I appreciate the opportunity to be asked to participate in Diverse’s “The Academy Speaks” blog series but I have to admit that I am hesitant about what I have to offer. As a first generation student and now scholar of color, I still see myself as someone with one tentative foot in the academy, while the other is settled firmly somewhere else. So to be designated as someone who “speaks” for the academy unearths a tentative spot within me.
I am flattered to be asked to participate in this blog series because I care deeply about issues of diversity, the impact of the election on our lives, and the other institutional impacts that are faced by myself and others as we seek to bring ourselves and those around us forward in struggles for respect, equality, and strong futures. I look forward to the possibility of engaging in online dialogues with colleagues on these issues.
At the same time that I see these larger issues, I do not struggle to remind myself of their meaning in my daily life, especially as I have spent so much time reflecting on the basics of access and survival.
One Monday evening last spring, I was a career day speaker at Mount San Antonio Community College for the adult and continuing education program. I stood in front of 20 young students of color. Mainly male, mostly Latino, all drop outs or push outs from the public K-12 system.
During my 30 minutes to speak to the group, I spoke about my commitment to social justice, which manifests itself through action research that helps low income students and students of color to getting college. And then the big question came: “who has the worst chances of going to college?” Though I wish it wasn’t phrased that way, I explained that statistics such as those by Excelencia in Education and NCES suggested that African American and Latino males were proportionally the least represented. I was passing this “insight” onto a room full of mainly Latino males who instantly became embarrassed, defensive, or displayed some combination of both responses. A few students shared their thoughts, which often included a reference to someone else judging them, judging their social backgrounds, making inferences based on their appearances, including fashion choices and skin color.
As the guest speaker, who had known these students for about 20 minutes, I knew that moving onto some sort of motivational speech at that point would have been false and meaningless. Instead, I asked the young men themselves to tell me why they were different, and reminded them to think about what they internally possessed to make sure that they would be different. When the session was over, I had a one-on-one discussion with a young Latino named Joey. He is tenacious, strong, and has, to date, escaped his narcotic past. I left that meeting exhausted but with a real sense of hope that some of the students from this class, students with capabilities and drive like Joey’s, will change the statistics about ethnic male participation in postsecondary education.
The euphoria continued for a little under 12 hours. Early Tuesday morning, around 2:45 am, a different young Latino was arrested about two feet from the end of my driveway. While I still don’t know all of the details, I do know that he was stabbed, bleeding, and arrested, though also provided medical treatment.
My house and block were marked off with yellow police tape and detectives roamed our block taking statements, while investigators marked the fresh blood stains that trailed up and down the street. Being in the middle of a crime scene, even if only an absolute bystander, really impacted the rest of my day. I was late for my first meeting with an Associate Dean. Something had happened to me that I couldn’t stop wondering about. The parallels between the hope I had experienced just the night before with the males I met created a sharp contrast to the reality that was overtaking my low-income, ethnic, urban neighborhood. Should I explain to her that I have chosen to live in the neighborhood where I grow up and that this is the 2nd crime that has taken place at the end of my driveway in the last six months? Would she understand what that meant? How would this change how she might think about me as an academic? How does this change that way that you as a reader are thinking about me and my community choices right now?
The same defensiveness, need for compensation, or just plain second guessing myself in confiding in Associate Dean was part of me, just as it was part of the coping mechanism of the young men I spoke to just the day before. The connections made here are not meant to be melodramatic. Instead, they are drawn to meet two goals. First, they help you as the reader understand my voice as a purposefully bi-cultural academic. Second, they call into question that numerous mental and social privileges that affect K-12 schooling, safety, and postsecondary access. I have a PhD and yet my background and current choices make me question may place in the academy. What must it be like for the Black and Latino males who have much less entrée in postsecondary education? They are more likely to be able to discern the role of yellow police tape than they are able to explain the role and function of an Associate Dean. Where are the disconnects, where are the opportunities for learning, and how can we bridge the two in a meaningful way?
Dr. Kristan M. Venegas is an assistant professor, director of Masters Programs and a research associate at the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.