AOCC 10th Anniversary Tribute – Latino Perspective
A Seed of Hope in the Midst of the Latina/o Education Crisis: A Latina/o Perspective on the Alumni of Color Conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
By: Louie F. Rodriguez & Nancy B. Gutierrez
The Alumni of Color Conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) will celebrate its 10th Anniversary in March of 2012. This is a landmark for the HGSE community and something that the founders hoped for when they launched the work in 2003. In fact, the program for the 1st Annual AOCC Conference in 2003, chaired by Dorinda Carter and Louie Rodriguez read, “Through the process, we were challenged about the longevity of this type of conference. Our answer was simply, ‘as long as we are here, this conference will be here.’ The purpose of this conference is to broaden the we base, so that the spirit will inevitably continue.” And today in 2012, the we has certainly broadened, and will continue to thrive for years to come. According to AOCC Founder and HGSE Alumni, Frank Tuitt, the Alumni of Color Conference was born out of a series of “Projects of Hope” that emerged at HGSE in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s to address institutionalized issues of race and class…These transformative spaces provided students of color and their White allies an opportunity to unite around a common agenda and desire to see HGSE transformed into a more inclusive learning environment. AOCC came into existence out of a need to reach out to and engage those who had come before us, and ask for their help and direction.” According to Tuitt, AOCC founders suspected that inviting HGSE Alumni of Color to return to campus and mentor students would create the momentum necessary for change. Tuitt continues, “In the end, what we created together was a glimpse of what an inclusive transformative education could feel like when an institution respects and cares for our souls.” Thus, the first Alumni of Color Conference was born with fourteen students of color sitting around a table, discussing how to proactively create an unforgettable presence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education – one that would directly impact institutional practices, policies and research, and ultimately impact the education sector writ-large.
In fact, the Alumni of Color Conference has long reflected the ongoing struggle for voice, identity, and hope. As Latinas/os who have helped to spearhead and lead this conference, along with our African American, Asian American, Native American, and White Allies, we know first hand that AOCC represents more than just a conference. Indeed, the 1st Annual Alumni of Color Conference represented a catalyzing moment that brought together a group of committed scholars who could support one another, validate each other’s work, and serve as a potential source of social capital. The launch of this conference also demonstrated what was possible when Latinas/os take part in cross-racial collaboration to reach a common goal—to carve out a space where we shaped the agenda in order to feel legitimized and recognized. And those that came before helped set the foundation for what emerged—a conference that would unify current students and alumni of color and perhaps trigger some momentum that would lead us in a movement towards equity and excellence at Harvard and beyond. Our praxis with the Alumni of Color Conference capitalized on Cornel West’s concept of moment-momentum-movement and given that the Alumni of Color Conference celebrated its 10th year anniversary, perhaps we are in the middle of the movement.
In fact, it is powerful to know that today in 2012, two people who are both Latina/o leaders in the education sector, were brought together in a way that the founders had hoped: Louie Rodriguez, AOCC Co-Founder and inaugural Co-Chair and 2003 Co-Chair, and Nancy Gutierrez, 2012 Tri-Chair. Louie and Nancy share similar backgrounds: Both were raised in low-income Latino communities in California and upon graduating from higher education returned to their immediate communities to work directly in the barrio in which they were raised. In this quest, Louie returned to Colton, as an Assistant Professor for California State University, San Bernardino and has focused his work on the dropout crisis facing the Latino community. Nancy returned to East San Jose as a teacher, a school founder, and a turnaround principal for 10 years before becoming a doctoral candidate in the inaugural cohort of the groundbreaking Doctor of Education Leadership (EdLD) program at HGSE.
It is indeed striking that regardless of the similarity and strength that their backgrounds yield, they were unlikely to meet, unless by chance, without the network of the Alumni of Color Conference. As Tuitt shared, this was one of the hopes – the idea that our collective voices would provide the momentum necessary for change. In fact, the Alumni of Color Conference, a title that has been controversial since its inception, convenes a network of people dedicated to issues of race and class in the education sector every year. Participants, supporters, and organizers have honored the original mission and vision of the movement through its name and its ability to address these issues by creating an active space of hope for many and discomfort for some at one of the most regarded universities in the world.
