Representation in Education:
The Unseen Faces and Unheard Voices in the Ed Reform Movement
By: Arlene Sanchez
I was born in Harlem, New York in 1991. I was the first of my siblings to be born a U.S. citizen. More importantly, in a country with a complex history of racism and sexism, I was also born brown and female.
The intersectional parts of my existence forced me to reflect on who and what I was in relationship to the American society I was born into. I quickly learned I, too, was now part of a system that was not built for the progression of people who looked like me and lived in the neighborhoods my parents could afford to live in. As a result, I can confidently argue both systemic oppression and the lack of generational status are at the root of the equity crisis Latinos in America face, both inside and outside our schools.
So, what does race have to do with it?
The mid-1900’s were defined by two large migration patterns, the migration of Blacks from the South to the North, and the influx of Latinos from many corners of the world, particularly from the Caribbean. These communities walked into a society divided along the lines of race, culture and politics for centuries. Jim Crow laws, for example, adversely impacted the quality of schooling children of color received, and the opportunities granted to people of color in higher education and beyond.
The devastating impact of these laws disproportionately influenced the social mobility of people of color in the U.S. and created the “opportunity gap”. This gap is not invisible and it has led to the disparity in access for students and representation of leaders of color in the education reform movement. If you work in a school, you see the opportunity gap in the students that cross the stage in public versus private schools, parent council meetings, the racial makeup of the staff, school and district level leadership, etc.
Representation is important, particularly for Latinx students who have historically lacked access to the same opportunities as their white peers. The 74 reported, “Hispanic students make up about one-quarter of all K-12 students — but less than 10 percent of all teachers, according to data compiled by the Urban Institute last year. Although Hispanic college graduates are becoming teachers at nearly the same rate as white graduates, the numbers have not kept pace with explosive growth in the numbers of Hispanic children.” Additionally, Hispanics lag behind other groups in high school and college graduation rates, which shrinks the pool of potential teachers.” In my years of teaching, I was often one of a few Latinx educators in teaching or administrative positions. This is a problem, particularly in a district like Boston, where 42% of students are Hispanic and 30% are English language learners.
In the nonprofit sector, the statistics are similar. Findings in “Race To Lead”, an initiative of the Building Movement Project, confirms the nonprofit sector is experiencing a racial leadership crisis. The research states “the percentage of people of color in the executive director [or] CEO role has remained under 20% for the last 15 years even as the country becomes more diverse.”
Additionally, the research analyzes results from a national survey that captures the experience of nonprofit employees in their journey to leadership in the sector. They found an increasing racial disparity in the individuals selected to fill positions of power in nonprofit was not due to qualifications or lack of aspirations, but a structural problem that ignores the historical disadvantages of communities of color, and in turn hinders their professional advancement. If this issue go unaddressed, then our educational institutions will never provide students and communities of color, English language learners, adult learners, and immigrant families the opportunity to see themselves in positions of power or trust the individuals making decisions that influence their academic trajectory in this country.
As a woman of color and an educator, I ask myself why aren’t many others who look like me leading educational movements and sitting in the boardrooms making decisions which impact the livelihood of our own people?
Reflections from Aspiring Latinx Leaders
The opportunity gap has manifested into the lack of representation of Latinx educators at all levels. More specifically, our voices have been silenced and are underrepresented in spaces that grant us decision-making power over policies that continue to perpetuate inequality in communities of color. In response to this disparity, organizations and community-based movements nationwide focus on uplifting marginalized voices.
In 2018, I applied for Latinos for Education’s Aspiring Latino Leaders Fellowship, and joined 23 other aspiring Latinx leaders on our journey to seek direction in dismantling the representation crisis. The following statements capture some of the experiences that impacted our ability to navigate our journey through, and into, leadership in education. Each reflection is from a different Latino leader with five to ten years of experience in education.
“I know I have autonomy over my curriculum, the culture in my classes and my impact with my students. However, I do not feel powerful outside of the classroom.” – Latinx teacher
“I have never been surrounded by a leader that shares my lived experience.” – Latinx nonprofit leader
“Challenging the power structures [in the workspace] often results in a feeling of isolation.” – Latinx nonprofit leader
“If you examine the framework of white supremacy in the workplace, you will see norms such as urgency and respecting the ‘written word’ over anything else. [At work], we embody these white supremacist ideals.” – Latinx nonprofit leader
“While my supervisors believe I can take part in other educational leadership opportunities where I could potentially share my voice, I don’t feel like I know enough about our education system to be able to participate in [these] conversations.” – Latinx teacher
“As a woman of color, it sometimes feels like I have to work twice as hard to get the airtime white women innately receive. I often feel as though my ideas are not heard or valued. A white teacher can give a whole professional development session on how to use Whatsapp to connect with Dominican parents more efficiently, an idea I am completely familiar with, but when I make a proposal around diversity and inclusion it gets politely pushed to a back burner.” – Latinx teacher
“There are a million and one things I wish to change, but feel as though I do not have the network, experience, skin color, or vernacular to change them.” – Latinx teacher
Embedded in these interviews were comments about the structures and beliefs which hold us back as Latinx educators in the education reform movement. Whether it is the lack of Latinx representation, culture of an organization, or the self-doubt that has been systematically ingrained in our communities; we need to recognize our power to change a failing system and that applying for roles with decision-making power is only the beginning of what is possible for us and our people.
It has always been our time, but our time is now more than ever.
By 2050, the Latinx population in the United States in expected to double in size, and quite frankly, I do not believe the Latinx community should or can tolerate the wait. Our time is now, more than ever, to take up space and challenge the status quo across institutions. As Fellows at Latinos for Education, we became part of a platform intended to prepare our generation for the Latinx growth spurt that awaits us between now and the next three decades. But in addition to the twenty-four leaders in this fellowship, our Latinx community needs to systematically address the lack of representation and claim our deserved place as leaders in education. We can no longer be unseen faces and unheard voices – or, choose to belittle our own power. That has not taken our people, or our community, very far. The question is, what are you doing to elevate your people and speak your truth to power?
About Arlene Sanchez
Arlene Sanchez grew up attending Boston Public Schools as a child and returned to them as a teacher in 2013. At UP Academy and Gardner Pilot Academy, she focused on using literature to instill confidence and empathy in her students and worked to increase representation of teachers of color in the school system. In 2015, her culturally responsive approach to teaching and her work with Asian American students earned her national attention in Teach For America’s One Day magazine. As a Navigator with EdNavigator, she helps Boston families and students understand the school landscape and achieve their educational goals. Arlene is fluent in Spanish and Cape Verdean Creole and holds a BA in Sociology and Portuguese & Brazilian Studies from Smith College and a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Boston University.