Let’s Start a “Courageous Conversation”

Book cover for "Courageous Conversations About Race" (courtesy of Google Books)
Book cover for “Courageous Conversations About Race”
(courtesy of Google Books)

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a kindergarten classroom at a school on the east side. I was able to see an excellent teacher at work. Just holding the attention of energetic five-year-olds seemed like a tall order. The teacher was engaging and positive as she led the students through a math exercise. Some kids were attentive, others were restless, and most were somewhere in between. What impressed me most was that the teacher worked hard to involve each student.

I witnessed the teacher practicing what educational equity experts call “meeting students where they are.” In other words, the teacher didn’t expect every student to be the same and she made adjustments for each student’s strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, as an education blogger and former school trustee, I’ve heard many other teachers express frustration that students don’t come to school ready to learn.

So what does “ready to learn” mean? Essentially, it describes the model student: conscientious, organized, and prepared to learn every day. This must start at home, the argument goes. With that reasoning, some educators believe that high academic achievement could become a reality because the school system would be able to do what it is designed to do: teach.

Unfortunately, that’s just not real life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone was conscientious, organized, and prepared? That would eliminate most of the world’s problems for sure. The reality is that students, like all people, come in all colors, cultures, sizes, intellectual abilities, and social classes. Despite this diversity, every student can succeed if school systems truly understood and accepted that everyone is different.

In their insightful book about equity in education, Courageous Conversations About Race, Glenn E. Singleton and Curtis Linton use meticulous research to demonstrate that society, school systems, education leaders, and classroom teachers more times than not prejudge students based on race, cultural background, and socio-economic status. This results in practices that marginalize students of color and sets them on a course that discourages a future college education.

All too often the school system and educators dismiss kids of color with the cop-out that “college isn’t for everyone.” In response to my post last week, several readers shared with me their own experiences with this discouraging phrase (click on https://esereport.com/2014/03/17/college-can-change-your-life/ to read last week’s blog). One reader recounted how her son’s high school counselor encouraged him to be a truck driver because he could make good money without a college education.

In his 2009 report on closing the achievement gap, former California State Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell recognized this problem and recommended culturally relevant professional development as a solution (click on http://svefoundation.org/svefoundation/files/p16_ctag_report.pdf to read Superintendent O’Connell’s report). Unfortunately, few school districts have attempted to develop a comprehensive and systematic approach to implement this recommendation.

Why is this? To even start thinking about implementing a culturally relevant professional development program, school systems must first acknowledge that racial and cultural bias actually exists.  Singleton and Linton write that talking about these biases is “a difficult conversation, one that clearly troubles educators and can make everyone downright uncomfortable.” It’s hard for good people to believe that they hold such biases.

One would think that in a place as diverse as Silicon Valley, having this conversation would be easy. But it’s not. I’ve discussed this issue with several superintendents who have implemented equity and culturally relevant professional development programs in their districts. In those initiatives, teachers, staff, and the school communities were skeptical and resistant to even begin the conversation. Although long-term relationships were tested and challenged, the end results for students were good.

School leaders may be reluctant to venture into the wilderness of starting that difficult conversation.  It will take conviction, courage, and commitment. Nevertheless, we need to have these discussions as a community for us to ensure that all students have an opportunity to achieve and succeed.

So, I suggest that we support our education leaders and start a “courageous conversation” right here on East Side Eddie Report.com. I want to hear about your experiences with racial and cultural bias as a student, parent, teacher, school administrator and how it impacted your decision to continue (or not continue) a higher education? If you don’t feel comfortable posting publicly, but want to share your story, please feel free to e-mail me confidentially at eddie.m.garcia@comcast.net.

Let’s be bold and start talking!

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Eddie is available to speak at your next event or conference.  To learn more about speaking services click on the “Speaking Engagement” tab under the banner on this page.

To schedule Eddie for your next breakfast, luncheon, or dinner event, e-mail eddie.m.garcia@comcast.net, or call 408-426-7698.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 2 (excerpt #14)

Written on the back of the photo is, "Sandy 5th Grade" (Peralta Family Photo)
Written on the back of this photo is, “Sandy 5th Grade”
(Peralta Family Photo)

It was during those long phone calls between our first and second date that I got to know Sandra very well.  She was born Sandra Faustina Peralta on September 30, 1966, at Doctors Hospital just west of downtown San Jose, the second of four daughters born to Fausto and Connie Peralta, a construction worker and cannery worker.  She was a cute baby with big brown eyes, chubby cheeks, and puffy arms and legs that looked like they were tapered at the joints with rubber bands like a cute Michelin Man from the tire company’s commercials.

As she grew up, Sandra was obedient, studious, and cheerful.  In elementary school, she helped in the school library, cafeteria, and could always be found at recess time helping a teacher with some odd job in the classroom. Beneath the exterior of the model student and obedient daughter was a girl who had tremendous strength of character and unflinching determination.  According to her mom, even as a toddler, “Sandra knew what she wanted to do and was confident she could do it.”