To get involved in AOCC work, HGSE students take very deliberate steps to join the Steering Committee, which requires an immense amount of work and dedication. And once you join AOCC, you become a member of the AOCC network and family forever. The Alumni of Color Conference is an opportunity to create presence and space, as well as a constant reminder of the need to address issues of race and class with the hope that our work at HGSE will create what Robert F. Kennedy referred to as “ripples of hope” across the education sector. To do this, intentional cross-racial, cross-ethnic, and cross-group partnerships and collaborations are important as the only way to collectively impact policy and practices. Patricia Hill-Collins, 2011 AOCC keynote speaker, refers to this as building coalitions of consciousness. In other words, if we want to impact policies and practices at the Harvard Graduate School of Education or in the Latino Community, we need to involve more than Latinos; we need our white allies as well as allies of color who are willing to purposefully and courageously engage in this quest. As Latino leaders of this work, we hope that we are courageous and strategic enough to continue AOCC-type efforts in our schools, communities, and institutions of higher learning in order to build equitable opportunities, access, and outcomes for our nation’s most marginalized groups.
The theme for the Alumni of Color Conference in 2012 is Disrupting the Discourse: Discussing the Undiscussable. In this endeavor, the 10th Anniversary will convene HGSE alumni, current students from throughout the University, practitioners and scholars concerned with issues of race and education as they pertain to all people, and in particular to communities of color. All participants, both practitioners and scholars, in concert with community members and speakers, will have the opportunity to share how they have explored, addressed and faced those “undiscussable” issues of race, class and gender that too frequently impact and limit the educational and career aspirations of America’s students. The gathering will also support speakers and presenters who have bravely addressed issues of equity and justice, such as keynote speaker, Lee Mun Wah, an internationally renowned Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, poet, Asian folkteller, educator, community therapist and master diversity trainer whose newest book, Let’s Get Real –What People of Color Can’t Say & Whites Won’t Ask, along with the film, If These Halls Could Talk, dealing with college students and their perspectives on race and racism, both released in 2011. AOCC 2012 efforts seek to continue the legacy of strengthening and challenging the institution by demonstrating the courage to confront the fears and the willingness to disrupt those traditions that for too long have silenced many voices.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that Latinas/os are not only the largest ethnic minority group in the U.S., but are the youngest and fastest growing group (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Over the last 10 years the U.S. has seen unprecedented population growth across the country and specifically in regions that have historically been void of a significant Latina/o presence. For instance, states in the Midwest and South have seen significant changes in demographics (Pew Hispanic Center, 2010), so much so that Alabama instituted anti-Latino legislation which targets children in public schools and prevents law-abiding immigrants from receiving basic services like water service in their home. The racist and xenophobic policies and practices occurring in Alabama is one indicator of how the demographic transformation of the country is received by certain regions.
The demographic transformation facing the country is no more apparent than in the K-12 public school system. Census data shows that Latina/o children now comprise of 1 in 5 public school children and 1 in 4 kindergartners. And while growing as a population, educational attainment outcomes have not been commensurate. Latinas/os have the highest dropout rates and lowest college going rates compared to all other groups in the U.S. Research shows that Latina/o students attend some of the most over-populated middle and high schools across the country, experience unqualified teachers in the classroom, and face limited opportunities to learn such as accessing a high quality college-preparatory curriculum. As a demographic group, Latina/o adults have the lowest levels of educational attainment directly impacting quality of life issues for this community. For instance, Latinas/os are among those who are least likely to own a home, have health insurance, or own a business.
Thus, it should not be surprising that the Latina/o education crisis has received considerable attention in the education research and policy development (Gandara & Contreras, 2009). It is also within this context that many students enter institutions of influence, such as Harvard, to study and engage in initiatives that can help facilitate deliberate change in these very institutions and in communities that struggle each day.
Role of Shaping and Driving Policies and Practices at HGSE
The work of the Alumni of Color Conference has undoubtedly impacted policies and practices at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In organizing this conference alone, the presence of students of color and issues around race and class in the education sector are amplified. AOCC unquestionably puts our collective voices on the radar as consistent stakeholders whose interest and presence should be considered and given deserved attention by HGSE faculty and administrators when making important decisions such as hiring new faculty, providing tenure, recruiting, accepting new students, and establishing new programs, coursework and areas of study.
