At the side of her deaf immigrant mother, an alumna learned to advocate.
The daughter of a deaf Haitian-American woman, Ashley Odilia Armand (BS ’17) has been an advocate for as long as she can remember, especially for individuals at the margins of society.
Armand’s mother, Junie Armand, left Haiti at 20 years old and arrived in New York not speaking English or American Sign Language. She settled in Boston, where Ashley was born. As Armand grew, she watched her mother endure adversity as a deaf, Black, immigrant woman. “My whole childhood life consisted of [observing] her process of learning a language in a country that was foreign to her and within cultures that didn’t understand her,” she says.
Young Ashley stood at her mother’s side, acting as her interpreter. The pair communicate through lipreading and “home signs”—a gestural communication system often invented spontaneously by deaf and hearing people. “It’s how I learned the importance of language—of listening, understanding, and connecting with others,” she says.
Armand witnessed the tenacity her mother demonstrated while earning two bachelor’s and two master’s degrees despite facing discrimination based on her class, race, and gender. That example inspired Armand’s own educational pursuits and led her into advocacy work. “I vowed to work on issues that support marginalized people,” says Armand.
At BYU Armand studied sociology and served as the Black Student Union vice president, working to create a safe environment for historically marginalized students. “BYU is homogeneous racially, ethnically, politically, and socially,” says Armand. “Thankfully, I had a community of peers who looked like me [and] staff and faculty who supported me and reminded me of my light.”
Upon graduation, Armand began working with the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti as a senior grassroots organizer on Capitol Hill for the nonprofit. She then worked in higher education while earning a master’s in public policy at Northeastern University.
Armand continues to be inspired by her mother, whom she calls “an incredible example of resilience, grit, and grace.” Reliant on lipreading and facial expressions for communication, Junie faced challenges navigating a world with masked faces during COVID lockdowns. And again Armand has provided support.
A mental-health counselor who specializes in art therapy, Junie taught her daughter to paint to cope with challenges and connect with the world. Last year Armand published her insights in a book of art and poetry called Marabou. “The word marabou,” she explains, “means beautiful dark-skinned Black woman.”
“My mother is a marabou,” she says. “She has given me so much.”