, traveling with Sharda to explore conflict, peace and justice in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Back in Washington, D.C., Habeeb Awad, an international student advisor at Hope’s Fried Center for Global Engagement, joined Meer at the conference, where he was “impressed at his ability to communicate intentionally and interculturally as well as his willingness to step outside of his comfort zone by interacting with people of different cultures, beliefs and values.”
When he finished his CCGF speech, Meer was asked to stay on stage, where he was presented with the Ruby Bridges Student Leadership and Courage Award.
“Oh my God. Is this my Oscar moment?” Meer joked. “I would like to thank my parents.”
Meer was visibly caught off guard by the honor, which is given to only one college student in the U.S. each year. “I did not expect the award. I was just told I was going to give a simple speech, that’s it,” he explained. “One thing that really shocked me was the fact that a simple Filipino kid who three years ago went abroad, did not realize that he would be getting an award like this at all. It was a meaningful surprise.”
Meer said that receiving the award made him more motivated to pursue DEI work. When he first started the work as a freshman, he was still unsure if it was the right path (or even what DEI was) — but now he realizes that he does have a purpose in this space.
CCGF leaders clearly agree: “We thank you for your courage, for your leadership, and your willingness to share your story,” said Madison Potts, when she handed the award to Meer. Potts is an equity transformation specialist at Courageous Conversation and a member of the CCGF board. “We are so proud of you,” she said while the summit crowd applauded the humble, vulnerable, enthusiastic and quite surprised Meer. “Keep being you. Keep inspiring this world.”
Maybe Jairus Meer is not quite as lost as he thinks.