An Interview with Kelsey Milian Lopez, the CUNY Peer Leaders Facilitator.

Kelsey Milian Lopez

  • Please give us an introduction of yourself, your background, and your work.

My name is Kelsey Milian Lopez, and I was raised in Miami, Florida. But I am Mexican, Japanese, and Guatemalan, with Indigenous ancestry connected to Aztec, Zapotec, and K’iche Maya. Currently, I am a PhD student at CUNY, getting my degree in Ethnomusicology, which is the study of music and culture. Being a multiethnic, multicultural person, and growing up as a child of immigrants, advocating for diversity, music, and education is central to my work. When I was 15 years old, my mother and I founded a nonprofit music organization called Miami Music Project. That program was a way to provide free music, orchestra instrumentation, and lessons to students, children of the Miami area who could not afford access to private lessons. This project was a grassroots effort after the Miami school board cut the funding for art. The community came together to bridge an educational gap that was created by the actual educational school board. My entire career has been this driving force of trying to provide more music and educational classes to children of different socio-economic classes, immigration statuses, and cultures. At the same time, I’m trying to restructure music curricula to include all types of music and sound.

  • Where does your interest in music come from?

I wanted to be an opera singer when I was five years old. However, most opera singers have had access to private lessons and are from a specific socio-economic class that was not available to me. My brother telling me that I sounded like a chicken when I was five didn’t help either! When I was nine years old, I started to play violin following my brother. Later, my public school started to offer music classes. Now, I play piano, guitar, violin, and some saxophone. So, the drive and passion were there but the actual access to resources was not. And that’s been my entire life goal, to think through how we navigate through lack of access by creativity and trying to break away from the hegemonic idea and meaning of success.

  • What is the CUNY Peer Leader program? What’s your role? 

CUNY Peer Leaders (CPL) is essentially a program that was developed through the Futures Initiative by Cathy N. Davidson, who is our educational advocate. CPL focuses on bringing undergraduate students from all the different CUNY campuses together through a leadership program. We run workshops, facilitate meetings, and lectures where we talk about a range of topics such as professional development, resume building, and how to talk during an interview, and we have conversations around social justice and what’s going on within New York City, particularly in terms of the education system, policy making, bureaucracy, and information on financial literacy and programs. Our students also give us ideas on what their experiences are as being part of public universities in relation to their lives.

We also created a space with Lauren Melendez, the director of the CPL, in which the CUNY undergraduate students can be exposed to higher levels of education. Following a hybrid format, we meet at the Graduate Center every other week and we connect them with graduate students from different PhD programs. The main idea is to provide students with as many resources as possible within the CUNY system itself, and cultural enrichment activities within the city of New York to give them a cultural literacy useful for any career path they choose, to provide space for the leaders to interact with each other within, inter and intra-collegiate. 

I am the CPL facilitator. I help develop and lead the workshops. Through presentations, or activities with the students that involve them, such as body-mind mapping or soundscapes.

  • Can you explain more about the specifics of your body-mind mapping methodology? 

Essentially, one of the big projects that I brought in this past year was the development of body mapping, in which students are able to trace their body through an outline of guiding questions and connect it to ideas on aspirations, feelings, anxieties, pain, pleasure, etc. I also do this practice with my students when I teach social justice at Brooklyn College.

The concept was developed by an indigenous group of Guatemalan women to combat feminization and domestic abuse against women. The conceptualization is called Cuerpo Territorio, which means body territory. Bringing back awareness to our body and the physical land that we’re in. Women talked about their experiences and how it’s intertwined with the ways nature and the environment are also affected, focusing on this connection that they’re actually involved together.[i]

This methodology has been used around the world by researchers to understand how crises or societal issues affect bodies, minds, energies, aspirations, and goals. It’s a form that allows the participant to have so much more autonomy, in the form of talking about what they’re going through in a visual, creative, and aesthetic way.

In our workshops, we start by asking, “How do we identify ourselves?” The first questions are: What is your name? How do you spell it? How do you pronounce it? What kinds of nicknames do you have? Because people have different types of identities attached to different nicknames, and so on; I’ll have some describe it on their body outline. Every person is different in how they interpret or come to an understanding of who they are. Then we ask about their families and their roles in their families. What their dreams and aspirations are, what kinds of heartache and pain they’ve had.

This is an incredible way for them to refocus, and identify their understanding of themselves, their bodies, their minds, and what they might want to pursue or become, in this present moment.

  • How/What are a few aspects of you(rself) that intersect in your work? Such as being a teacher and a graduate student? Ethnomusicology, humanities, and pedagogy? How does your work intersect with your life story? 

