Denise Molina Capers ‘01
Attorney and first director of racial and social justice for the City of Somerville shares her story
“Your greatness is measured by how well you serve your community”
The focus of your career has been on supporting civil rights and equity, diversity and inclusion, and advocacy on so many important issues. In March of 2021, you were hired as the City of Somerville, Massachusetts’s first director of racial and social justice.
Tell us about this role and what you hope to accomplish within it.
It's an absolute honor, as it's the first position of its kind both on the East Coast and in the state of Massachusetts. There are other roles that work with diversity and inclusion, but this particular position is charged with eliminating institutional and structural racism within the
systems of the City of Somerville. A great task, and a collaborative one, because transformative change doesn't happen overnight, and it doesn't happen in isolation. It includes all the stakeholders that will be impacted by the decisions that we ultimately make.
The most important thing for me during these first days in my position is to listen to as many people as possible in the community, whether they are residents, workers, government officials, or police officers. I want to be aware of the history and story behind everything – and also hear every side of that story.
How did you become interested in this type of work and what does it mean to you?
I have a background in education, and I'm an attorney as well, so I decided to go into diversity practice because it was another way for me to serve my community and merge my love for education and helping others empower themselves.
This is actually my life’s work, because since I was little, I've noticed that our communities of color face a lot of inequities, disparities, and barriers. Involvement with a local community center first taught me about activism and advocacy, and as early as the age of seven, I would go to rallies with my parents, such as to prevent gentrification of our Williamsburg, Brooklyn neighborhood. My dad taught me to know my history, the struggles within it, and what it is I have to do to serve my community. And now, it is even more imperative for me because I have a son, and I want to leave this world a bit better for him.
What attracted you to Pace?
I applied to Pace as part of a dream. I felt that I needed a school that was going to challenge me and foster that passion I had for learning, so when they offered me the most scholarship money, it was an easy choice. And, I have to say that my experience was awesome. I forged friendships with my professors, and was really was able to be transparent in the sense that, I was a kid coming from Brooklyn, and I didn't have much money. When I wasn’t able to afford a computer needed for a class, they made it happen, and when campus living expenses exceeded my scholarships, I spoke to various deans, and they listened. I feel super blessed.
As a Dyson student, you majored in both journalism and political science, and later attended Massachusetts School of Law, becoming an attorney. What made you pursue these studies, and would you recommend a double major to students who are considering a law degree?
I felt that journalism would expose me to the world and to differences in cultures and ideologies, and political science would help me interpret, which is what ones does in law school. My focus was first, on what kind of attorney I wanted to be, and secondly, what major would help me develop the skills needed for that job. I did a double major because I was ambitious, but in retrospective, it would have been great to enroll in a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program.
Who has been your inspiration?
My parents built me up to be a person who would not only realize the worth of working hard for something, but also of valuing community, identity, and fighting for the things that matter. Human rights, social justice, anti-racism, those were the things that they instilled in me, and I'm so very grateful. My father was aware of the importance of being in touch with my feelings, culture, and history, and encouraged journaling. My mom would talk to me about the sheer power of being a female, and not allowing people to look down on you. All of that was them building resiliency in me and pride as a Latina woman.
Do you have any advice for our current students?
The voice that I heard very clearly in my head was always my father's voice, which said that, when you wake up in the morning, make sure that you love what you're doing, and that you're serving your community. I believed what my father said to me that I'm going to be great, that I'm going to do something with my life, and that doing something with my life is not about me. It's about what I'm doing for my community. Your greatness is measured by how well you serve your community. Listen to those who tell you about your greatness.