Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

Two Activists Receive Alumni Achievement Award

October 25, 2015

Left to right: Roy Berry holding Alumni Achievement award, Interim President Lisa Lynch, Susan Weildman Schneider holding Alumni Achievement Award, and Perry Traquina, chair of the Board of Trustees
Roy DeBerry ’70, MA’78, PhD’79; Interim President Lisa Lynch; Susan Weidman Schneider ’65; and Perry Traquina ’78, chair of the Board of Trustees

By David E. Nathan

The Brandeis community gathered during Fall Fest to honor a pair of activists – one who grew up in the Jim Crow South, the other raised on the prairie of western Canada – with the highest award the University bestows exclusively on alumni.

Interim President Lisa Lynch presented Alumni Achievement Awards on Oct. 24 to human rights and social justice activist Roy DeBerry ’70, MA’78, PhD’79, and Susan Weidman Schneider ’65, a founding mother of the pioneering Jewish feminist magazine Lilith, before a crowd of students, faculty and alumni at the Faculty Club.

“On behalf of all of us at Brandeis, we thank you for inspiring us,” Lynch told DeBerry and Schneider. “Thank you for all that you have done to change our world and to make it a better place.”

First presented in 1988, the Alumni Achievement Award recognizes alumni who have made distinguished contributions to their professions or chosen fields of endeavor. Past winners include Thomas Friedman ’75, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times; Roderick MacKinnon ’78, Nobel Prize-winning scientist; Marta Kauffman ’78 and David Crane ’79, co-creators of “Friends”; Robert Zimmer ’68, president of the University of Chicago; Deborah Bial ’87, founder of the Posse Foundation college-access initiative; and Jon Landau ’68, music manager and longtime Bruce Springsteen collaborator.

As Brandeis students, DeBerry and Schneider were thrust into an environment that was foreign to them. They each thrived, developing friendships with fellow students that continue to this day, while also finding academic support and inspiration from faculty. They each credit Brandeis with encouraging both their academic and activist pursuits.

DeBerry was a seasoned activist by the time he arrived at Brandeis in the fall of 1965. He had taken part in the civil rights movement in his native Mississippi as a teenager, and brought his commitment to challenging the status quo and dedication to social justice to a campus lacking ethnic, religious and socioeconomic diversity.

“At Brandeis, I wanted to make social justice a concrete reality rather than just a theory,” DeBerry said. “We wanted to operationalize social justice.”

As president of the Brandeis Afro-American Society, DeBerry helped lead the 1969 takeover of Ford Hall by black students dissatisfied with the racial climate on campus. About 70 students staged an 11-day occupation that ultimately led to the establishment of an African-American studies department, the hiring of additional black faculty and the recruitment of more students of color.

“It was not about Roy DeBerry, it was about all of us,” DeBerry said, pointing out, by name, fellow alumni in the crowd who had joined him in the movement to diversify Brandeis.

Schneider recalled sitting in her room in Renfield Hall during Orientation in 1961, and looking out the window to see parents of students wearing blue jeans and loafers and singing protest songs.

“Right away, it was obvious that this was a place with a lot of action,” recalled Schneider, who grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. “Brandeis was a very interesting place to be a female student in the 1960s. We had discussions about circumstances (related to women) that didn’t have a name then.”

An English and American literature major, Schneider praised faculty like fine arts professor Leo Bronstein for preparing her for a career in which she has both advocated for and documented social change.

“I was taught by people who were interested in the ‘back story,’ what was behind the obvious,” she said. “We were given the tools for serious inquiry and were inspired by the role models on the faculty.”

After leaving Brandeis, both DeBerry and Schneider enjoyed distinguished careers.

DeBerry has served as an executive in state and local government and higher education, and is now an adjunct professor of public policy and administration at Jackson State University and an activist in residence at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. He is also executive director of the Hill Country Project, the economic development initiative that he co-founded to create an oral history that documented the civil rights movement in his native Benton County, Miss.

Schneider has served as editor-in-chief of Lilith since its inception in 1976. The award-winning magazine — with the tagline “independent, Jewish and frankly feminist” — examines gender justice issues in Jewish contexts and speaks with a Jewish voice in the general women’s movement. Schneider has written extensively, in Lilith and elsewhere, about ethnic stereotyping, reproductive freedoms and changing patterns of identity. She is the author of two acclaimed books, “Jewish and Female,” about the effects of feminism on Jewish life, and “Intermarriage: The Challenge of Living with Differences between Christians and Jews.”

The Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections at Brandeis recently acquired the Lilith archives. The archives represent a significant research collection and will form the cornerstone of an expanding collections focus on Jewish women and contemporary Jewish feminism. The acquisition of the archives was made possible thanks to a generous donation from Elaine Reuben ’63.