Though many factors and groups have contributed to the shift in policies and practices at HGSE and there is no direct correlation between AOCC and the changes HGSE has implemented over the past ten years, we would argue that the Alumni of Color Conference has played a significant role. For example, in 2003, students of color represented 23% of the student body and today embody 31.5%. There is a similar trend for the faculty of color, which has increased from 16.7% to 24.2%, according to the Harvard Faculty Census that tracks women and minorities. In fact, HGSE’s newest program, the Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) degree integrates the fields of education, business, and public policy in visionary ways, offering students access to the vast intellectual and professional resources of HGSE, the Harvard Business School, the Harvard Kennedy School, and the other schools at Harvard. AOCC Tri-Chair Nancy B. Gutierrez is a member of the inaugural cohort where 56% of the astounding 2.6% of the program applicants admitted to the EdLD program are students of color. Other examples include the emergence of the Student of Color Orientation and the Dean’s Advisory Committee in Equity and Diversity (DACED), programs and initiatives brought together and initiated by many groups, like AOCC, whose efforts are specifically focused on addressing issues of race and class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Perhaps even more important is the impact that the Alumni of Color Conference has had on the culture of HGSE. For instance, the conference serves as a yearly barometer check on issues of equity and diversity at HGSE. At each conference, current students have the opportunity to report their challenges and breakthroughs, and alumni have the opportunity to share stories, and provide support and mentorship to current students. The conference also serves as a yearly reminder of the on-the-ground challenges, research, and best practices from alumni that travel from across the country. Alumni of color typically return to communities of color and use AOCC as a platform to inform the HGSE community about issues vital to their respective communities. In a sense, the Alumni of Color Conference almost serves as a 2-day workshop that addresses issues of race, class, gender, power, identity, and voice that is often lacking in HGSE’s curricular offerings. And because the demographic transformation facing the country suggests no indication of slowing down, recognizing and sharing pertinent information with an influential community of scholars proves to be beneficial not only to their intellectual and scholarly focus but also to the communities that many current students endeavor to serve post-degree.
Indeed, the Alumni of Color Conference represents a legacy of resistance, voice, presence, and continuing need to push for diversity and equity. In fact, AOCC is a way to ensure that these issues do not get lost from HGSE’s institutional memory. Thus, all alumni who get connected to AOCC, lead the organizing efforts, or simply attend the conference, serve in an important function to keep the memory and work alive permanently.
The Need for Cross-Racial Collaboration Writ-Large:
The Alumni of Color Conference is quite unique among colleges and universities across the country, particularly in the field of education. As current and former conference chairs, the experience of organizing the conference itself, while intensive, is quite transformative and poises us as scholars, thought-leaders, practitioners, and policy-makers to effectively serve our communities by drawing on this powerful experience.
Another way the conference helps us inform educational and social policy is to help bridge the network of a powerful student and alumni of color community. As we deliberately create opportunities to bridge these two worlds for a weekend during the conference, we pave the way to strengthen the social capital of current students and alumni far beyond the one weekend. For instance, alumni can return to HGSE and share their work about research and advocacy for out-of-school and out-of-work youth. Current students who have interest in the topic may find an ally, a contact, and possibly and future colleague in the field.
Ultimately, the cross-racial nature of the conference essentially trains the conference organizers and attendees to deliberately and strategically work with other communities of color. In a time of economic, social, political, and global crises, the need to collaborate across racial, ethnic, economic, and linguistic lines is vital. Our ability to collaborate with Allies of Color and White Allies “trains” us in ways that we might not experience in classes. We learn group dynamics and development, democratic voice and process, and advocacy for the whole rather than individual groups. Because we are more powerful with a united voice, we leave the conference and HGSE with a set of solid organizing, advocacy, and leadership skills that only benefit our work in our respective communities post-HGSE. In other words, our work as researchers, scholars, practitioners, and organizers in our respective communities position us to advocate for educational and social policy that benefits the Latina/o and other communities of color.