The Street Is Not the Only Place for a Raised Fist
Part V: Being Latino and Working in Education Today
Interview By: R.D. Leyva
Representation matters – but is it enough? At Latinos for Education, we don’t think so. As Latino leaders in education, we often find ourselves in rooms with very few people who look like or share similar life experiences as us. As we break into more senior roles, the number of peers who identify as Latino continues to get smaller.
When we find ourselves in positions of influence, we must ensure we use our voice to advocate for our community and bring other Latino leaders along with us. It’s important for us to lift others as we climb to shift from talking solely about representation of Latino leaders to the collective actions of our work.
Representation and collective action are important tenets for Latinos for Education member, Ricardo Jara, who serves as Special Assistant to the Superintendent for Equity and Innovation at the Madison Metropolitan School District. Ricardo is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and will be working on a project focused on “opportunity youth” – students who dropped out, have far less than needed academic credits to graduate, or are involved with the court system.
In this final installment of our Hispanic Heritage Month Interview Series, we asked Ricardo to share his thoughts about what it means to be a Latino leader in education today.
What does it mean to be Latino and working in education today?
Our severe underrepresentation in classroom and leadership positions, despite our growing representation in the overall student population, means there is still much work to be done to ensure we are seated at the decision tables, no matter where they are, lest we allow those with distorted views of who we are tell our stories, mold our youth, and make decisions on our behalf.
In my role at the Madison Metropolitan School District, a district where students of color represent nearly half of the total student population, I am one of only a handful of Latinos in a district leadership role, and one of only a slightly larger contingent of leaders of color. To be Latino in education, or any person of color for that matter, means we must prepare for this reality, but not accept it. I have an obligation to champion the fight of our community and help make more room at the table for other Latinos and people of color to join the conversation.
“I have an obligation to champion the fight of our community and help make more room at the table for other Latinos and people of color to join the conversation.”
How does your Latino identity impact your approach to leadership?
As a leader, it is important and necessary to unpack my identity as a Latino and person of color to understand it in all of its beauty and messy complexity. In doing so, I acknowledge who I am, who I am not, and how the interplay of both of these “Ricardos” plays out in my identity as a leader.
I am Ricardo with a rolled ‘R’ and Jara with the ‘H’ sound, the proud Latino son of hard working, self-sacrificing Mexican immigrant parents of six, born and raised with the privilege of “frijoles de la olla” on the table every night, hand-me-downs on my back, and the light skin, unbroken English, and papers that allowed me to straddle white and brown worlds with little fear of other-ing or deportation. At the same time, I am not simply a member of the Latino community, but in fact an equally proud member of a greater POC community also. I embrace both communities with a deep love and profound humility. Because of this, I am my brother and sister’s keeper, and I am committed to use whatever privilege I have as Ricardo the leader to serve and defend my communities against whoever, whenever, and wherever. The urgency to do so is far greater in today’s climate, where attacks on our communities are more brazen.
Given the urgency to take action, what is our collective responsibility of Latinos working in education?
Bottom line, our collective responsibility as Latinos working in education is to acknowledge and act on the fact that we do have a responsibility to our Latino and POC communities. Passivity is complicity in this fight. What that action looks like depends on where you stand, but there are several principles we are all responsible for practicing, regardless of your role:
- The Street is Not the Only Place for a Raised Fist: Remember the work to challenge and dismantle the systemic racist barriers that impede our communities is not limited to pounding the pavement and shutting down intersections (though both are incredibly important and necessary). For us to far exceed the progress those that came before us longed for, our fight must come from all fronts. From the classroom to the boardroom, racist curricula and policies will only be challenged and dismantled when we show up to do so.
“From the classroom to the boardroom, racist curricula and policies will only be challenged and dismantled when we show up to do so.”
- Charity vs. Justice: Time and again I’ve heard people from our communidad use a flight safety procedure to analogize the need to take care of oneself before helping others. You know the one: before helping others with their oxygen mask, make sure yours is properly on first. Look, I get it. Self-care is incredibly important to help sustain oneself in a struggle that can be emotionally and physically taxing. And, per my last point, we need folks in positions of power and authority to help move things along. Unfortunately, the reality is that some folks in our community will put that mask on, take several dozen breaths, readjust the straps, and take several dozen more breaths before they do anything to help. What’s worse is when that “help” is superficial – like, “here’s a couple dollars for your (insert program / school / movement name here)” – and does little to address the deeply rooted problems keeping our communities down. As famed organizer and Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Marshall Ganz reminded me, there is a big difference between charity and justice. Of course I’m not suggesting that “gente” who are able and willing to give stop doing so; but for those that are in a position to inflict considerable damage against the racist barriers that stand in our way, and/or are able to bust wide open the doors of opportunity for all of our comunidad – realize that doing so is worth more than whatever you have in your bank account.
- Be ready. Be Willing: If I were to distill the life lessons my parents instilled in me throughout my life down to a core value, it would be this: Always be ready and willing to serve and sacrifice for something that is bigger than you. For my parents, that “something bigger” was my siblings and me. For those of us fighting the good fight in education, that something bigger is the future of our community: our children. The educational organizations I work for and roles I take on, whether inside or outside of the classroom, always served as the vehicles to meet this commitment of service and sacrifice. From livelihoods to relationships, we will all reach a point in this struggle where taking a stand against White supremacy and racism will mean sacrificing a great deal. The important question everyone must wrestle with and ultimately answer is: are you ready and willing to do so?
We encourage you to share this article on social media using the hashtag #HispanicHeritageMonth. This interview is the fourth part of a five-part interview series describing what it means to be Latino and working in education today. Read the previous interviews here: Part I with Dr. Nancy Gutierrez, Part II with Antonio Plascencia Jr., Part III with Omar Yanar and Part IV with Marissa Molina.
R.D. serves as the Program Director at L4E. He leads the talent work to connect L4E members to high-impact roles, professional development opportunities and other Latino leaders across the country. He lives in Washington, DC.