Melody Porter: Helping students branch out for social justice

Melody Porter, Associate Director, Office of Community Engagement at the College of William & MaryFor a word so simple, “Peace” has a habit of attaching itself to special contexts and big ideas. It is just not the kind of word that comes up in everyday communication.

Unless you’re Melody Porter.

Porter is the associate director in the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship at the College of William & Mary. For her, “peace” is as common as “sincerely,” “best wishes” or “warm regards.” She frequently closes her emails with the word, reworking an inaccessible term into one fit for everyday household use.

Porter’s attitude with words is a good reflection of how she treats other big ideas. Porter is taking on change, equality and social justice and making them accessible to students at a grassroots level. Through her work with 26 regional, national and international alternative breaks and her oversight of many local groups, Porter helps students realize that impact is not just for world leaders but for them as well.

“It’s all about helping people see the issues that are very real in many people’s lives and figuring out ways to address them as part of the same community together,” says Porter. “I believe in the power of mutual service to transform lives and create social change.”

Melody Porter (top left) with a Branch Out Regional on a trip to Forest Hill Park in Richmond, Virginia.

Porter sees her calling as “working for social justice in the world, and equipping others to do so with skill, sensitivity and great love.” She says the core of her involvement at William & Mary lies in revealing to people their own interconnectedness.

“Through all of my professional and volunteer experiences, and life in general, I have seen how connected and interdependent people and communities are everywhere,” says Porter. “We are deeply connected and not separate from each other in ways that we act like we are. It’s hard for us to see that we really are—our opportunities, our successes, our hopes—all dependent on the opportunities, the successes and the hopes of others.”


W&M Students for Belize Education constructing an elementary school

Alternative breaks are trips built around a community service component and occur during academic breaks. These service-oriented, hands-on experiences frequently take place in communities very different from those most students are familiar with; most have been affected by poverty and the problems stemming from it. These unique experiences allow students to see issues and the people affected by them up close. That involvement allows students to advocate for change from a new, more informed angle and leaves a lasting impact.

“I think that [the alternative break experience] encourages people to see themselves as a part of the same community,” she says. “It also encourages people to build relationships with people who are affected by certain issues and see how they’re affected personally. That makes the work have more longevity and fire to it.”

Since Porter began working at William & Mary in 2008, the level of passion, energy and dedication she has brought to the programs and student volunteers she oversees has attracted national attention. In 2010 she was honored as Staff Person of the Year by Break Away, an organization that recognizes Porter as one of the influences at the forefront of the service trip and alternative break revolution.

“Melody has not been in her position long at William & Mary, but is having a clear and profound effect on the students she is working with, the peers she works for, the greater campus community, and the national alternative break movement,” said Jill Piacitelli, Break Away’s executive director. “She digs at the foundations of what she is working to build through real listening, intentional adoption of best practices and learning through trying and innovating. She is one of the real stand outs in the alternative break world right now. Many eyes are upon her and the work she’s engaged in.”


Branch Out National 2012: D.C. Early Childhood Education Program

Leaders like Porter with a heart for others and a fire for eradicating social injustice don’t appear on the scene over night. Porter has an extensive history in community service. After graduating with a B.A. in political science and religion she dove right into the world of community development and service as a long-term volunteer in South Africa and Philadelphia. She earned her master’s of divinity degree and continued her work in the areas of social justice and and community development as a associate minister. As a result of her background in public service, she has helped manage and build several programs for undeserved communities.

From her years of work and volunteering, Porter knows first-hand that success doesn’t always come right away. Porter’s motivation is sustained by a philosophical and in some ways theological foundation, and her her supportive environment makes a big difference when things get tough.

“What keeps me motivated is knowing that when I am working for justice that even if I don’t see successes right away that I’m being authentic to the way that I’ve been created to be as a person,” she says. “And when you do this in community, you have the energy of others and I’ve been very lucky to be surrounded by students and colleagues who can pick it up and stoke the fire when I need it to be stoked.”

As her experiences have shaped her, Porter hopes that the alternative breaks and community engagement opportunities will help shape and mold students into leaders who see the world in a more connected way.

“I hope that all of our participants in our alternative breaks will take away some skills and commitment to being an active part of their communities and the broader human community,” Porter said. “That may look like choosing to do things that are harder, or playing less into consumerism and superficiality and instead offering their resources, time and voice to benefiting others—particularly those who are marginalized. And, I believe that as hard as those choices may sometimes be, they will result in a richer, more connected life with lots more happy in it!”

We all the know that the order of changing the world is not an easy one. But for those who think changing the world is too hefty of a task, Porter offers these words:

Credit: Erin Zagursky from

“Most people who have been involved and working with social justice have had some success measured in many different ways,” she says. “I think the point is…we become more human when we try. And part of being human is that it’s hard but it’s also more real and ultimately so much more gratifying.”

Visit her blog at here. To learn more about W&M Branch Out alternative breaks, visit the website here.


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