Black History Month campus Opinion

“It’s my dream job”: Darryl Heller on the Civil Rights Heritage Center

By: Mira Costello


   It would be impossible to cover Black History Month at IU South Bend without recognizing the history-makers present on our campus right now. One such integral member of our community is Dr. Darryl Heller, director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center and professor of Women and Gender Studies.

   Dr. Heller was recently honored with the Building Bridges Award, which is presented annually to a student and faculty member, staffer, or alumnus of each IU campus who captures Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘s “spirit, vision and leadership,” according to IU.

   “It was quite a surprise. I think it’s an honor to be thought of in the same footsteps as Dr. King.” he said of receiving the award. “From my perspective, I see Dr. King as someone who wasn’t stuck in one place, but kept growing and developing. I think he spoke truth to power and he lived his principles, regardless of the consequences. That’s what the real honor is.”

   If you haven’t attended the Civil Rights Heritage Center (CRHC) before, you might wonder what was so award-winning about Dr. Heller’s directorship there.

   Most obviously to visitors, the CRHC is a museum telling the story of a real civil rights struggle in South Bend. Not so evident at first glance is that it functions as a place to host anything from IU South Bend classes to community poetry events, from grassroots organizing to guest speaker panels. 

   The Center, Dr. Heller said, is a way to connect the campus community to the broader area.

   “As the director of the CRHC, I see it as IU South Bend’s commitment to real, authentic community engagement – particularly given that the Center is located in the community, and not strictly on campus,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed being able to function as, and make the Center, a real bridge between the university and the broader South Bend community, particularly South Bend’s African American and Latinx communities. It’s been a really interesting, enriching experience to be able to walk in all three of those – the Center, the community, and the campus – at once.”

   Despite his involvement in the city now, Dr. Heller didn’t start in South Bend. In fact, he is originally from South Carolina, and after earning a B.A. in Philosophy from the College of Charleston, he took a gap year that would change his life.

   “I thought I would sit out a year and go to graduate school, then get a Ph.D. in philosophy and become a professor,” he said. “Over the course of that year that I sat out, I worked with an organization in Washington, D.C. that was doing work around homelessness and hunger, and it was just such a profound experience that it was 20 years later before I went back to graduate school.”

   Throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s, Dr. Heller said he spent most of his time on the East coast working with women, children and communities of color affected by HIV and AIDS. He also worked in substance abuse in Boston during one of the first needle exchange programs, which provided sterile needles to IV drug users to prevent infection associated with unclean needles, as well as in case management for homeless shelters.

   Dr. Heller said he is grateful for his experience working directly in communities, and that his mosaic background of both social activism and scholarly training have helped him excel in his career, particularly his position at the Civil Rights Heritage Center.

   “It was kind of a combination of doing direct social work, while simultaneously – as a political activist – challenging the structure that was producing the poverty, the marginalization,” he said. “That work sent me back to school, because I needed to get a Master’s degree at some point to be able to direct the program I wanted to apply for.” 

   Dr. Heller earned that Master’s degree from Columbia University, and soon after, completed his Ph.D. in History at the University of Chicago. Still, what brought him to IU South Bend?

   “I was teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago as a visiting professor, trying to decide whether I was going to stay in Chicago or go back to the East coast, and I saw this job ad that said ‘Director of the IU South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center,’” he said. “And I almost deleted it! It was like, ‘Indiana’? Who wants to live in Indiana?

   “But it seemed like the perfect job for me, because they wanted someone who had the kind of academic, scholarly experience, but also could do community organizing. And I’m perfect for that job, then – I’ve got one foot in the community, one in the academy,” he said. “And it is like my dream job.”

   Students who want to get involved with events at the Civil Rights Heritage Center can visit for upcoming programming. Coming up, the Center will host their recurring Poetry Den on Feb. 27, a panel discussion about the 1619 Project on March 1, and a screening of the film “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” on March 8. 

   Although we might feel more inspired to participate in events like these during Black History Month, Dr. Heller emphasized that we should allow February to mobilize us, not to serve as our isolated annual consideration of Black history and voices. 

   “Continue to teach yourself,” he said. “Challenge the understanding that you were taught. It’s important for students to put themselves in uncomfortable places where they aren’t necessarily the majority.”

   During Black History Month and all year long, Dr. Heller encouraged students to “put [themselves] in the position to learn,” whether that means taking classes, attending events like IU South Bend’s Freedom Summer trip (which Dr. Heller co-hosts), stepping out of their comfort zone or simply looking for the history that may have been hidden from them.

   “[Black History Month] is a good thing, but it means we’re still 11 months short of being fully included,” Dr. Heller said. “We’ve still got 11 months to go.”

Photo // IU website

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