My mom was a very creative and crafty person. Growing up with her, I grew a passion for art and creativity. Yet today, that’s how I lead a lot of my ideas with my work. I wanted to become a teacher at a young age, and everything just kept expanding upon music. As an ethnomusicologist, I teach music from around the world—not necessarily pursuing music performance but teaching about music from everywhere. By doing this, I can continue learning. I think the hierarchy that is created within academia can be very isolating and stratifying, and our students are not able to relate to us, seeing us on this pedestal as knowing everything as experts. I see myself always as a student and I try to always reaffirm that with my work and my own teaching, that I’m still learning along with my students. And that probably is the result of being a teacher, and a graduate student at the same time.

  • Can you tell us about your book “The Sociology of a Miami Girl?”

The Sociology of a Miami Girl was really my way of navigating my undergraduate experience. I grew up in Miami which is dominated by Latin American and Caribbean culture. So, I never grew up feeling like I was different. I went to school in South Carolina at a predominantly white institution, and I was maybe one out of five Latina women. I have a love-and-hate relationship with my undergraduate experience, because I learned tremendously but at the same time, I carry a lot of insecurities and trauma from being fetishized and dealing with microaggressions, and racial stereotyping. And as a result of that, I clung to writing poems and poetry. I had been writing songs since I was 16 years old on my piano or my guitar. In college, I decided to focus my poetry on really having conversations about my racial and ethnic identity. I talked about lessons that I learned from my parents on ways to help me navigate racism or discrimination that was going on in my school. I’d talk about language and being a trilingual person and about being a violinist. In my poems, I reflect on navigating the systematic oppression within white institutions, and how children of immigrants have to constantly be working in order to just have space. My poems were a way of paying homage to my own ancestry as an indigenous woman. I didn’t realize it was going to become a book until someday I sent it to a magazine in Los Angeles, and they loved it, they wanted to publish it. They flew me out to do a presentation for it, and I realized, maybe I have something to say. I am a big proponent of representation. Not everybody can represent every single part of their culture or ethnicity, but I do think, especially voices of people of color, and children of immigrants, there’s still a need for more of the stories to be reflected.

  •  CPL is a special program, hosted at a graduate school, supported by a trained counselor and graduate students in a variety of humanities disciplines. In your opinion, what makes CPL special and valuable to students?

It’s definitely what Lauren Melendez, my boss, who is a trained counselor, always says, we try to cultivate a community of care. And I think that is probably the most valuable piece. With Lauren, and my colleague, Jackie Cahill, our team tries to protect and cultivate together. But the most special thing about CPL is that we develop a culture of care that is, I think, much more than support within an academic lens. It’s support for every single member as a human being. And understanding that living in New York City is incredibly difficult. In spite of the city’s overwhelming nature, our students remain connected and passionate about ideas of creating social change in their communities or communities which they want to form relationships with. It’s that culture of care that goes beyond academic motivation. It’s more about remembering our humanity, especially within a space and in a society that sometimes makes you forget that aspect; because you have to pay the bills and you have to survive and you have to work every single day. In the simplest form, we really try to check up on everybody and ask them, if they are okay. Sometimes students are transparent and tell us they are not okay, which aims to cultivate a space where they can feel safe in expressing anything.

  • The CPL program is very diverse, including in its leadership. In your experience, what is the value of BIPOC mentorship?

Our CPL team is incredibly diverse in professional and academic experiences. Lauren Melendez, our director has previous experiences working in the non-academic corporate world, so many of our meet-ups will have a combination of workshops that help students navigate academic and corporate settings. She also applies her social worker experiences to make sure that within our workshop, whenever we have guest speakers, it’s in a range of leadership pursuits and careers. And that’s to indicate that even though we are in an academic setting, the ultimate goal isn’t always to pursue a career in the academic setting. it’s to prepare our students for any opportunity that arises. And, in my experience, that’s very valuable to students too. In terms of BIPOC[ii] mentorship, it goes back to this conversation about how we still do not have enough representation of BIPOC individuals and people in multiple levels of leadership. And I’m one of those people that I won’t rest until we’re all around and this becomes a constant everyday basis. I’m still seeing myself as being the only mixed person in the room. And the only Indigenous person in the room. And it’s important to have these kinds of experiences of mentorship where there are varying levels of so many different types of experiences of the BIPOC community.

This interview was conducted by Mehrnaz Moghaddam.

[i] Cabnal, Lorena. 2020. “Without being consulted: the commodification of our body-land territory” Women Defending the Territory. Experiences of Participation in Latin America. Fondo de Accion Urgente. Fundación Cultural de Artes Gráficas.

[ii] The acronym “BIPOC” refers to “black, indigenous, and other people of color.”