Humble by nature, Maria Varela ’61 is unlikely to characterize herself as extraordinary. Yet, she is an amazing woman who credits her early involvement with Young Christian Students (YCS) as a springboard into her career as community activist and organizer. She received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1990 for her work promoting culturally sustainable development in poor rural communities, and was one of the 1,000 PeaceWomen who collectively were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. No doubt, Varela is extraordinary. She’s also an Alverno alumna who graduated with a degree in Speech.

Varela’s family moved around often, but Chicago was home when she graduated from high school. “My father really had no plans for us to go to college. It wasn’t until a close family friend died suddenly and left his wife – who had no real marketable skills – with four kids that my father saw things differently,” explained Varela. “It was a revelation for my father and really changed how he saw things. Also, I think it occurred to him that we might find a doctor, dentist or lawyer to marry!”

The family decided on Alverno, which was not too far from Chicago, plus also reasonably priced compared to other colleges in the Midwest. “Alverno, at that time, was really for students whose parents never went to college. There were exceptions, but most of the student body was blue collar in the way we learned, meaning we primarily learned by doing or by example.”

As fate would have it, Alverno also had an YCS chapter, which would be a remarkable coincidence for her path through life.

“My involvement with YCS in high school helped form a critical consciousness and identify what created barriers in the community to Christian love. So that helped me to think differently and not just accept things for what they were. If there had not been YCS at Alverno, I’m not sure what would’ve happened to me in terms of growth that was rooted in the foundation of critical thinking within a social justice or liberation theology.”

At Alverno, Varela joined YCS and, in 1961, was invited to become a college organizer on the national staff. “It was that experience that opened my eyes and gave me the charge to do more.”

Varela explains that it was during a meeting of the National Student Association in 1961 that she met other leaders from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was through those meetings that she fully realized the rumbling of a movement that centered on people’s concerns about racism and poverty.

She was soon asked to move south to work for the SNCC. Assigned to teach literacy in Selma, Ala., Varela realized that existing literacy materials weren’t going to help with her task. “They were written by whites about white life and they were framed in simplistic, childish wording.” So she began to create filmstrips, photo books and other materials that were rooted in black culture and history as tools to assist with teaching literacy and training community leaders.

Varela’s photography talent was evident, so in addition to the creation of literacy materials, she was also asked to document marches through photography.

“All I wanted, I thought, were pictures showing ‘how to’ for the organizing materials. But in the dark room, these ghostly silvery images challenged me to see differently. The end result was a body of photographs: some were immediately useful in books and filmstrips and others, years later, would be included in national and international photo exhibits documenting these times.”

In addition to providing support materials to civil rights organizers, the photos also exposed a new view to many who had never traveled out of the South. One particular filmstrip showed unionizing efforts of farm workers in California, including photographs of Mexican American union organizers and field workers being assaulted by white policemen, then hauled away to jail.

“I showed this filmstrip at a conference of unemployed plantation workers (and) in the audience was an older gentlemen who had worked all his life on a plantation in Tennessee and was now homeless, evicted as a result of his participation in the movement. He rose up and with tears in his eyes said, ‘You don’t know how it feels to know that we are not the only ones.’ It was as though his life’s burden of racism was now shared with other people of color. Racism was no longer only white versus black.”

Varela continued her work with the SNCC, which eventually reached to other movements in the U.S., and, in 1967, was invited to a conference in Chicago to meet the leader of the Southwestern Hispano Land Grant movement. As her work in the Black Belt South was finishing, Varela began thinking about where she wanted to go next and, as a result of an invitation from the leader of the Land Grant movement, would soon settle on a move to New Mexico.

Over the next 30 years, Varela worked diligently to support rural communities in the Southwest who were organizing to create health care, social services and economic development programs for their communities.

“We changed the way health care was planned, delivered and staffed in this isolated region. We created economic development ventures that reconnect traditional cultural and agricultural practices with modern marketing strategies.”

An internationally recognized authority on rural economic development, Varela is co-author of Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities. She has been recognized with numerous awards and was the subject of a Smithsonian magazine article on conflicts between environmentalists and land-based people. Varela has made it a lifelong mission to organize and educate and, still today, serves as an adjunct professor at Colorado College.

Editor’s Note: Maria Varela’s experience documenting the Civil Rights Movement was featured in the book, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. Several of Varela’s quotes included here are taken from the book published by University of Illinois Press, authored by Holsaert, Noonan, Richardson, Robinson, Young and Zellner.

Photo Note: The first Latina to document the civil rights movement in the South, Maria Varela’s photography has been widely exhibited across the country, including the Smithsonian. Some photos featured here are also part of a traveling exhibit, “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement.”