Activism in Graduate School: Our communities can’t wait for the degrees

During my first week in a new state, my advisor invited me to a meeting where policy makers would be sitting in the room. She told me I didn’t have to go, because techincally I didn’t start working for her until the quarter would begin a month later, but I decided what else was I going to do in the rainy city I had just moved to.

We arrived at the meeting and being the observer I am when I first meet people, I  decided to listen. I watched how people talked and dressed. A man walked in late, a man I later found out was a state legislator and began to talk about Latinos and broadly Latino families. He then said something I considered to be a sterotype and reinforces deficit thinking. He said Latino families don’t care about their children’s education. While in my situation personally, my parents never helped me with school, I think anyone making any broad generalization like that from a negative place needs to be checked. I sat in silence for a moment and looked around, was anyone going to say anything? No they were about to move on. I raised my hand and I told him it wasn’t right to make those types of generalizations and how I have worked with many famillies back in California through my jobs working for GEAR UP and Migrant Education and most of the time the parents are working, but they care and you have to look at the different ways in which they do care and contribute. He looked disturbed I said something, my advisor subtly cut me off. I got the hint and I remained silent the rest of the meeting.

We got back to her car. She began to drive and said a comment about the way I dressed. Next she tells me I shouldn’t have said what I said and proceeded to tell me how this man was a state legislator and I said well more reason he shouldn’t have said it. She said “look I was an activist once too, but you’re in graduate school now Irene”. I looked at her in shock and in an instant my bubble was burst. I had wrote in my application about my activism, my experiences organzing from being in M.E.Ch.A to being a member of the autonomous chapter of the Watsonville Brown Berets. Activism is what had brought me back to community college after being kicked out. Activism is what kept reminding me to fight for what mattered most. I wouldn’t be there in graduate school or looking back even been able to finish a Ph.D. program if I had listened to her. I thought to how my adviser picked my appilcation and accepted me to the college because of my activism and how I was about to begin collecting data working with Latina/o parents because it was one of the most challenging aspects of our research project. I thought that she trusted me to figure it out because of my experience as an activist/organizer.

In the car ride that first week in my new city I decided I would remain myself and true to my values, but I wouldn’t talk about it much at school to my peers and especially not to my adviser. I instantly got involved in the city through non-profits and other organizations and one time that first year I slipped saying in front of her that I was talking to local high shcool students presenting ethnic studies in their classrooms to which she told me not to do anything without getting paid. I thought about how in grad school and college in general there is this sentiment to focus on school and wait until you are done to be involved.

“Once I get my _____ degree I will….”

I knew I couldn’t wait. Our communities can’t wait. Our students can’t wait.

I think about this now because I wondered how would any student be inspired if they didn’t see someone that looked like them or shared a similar background or experience accomplish something they want to or showed them how to stay true to yourself and still make it through the education system? I know for me that was what inspired me was to see those who came before me and use formal schooling and these degrees as tools to continue to serve our communities and open doors for those who came next.

I didn’t save the activism then and I don’t do it now as an educator because I am also a Xicana, Mama, Poet and Writer and these times we live in demand we act urgently. In this era that we live in we cannot afford to hold back. What helped me that last year after being a single mother  in graduate school and being isolated was being apart of community and trying to envision and build a more just world to leave my son.

Don’t save the activism for anything even if it’s graduate school.
We have too much to lose as a community if we do.
Me protesting a month before graduation on May 1, 2015 when I guess I should’ve been writing…

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