While some people develop lifelong passions for sports, musical instruments or the arts, others develop passions for more selfless acts, such as community service and combatting social justice issues.
KSC sophomore and criminal justice and women’s and gender studies major Ashley Betancourt has done just that.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, both stereotyped as dangerous and high-crime cities, Betancourt has both dealt with and defended the stigma surrounding the places she’s lived, which is where her initial passion for social justice and service work came about.
Compared to the small city of Keene, New Hampshire, Betancourt said Springfield is “very diverse, like 70 percent African American and Latinos,” whereas in Keene, she said, the percentage is less than two percent, according to the United States Census.
“I think growing up, we heard a lot of, ‘We’re the worst city in New England and it’s dangerous,’…It was very normal hearing gun shots down the hill from where I live,” Betancourt said.
Although Springfield is often associated with a negative reputation, Betancourt said people aren’t reminded enough of all the good that happens in the city. Known as “The City of Firsts” and home to the Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield is comprised of many people, like Betancourt, who simply want to make things better.
“Specifically this generation, I think it’s just in us to want to help…so I’ve seen a lot of that [such as] people wanting to help their community and better their community and there’s so much activism that goes on and connecting between different neighborhoods…which I think is great, but people, I think, don’t highlight that,” Betancourt explained.
The biggest social justice issues she tries to fight for are diversity and inclusion, but more specifically, racial equality and women’s rights. “I think some personal experience [has to do with it] and just I am a women of color, so it is personal because I am what I’m fighting for. I’m fighting not only for myself, but for others that identify like myself.”
In order to combat these stereotypes and issues, Betancourt started her own community service group in high school to connect with other community programs and organizations. Whether it was co-sponsoring events, leading nationwide initiatives or organizing a clothing drive, Betancourt’s mission involved helping and connecting with as many people as she could.
One project Betancourt described involved organizing and running a clothing drive to benefit the Salvation Army during the winter holidays, a time commonly associated with giving. She put boxes in every classroom at her school and even went to the local community college’s radio station to spread awareness for the drive all across New England.
However, what got Betancourt directly connected to the community itself was the mayoral campaign she interned for for two years. Through this, she had a mentor who connected her with downtown organizations, city councilmen, politicians and other community organizations in specific neighborhoods, which, she said, allowed her to “build her brand,” so to speak.
“My face was well-known. People may not know who I am, but they know my face, so just going to different community events…[and] it was interning for a campaign that got me more familiar with people, social justice issues, awareness and just different things that go on in the city that I didn’t even know that went on,” Betancourt said.
In addition to being involved in her home community, Betancourt is employed as the Events and Advocacy Coordinator in the Community Service Office on campus, meaning she organizes and implements events on campus to combat different social justice issues. “As I was talking to [Coordinator of Community Service] Jess [Gagne Cloutier] about getting involved and volunteering…the position came up and I loved the idea of being the coordinator because not only did it provide me with a job…but it allowed me to be a feminist and an activist at the same time.”
Among the various events Betancourt has put on this year, one event she explained was facilitating diversity workshops with daycare children at Keene Day Care. She said she read the book, “Same, Same But Different,” by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw, which told the story of two pen pals from America and India who were portrayed as very much the same, but also different in terms of their ways of life.
“Children here might see squirrels on their way to school, but children in India might see horses and cows and roosters and stuff on their way to school. So yeah, we’re the same because we still see animals, but we see different animals and we might look different, but we still do the same things: school, homework [and go] home…so just sharing that with kids and having them at an early age have those thoughts in their head [was beneficial],” Betancourt said.
In addition to the diversity workshop, Betancourt facilitated the Hunger Banquet during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week on campus with the other Events and Advocacy Coordinator Patrick Regan.
Regan said working with Betancourt has been amazing. “She brings her own point of view to everything we do together. While she definitely has social justice issues she is passionate about, she always seems to keep and grow that passion on every project we worked on together…I would be very excited to see what new events and opportunities she will be able to pull off next year.”
Collectively, everything Betancourt does is for a greater purpose and speaks to the giving and caring person she says she is. Helping, she said, has always been ingrained in her. “I just always want to help…and I think some of it is just conditioning from where I grew up, cultural conditioning and then my mom. She’s a very giving person and always helping others, so growing up I saw that and I think I learned from her,” Betancourt said.
It’s the mixture of all these factors, she said, that has molded her into the person she is today.
For the future, Betancourt said she hopes to work with survivors of sexual abuse. “I’m very open to either policy change advocacy, detective, any range, but I do know that that’s the group I want to work with…everything that goes on with women is obviously very close to my heart.”
Jessica Ricard can be contacted at email@example.com