Viviana Cordero Garcia, IRT ’15 on Becoming a Social Justice Educator

Life in Color

I see most spaces I walk into in color first. I walk into classrooms, the supermarket, doctor offices and check for representation. I often count the number of Black and Brown folk in the room with me. I examine spaces thoroughly. I ask myself: What are the norms in this space? Have I dressed appropriately? Can I speak Spanish out loud? Do I have to enunciate? Will I have to use my “White English”?

These are some of the questions I was able to unpack and process throughout my master’s program at the University of Maryland College Park (UMD). The Higher Education, Student Affairs and International Education Policy (HESI) program not only challenged me to be more critical of our education systems, but also provided the foundation for my diversity, equity, and inclusion practice. At UMD and through my work at Partners in Print and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on campus, I found the language, read scholars of color, and embraced my social justice educator identity. With the help of my advisor, professors, colleagues-turned-friends, sister scholars, and my Institute for Recruitment of Teachers (IRT) network, I earned a degree that otherwise would not have been possible for me.

On Becoming a Social Justice Educator

Shortly after earning my bachelor’s degree in 2009 from a small private liberal art’s institution, I learned that my college experience and challenges were not unique. My experiences as a Latina immigrant, a first-generation college student from a lower income background and a single parent household, led me on the path to becoming an educator. Growing up in New York City and working at organizations like New Immigrant Community Empowerment, the Posse Foundation and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA), taught me about college access and success, diversifying education spaces, and about some of the major systemic issues in education. The more work I did with underrepresented youth across the country, the more I felt I needed to grow my knowledge in the field. It was obvious that there was work to be done to level the playing field.

Graduate school had not seemed like an option and even when I considered it, it felt too far to reach.

When I was introduced to the IRT in 2015, after a few years of working at education nonprofits, I did not believe I was worthy of such an opportunity but was encouraged by colleagues and family to apply. Many of the feelings I had while in college, of not belonging and being the only Latina in my classes, returned while I wrote my application essays for the IRT. I was about to begin a journey that no one in my Ecuadorian family had ever taken. I spent a few weeks trying to understand and then translate into Spanish what a Master’s degree would do for my professional and personal journey and my family.  The support of my family and my community was unwavering. They knew less than me about a graduate school experience but were surer than I was about me succeeding. And they were right.

Entering UMD’s graduate program in 2016 as an IRT Fellow meant that I was stepping on to a new campus and graduate program with a community of people who believed in me, who believed in the importance of preparing educators of color to build inclusive school spaces across the country. In the IRT Associate’s Program, I gained greater self-awareness and was provided tools that would help me navigate this large research institution. It was inspiring to know I was part of a community of incredible educators who would be teachers, policymakers, change agents, at schools and organizations across the United States. The IRT provided the opportunity of a lifetime for me.

The facilitation skills, the curriculum for writing programs, and the student leadership workshops I developed at Posse and LEDA all informed my studies of equity and inclusion and systems of oppression at UMD. Throughout the two years, I grew more aware of and inspired by our power, strength, and resilience to create change by working toward a vision of justice.

UMD provided the tools I needed to continue this work as a social justice educator at Esperanza Academy, a tuition-free, independent middle school welcoming girls of diverse faiths, races, and cultures from Lawrence, Massachusetts. At Esperanza my role allows me to work with Black and Brown girls from the time they enter middle school to when they are considering career opportunities after completing post-secondary programs. We have conversations about best-fit schools, navigating school resources in high school and beyond, their roles in their families, attending school as a first-generation student, and what it means to be comfortable in their own skin, among other topics. Together with students, faculty and staff, and community partners, we think critically about the inequitable social patterns and institutions around us, analyze forms of oppression, and then prepare to build community to make our relationships and spaces more socially just.

Esperanza is an institution I am proud to be a part of because I am not doing this work alone- and we know social justice work is collaborative at its core. Our leadership team believes that girls from Lawrence deserve a good education, are brilliant and should feel empowered, with the necessary tools, to go into the world to be themselves, happy, and successful.

In many ways, my role as Associate Director of Graduate Support is my best one yet. I am able to use the skills, knowledge, networks, and community empowerment processes that I gained in my previous roles to provide support and celebrate our girls for their community cultural wealth, as described by scholar Tara J. Yosso, through our Graduate Support Program’s 12-year commitment to all girls. Providing socio-emotional and academic support for all our students and graduates is a big responsibility and one I do not take lightly. I am motivated to continue this work by the students themselves and their families. My commitment to creating more inclusive spaces and more positive student experiences has been strengthened throughout this year at Esperanza. It has been strengthened through every conversation, call, text, hug, and through my experience of living and working in Lawrence, a place that, much like my beautiful Jackson Heights in Queens, NY, is full of immigrants, light, resilience, and hope. And, there is nothing more beautiful than being part of a community that perseveres.

For Tara J. Yosso’s article I mention:
Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity & Education, 8(1), 69–91.

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