Journey of a Humanitarian

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By Casey Amaral.
By Casey Amaral.

After Dr. Herman Blake founded Oakes College in 1972, he worked with Cowell Provost Page Smith to create a program that sends students to serve in low-income communities across the country. One of his students was placed on a service trip in South Carolina, and soon found himself stranded on a dock on Daufuskie Island with no place to stay for a week. He had no money and no way to contact the trip coordinators due to a miscommunication with the host family.

Standing in the shadow of McHenry Library — the heart of UC Santa Cruz — Blake recounted this moment through the lens of humanities on Sept. 26 during the university’s Founder’s Day celebration.

“A resident of that island — who knew nothing about this student, and knew nothing about the arrangements — invited him to her home, where he stayed for a week until his host family returned,” Blake said to the crowd.

When Blake visited the island a few weeks later, he attempted to compensate the woman for housing and feeding the student. She adamantly refused.

He asked her why she refused reimbursement for the student’s room and board, and after a few curt responses, she eventually replied that she saw a “mother’s son stranded on that dock.”

“Here she is, a stranger, and she finds a stranger on the dock,” Blake said. “But she isn’t a stranger seeing a stranger, she saw a mother’s son. She did not see what he thought he was, or what we may  described, she saw a mother’s son.”

In his speech “My Unique Journey: The Learning Never Ends,” Blake called these opportunities “transformative for the community and for the students.” His values of humanitarian and service work outside of the classroom to involve other communities reflected in the program founded by himself and Smith.

“I wanted to stress the opportunity to combine extraordinarily different circumstances into a common community of understanding where the human qualities transcended and transformed the differences. That’s what was going on.”

Brenda Whitley, a Santa Cruz county native who went to Santa Cruz High School, attended Blake’s speech and remembered the impact he had on students beyond UCSC. He coordinated UCSC students to tutor the high school students who were part of the Black Student Union.

“He was a black professor, and I had never seen a black person in academics growing up here in Santa Cruz county, so for me it was important,” Whitley said.

Blake explained how the careful understanding of cultures and people could answer some of our most difficult questions. He used the example of the Charleston Emanuel AME Church welcoming a man into their Bible study group, who eventually drew a weapon and killed nine people last June. Two days later, “the relatives of those killed stunned the world again,” by confronting the assassin and forgiving him for his actions.

“Forgiveness on the heels of cold blooded assassination,” Blake said.

He found himself asking people across the country why the congregation welcomed the perpetrator into their presence, and then why they decided to forgive him. Blake found an answer in South Carolina with the woman who opened her home to the stranded student.

“In that instant of recognition, [the woman on Daufuskie Island] made the transformative act of human identity,” Blake said, “Her recognition transformed race, nationality, and any other identification. She knew that regardless of social circumstance, any mother anywhere in the world would not want her child abandoned on a dock with no ability to make a telephone call or find a place to lay his head.”

This practice of studying culture can be applied to other circumstances to explain the reasoning behind people’s actions, like the congregation in Charleston or the woman on the dock, Blake emphasized in the end of his speech. “Forgiveness and reconciliation in these communities was much more likely than retaliation and revenge.”

After listening to Blake, Leticia Mendoza, who graduated from UCSC in 1984, remembered Blake as the reason she stayed in school.

“He lit up various candles, and because of him there are lights in different places now,” she said in reference to Blake’s ability to impart his knowledge to others. “I am able to do the job I do now where I am working with youth. I can see lights there. I can see kids learning and getting to do other things. I’m following his path — so in a way, by him working with us, he’s helping us continue with his legacy.”

Dr. Herman Blake addresses a crowd outside McHenry Library. By Casey Amaral.
Dr. Herman Blake addresses a crowd outside McHenry Library. By Casey Amaral.

Q&A with Dr. Herman Blake

By Montse Reyes

City on a Hill Press: Your talk is about learning and education, so I’m curious to hear about your own personal journey in education. What made you want to go to college?

Herman Blake: When you think about my earlier life, college was not a part of our consideration and what got me motivated to got to college was two things. One was my experience in the military in France, which opened my mind to new experiences and secondly, I had the resource available from the GI Bill which was available to me after I got out of the military. So it was the combination of new vision and resources.

CHP: What do you mean by that new vision? What did you see or experience in France?

HB: I just experienced other families, other cultures, other ideas which expanded my own sense of what the world could be.

CHP: Was it the same sentiment that motivated you to then go on to get your masters and your Ph.D. and continue on in academia?

HB: No, I went for the Ph.D. because I was excited about learning.

CHP:  How can higher education function as a tool for people from underrepresented communities?

HB: Well, first of all I would have problems with your language. I would not see higher education as a tool, that is a concept I have difficulty with. I would see higher education in terms of expanding the mind, expanding opportunity for personal growth and what I think should happen is we should make every effort to build a stronger educational foundation at the earliest age possible but at the same time open the widest range of opportunity at every level of education. So I am in favor of high quality and high expectations in education but at every level, from elementary school on up.

CHP: At UCSC, the make up between students from different demographics is disproportionate. Some students of color don’t see a place for themselves at the university and I’m wondering what your perspective is on that. What might you say to a student who is apprehensive about attending a university where they do not see themselves reflected?

HB: Well, I don’t know about what’s going in universities on the west coast but we have to create environments that welcome students and motivate them toward high expectations. It seems to me that we have to figure out ways to reach them on a personal level so that they recognize that education expands opportunity. It involves risk, but it expands opportunity.  When I was in Santa Cruz, we brought in students and some would have said that they didn’t see themselves there, but they had to make the adjustment to understanding that they belonged there.

CHP: When you were at UCSC, how did you help foster a space where students felt like they belonged? What techniques did you use?

HB: First of all let me say that when I came to Santa Cruz my first year, there there were only two African Americans on campus. But, the faculty from the Chancellor on down, it seems to me, made those students feel like they were welcome and they belonged. What I’m trying to say to you is that it wasn’t a question of seeing somebody who looked like you but experiencing somebody who made you feel welcome. Now, understand that the experience of education, in my opinion, often creates a sense of internal tensions as one struggles with what one knows and one must learn. All of us do this, it’s not related to race or ethnicity but within the struggle.  Chancellor McHenry and the faculty really did reach out and welcome people. That was important.

So when I got there I just did the same thing. Sometimes it’s a just a matter of learning a student’s name and making sure they understood you knew they were there.

I want to tell you, I don’t know what the faculty is like now, but 50 years ago that was — and in my opinion still is — an extraordinary faculty … it didn’t matter where a student ended up, they ended up feeling they were dealing with someone who respected them and wanted them to be there.

*Interview edited for brevity and clarity.