Maria McLeod: Building Bridges and Telling Stories

When Maria McLeod was growing up in a small town of a few thousand people about 50 miles north of Detroit, she remembers realizing that where she lived didn’t look a whole lot like the big city to the south.

“My hometown was pretty much as homogenous as you could get,” said McLeod, an assistant professor of Journalism at Western and one of the facilitators of this year’s Campus Equity and Inclusions Forums that will be held throughout the school year. “There was real pressure to conform, to fit in, and to not stand out. As much as I look back on my hometown now with nostalgia and a lot of love, when the time came, I knew I was going to do whatever it took to get the heck out of there and see more of the world.”

Being the kid often called “weird” by her classmates for adopting a dress code outside the norm, or being interested in peoples and cultures beyond the immediate horizon of her small Michigan town never fazed McLeod – in fact, she said never backed away from it.

“It meant that I was different – something I was striving and struggling to be anyway,” she said.

The more of the world she saw, the more she wanted to write down or record in some way the new sights, sounds, and people she interacted with – and then tell others to see if these revelations affected them the same way they affected her.

While getting her PR degree as an undergrad first-generation college student at Eastern Michigan University, she had another opportunity to buck the tide; her roommate, the president of the school’s Native American Indian Students organization, took up the cause to change the school’s mascot – the Hurons – a challenge McLeod eagerly joined. 

“You’d go to a football game and people would be imitating hatchet chopping, and letting loose these war cries ... and my roommate had just had enough,” she said.

The effort to change the mascot was at times bitter and acrimonious, but in 1991, much to the dismay of some alumni and students, the Hurons became the Eagles. The efforts of McLeod’s roommate and her peers became the first “big thing” McLeod looked at through the lens of “what can I learn from them by telling their story,” and this was a pattern that would continue as she made her way to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue her master’s degree.

“I was given the choice to either be a student teacher or an academic advisor. I had already done some teaching and I wanted something new, so I took the advising option, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said.

While talking to about 200 students a year, she began to hear their stories in more depth than she would in class, and patterns began to emerge.

Marginalized students, those who were “different” – often felt like they had no voice in the classroom or on campus as a whole. As she talked to more of them, trying to get them to engage in a process that they felt left them on the outside looking in, she again realized that an opportunity was there to tell their stories.

When a small group of the college’s academic advisors were tasked with creating a textbook for the University’s freshman orientation classes, McLeod volunteered to write the chapter on diversity.

“I knew immediately this was going to be about those students, about telling others about how they felt, using their words, because they needed to be heard,” she said. The monologues she wrote from dozens of student interviews became the text of the chapter.

Years later, after a career in the public and private sectors with a body of work still devoted almost wholly to teaching or telling the stories of outsiders-looking-in through film, stories, and performances, McLeod came to Western in 2012 to teach alongside her husband, Steve Howie, in the Journalism Department.

Determined to still live by the mantra that a more diverse classroom is a better classroom, she applied for and received Western’s Thaddeus Spratlen and Lois Price-Spratlen Inclusion and Diversity Grant, which allowed her to focus on a new, special project that eventually became “First Person: Diverse Student Stories,” a new play in the words of Western students staged last fall in the Peforrming Arts Center.

Directed by alum Karee Wardrop, and written by McLeod, “First Person” is a collection of seven monologues about students told through the perspective of students of color, differing abilities, ages, ethnicities, and gender identities. The monologues were derived from interviews conducted by McLeod and performed by student actors, community members, and one visiting actor from Detroit.

“Karee and the cast did such an incredible job with it. Seeing it performed was just mind blowing, and those monologues resonate on stage in a way they never could if it was just me writing them and you reading them on paper,” she said.

“The whole purpose behind the play was to use these seven incredible students and what they had to say to start community conversations. To have one person try and process and understand the different experiences of another. It’s just like in the classroom – we’ve got to take these collective points of fear and unknowing, and let the conversations happen,” she said.

McLeod said she will be taking that same approach to working in the Equity and Inclusion Workshops she will help facilitate this winter.

“Learning how stereotypes and initial assessments of others are so often wrong is just as valuable a learning moment as anything I could teach in a classroom,” she said. “And that’s where we’re going to start.”


Note: This is the second of four articles in Western Today about the upcoming Campus Equity & Inclusion Forum series; a new article will be published each week in October in support of Equity & Inclusion Month at Western. Seminars, workshops and offerings from the forum facilitators will run throughout the school year. This year’s Campus Equity and Inclusion Month will kick off from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, on Oct. 20, in Miller Hall 138 with the keynote by Xicana writer, activist, poet and playwright Cherríe Moraga, a faculty member in Stanford University’s Department of Drama and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Moraga’s visit is sponsored by the Associated Students’ Social Issues Resource Center, the Ethnic Student Center and Western’s Education and Social Justice program.​ For a full list of all 15 E&I workshop opportunities, click here or go to