Raised in the city of Pomona, April Mayes ’94 P’26, associate dean of the College, professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies, developed a strong passion for the liberal arts early in her life. After being admitted to Pomona College, she became involved with precursors to the Draper Center, even organizing one of the earliest, if not the first, Alternabreaks at Pomona with a chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Mayes went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Michigan before returning to Pomona College, where her research and teaching focus on the Dominican Republic. As an alumna and current Sagehen parent, she has seen the College evolve throughout the years. Mayes is now playing a leading role in the Winter Campaign for Pomona's Annual Fund, so we wanted to get to know her, hear about her involvement with the Draper Center—one of the many programs supported by the Annual Fund—and learn why she's championing the Pass the Torch campaign.
Where did you grow up and go to school? What were your interests?
I was born in Southern California and grew up in the city of Pomona. I was always interested in the arts—performing, singing—from the time I was little. My experience attending an all-girls Catholic high school was really transformative in my life, both in terms of my artistic and intellectual trajectories. And without knowing what it was, it also honed my interest in a liberal arts education. In high school you take a little bit of everything, but I found my strengths to be English, history and the humanities—in addition to theater and performing arts. Being at an all-girls institution was also very fundamental in preparing me for college in multiple ways. It was the curriculum and my intellectual development, but also my social and emotional development.
How did you become interested in Latin American and Afro Latin American history and women’s and gender studies?
First was my interest in history. It was really a high school history teacher I’d had for AP U.S. history. The summer before my junior year, he assigned us an arms-length list of books. I made great use of the Pomona Public Library and read Richard Hofstadter, John Hope Franklin, Alexis de Tocqueville…and that piqued my interest. Then one day after class, I said something in a conversation and the teacher just pointed his finger at me and said, “But April, you are a product of history.” When he said that, and through his class, I began to see history shaping my life in more direct ways. And what turned me on to Latin American and Afro Latin American history was the family history I began to uncover and tap into because I was being taken to those places as a child to be with and connect to my relations—back east and to Mexico and to the Caribbean.
For gender and women’s studies, I was a very early feminist even as I was going to an all-girls Catholic high school. And I will say I credit attending a girls’ Catholic high school for my feminism. I had a really tight circle of friends, all of us coming of age in the eighties, coming through the conservative politics of the Reagan era, but then also the onset of HIV/AIDS in our communities. Reproductive rights were just right in front of our faces all the time. And we were confronted with that, and we marched and volunteered to make sure that clinics stayed open. We were organizing with NOW (National Organization for Women), and we were doing all sorts of activist things. So it just made sense, again, to examine questions like, Why are we here in this moment? Who's not here and why? What forces are changing the conversation and the world? What are the various interests of different groups of people involved in processes of change? All of those were the historical questions running through my head.
How did you end up attending Pomona College? What was your experience as a student?
Even when you grow up in this area, you don’t know a lot about The Claremont Colleges. How I got to Pomona was a combination of various interventions. I grew up with a next-door neighbor, Dr. Agnes Jackson, who taught at Pitzer and was the first Black tenure-track professor there and the second Black full professor at The Colleges. Auntie Agnes was probably whispering in my mother’s ear that if I chose Claremont, it would be fine. My mother, a nurse, worked at Pomona Valley Hospital and reported to a registered nurse, Evelyn, who just happened to be a 1960s graduate of Pomona, a history major. I remember explaining to my mom that I might be interested in being a history major and going to Pomona. She was very unsure about that, but Evelyn told her, “She’ll be fine.” It was those kinds of interventions that made it okay.
But, really, Pomona found me, honestly, and I am absolutely a beneficiary of the affirming actions of paying attention to talent where you may not normally look. At that time, the Admissions Office had initiated a diversity agenda in which they looked locally for potential applicants. They selected the top 10 students from a geographic radius that included the city of Pomona. We all came to campus, visited classes and spent the night on the floors of current students, who welcomed us into their dorms. At the end, they gave us admissions forms. I filled mine out and checked the box for early decision, not really sure what it meant but figuring at least I’d know earlier rather than later whether I got in. I was admitted, and I was here from the fall of 1990 until I graduated in May of 1994.
How did you get involved with the Draper Center?
While I was student at Pomona, there was a lot of interest in organizing students for what we then called volunteer work, and now call community partnership. We did not have a Draper Center, though one of our Draper programs, Pomona Partners, actually started while I was a student. It’s now the longest running program organized by Pomona students, and it started simply as a way to connect college students to the community through tutoring high school students from the city of Pomona. Community engagement happened through the McAlister Center, Hillel, which helped organize volunteer work, and, eventually with Coach Thomas Motts. And I may want to take credit for perhaps organizing one of the earliest Alternabreaks on campus. My sophomore year, a group of us founded a college chapter of Habitat for Humanity at Claremont. That spring break, we went to Tijuana to build houses, and it was a memorable experience. McAlister and Hillel were really pivotal in helping us get that trip organized.
So where does the Draper Center really start? The Draper Center really builds on a long history of student engagement with community through volunteer work and campus activism. And then, combined with growing faculty interest, especially in disciplines such as Africana studies, Chicano Latino studies, Asian-American studies, gender, women’s studies…they are all founded with that interface between intellectual work, engagement and community accountability.
I got involved in the Draper Center because, as a faculty member, it was where the conversation of volunteerism, community partnering and community engagement that began for me as a student was taking place. As a scholar trained in and connected to the discipline of Africana studies and Chicana and Latina studies, this is what we do. This is a foundational pillar of our disciplines.
What makes the Draper Center a unique and important part of Pomona College?
Draper was the place where, as a faculty member, I was coming into contact with students I wasn’t going to have in my classes. It kept me connected to what’s happening in their lives and to their concerns. One of their concerns being, we’re here in this space and we’re learning all these things academically, theoretically, and intellectually. How do we make that connect back to the communities we care about, whether those communities are on campus or back home? To be part of that conversation is what I wanted to do. And the impact has just been incredible.
Our Pomona Academy for Youth Success (PAYS) is also a wonderful thing that Pomona does with the community. High school students come to our campus for four weeks in the summer, they’re taught by college professors, they engage in research on campus and they live on campus. They have a transformative experience, and that is another area where Ranney Draper’s vision and contributions make a real impact. Through PAYS and through the other programming that we do at the Draper Center, we are absolutely transforming the lives of not only students in Claremont but students throughout Southern California who come through our programs.
Most recently, Draper has opened an office in the city of Pomona, my hometown, in the center of the arts district. We have become an important, safe space for students from the nearby School of Arts and Enterprise. This is not just giving back, either. Leaving the city of Pomona for Claremont made it possible for the college to survive its difficult first years. Returning to Pomona is an act of historical accountability to the communities whose labors and lands resourced the college then and continue to do so today.
What does Passing the Torch and philanthropic support of Pomona College mean to you?
I’m inside it. This is my water and my air. This is change. Pomona College is the greatest experiment in pluralistic democracy. And in this country, Pomona is where it’s happening. You want to figure out what the future is and how we get there? This is a place where we are doing that work. If you think that is a hopeful route for where you want this country to go, then we have to support these institutions that make it possible for people to live that experiment so that they can take it to their communities and pay it forward. We support this so that we can figure out how we’re going to live together and that we have to live together.