The family next door had a daughter the same age that constantly competed with Sandra in the classroom and with extracurricular activities.  Only once did Sandra let the pressure of that competition get the best of her when in a fit of anger she called the other little girl a bitch, and abruptly went home to confess to her mom, express remorse, and return to apologize.  This incident accurately describes Sandra’s dual qualities of toughness and compassion.

Sandra went on to excel in school earning good grades, playing clarinet in the award winning high school marching band, participating in after school activities, and eventually getting elected student body president her senior year at Silver Creek High School in east San Jose.  After two years of community college she enrolled at San Jose State University to begin a journey that would lead to her career as an educational administrator.

Sandra’s success can be attributed to her spirit, personality, and the unconditional support from her family.  Her parents, Fausto and Connie Peralta, are the personification of the American Dream.  Born in the village of Cumpas, Sonora, Mexico in 1938, Fausto was raised by aunts and uncles because his father Mariano died as a young man; and his mother Concepción left him, and his sister and brothers in the care of relatives to go to the United States in search of work and a chance to send for her children so they could have a better life than the one they had in Mexico.

He came to the United States at the age of sixteen and settled with his mother in the small California farming town of Mendota; his brothers followed later.  In Mendota, Fausto quickly established himself as a hard working young man who provided much value to the farmers who employed him in the cotton fields of central California.  When not doing the back-breaking work required in the hot and dusty fields, he could be seen around town neatly dressed in clean and pressed clothes, polished shoes, and hair combed just right.

Sandra’s mom, Connie Rosales, was born in 1941 just a few miles up the road from Mendota on the Hotchkiss Ranch just outside of Firebaugh, California, the ninth child of Jesus and Encarnación Rosales.  Like Fausto, she was raised by a single mother as her father passed away when she was just three years old.  Connie, a strong-willed, hard-working, and compassionate woman, grew up dreaming of one day living in a nice house and raising a successful family just like the Americanas who lived in town.

Connie and Fausto met in 1958 when Connie’s presumably match-making aunt invited Fausto to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of Connie’s sister.  Two years later they were married, then moved to San Jose looking for work where Fausto made his way as a cement mason and Connie supplemented their income working in the canneries of Santa Clara Valley, and where they built a family with their four daughters: Valerie, Sandra, Kimberley, and Shelley.  They worked hard and did whatever it took to ensure that their daughters had a chance to succeed.

Raising four daughters was a challenge for Fausto and Connie as each woman has her own distinct personality.  Collectively, the Peralta girls made an impression at Silver Creek High School and proudly call San Jose State University their alma mater.  A large photo of the sisters standing together resplendent in college cap and gown under the shadow of the university’s ivy-covered Tower Hall hangs in the entryway of the Peralta house.

The Soundtrack for One East Side Kid’s Life

The cover from Ramon Ayala's first album, "Ya No Llores" with Los Relampagos de Norte  (Fred. O. García  Collection)
The cover from Ramon Ayala’s first album in 1963, “Ya No Llores,” with Los Relampagos de Norte
(Fred O. García Collection)

Looking back, growing up Mexican American on the east side was pretty cool.  My family was more American than Mexican.  My parents were born in the United States as were my dad’s parents and grandparents.  We spoke English at home with a sprinkling of Spanglish to add flavor, just like the tablespoons of my mom’s homemade salsa we would sprinkle on every meal whether it was tacos or fried chicken.

Like language and food, music in our house crossed borders.  My dad’s collection included the standards (Sinatra, Martin, Nat King Cole), rock and roll 45’s, and a wide variety of Mexican music.  His component stereo system which sat on the “black dresser” in our little dining room was sacred.  He meticulously catalogued his collection: Mexican albums stood side by side in the cupboards of the dresser, 45’s sat on the speakers, and cassettes he recorded filled the top dresser drawer.

I loved it all, especially Mexican music.  I can still smell the cardboard of album covers that wafted out of the cupboards as soon as the door was opened.  Mariachi, tejano, cumbia, banda, a sampling of every type of Mexican music could be found in that cupboard.  My favorite genre was, and is, the norteño style from northern Mexico that features a twelve string guitar, bass, drums, and accordion.  Ramon Ayala y Sus Bravos del Norte, the “King of the Accordion,” is the soundtrack for this east side boy’s life.

Ramon Ayala, a Grammy Award winning artist, was 18 years old when he formed Los Relampagos del Norte in 1963.  He formed the legendary Bravos de Norte eight years later.  His songs are about romantic love, heartbreak, and the struggles of everyday life.  The lyrics strike a chord across generational lines and international borders.  He’s hugely popular with third and fourth generation Mexican Americans, and it’s fascinating to see the adoration he attracts from non-Spanish speakers.

I think this popularity comes from a half-century of being ever-present in many Mexican American households.  In my family, Ramon’s music was standard fare at backyard barbecues, weddings, and family celebrations.  Hanging out with my friends as a teenager, a few Ramon Ayala tunes would always find their way onto a song list of mostly popular disco and funk music.

When Sandra and I were married, we selected Ramon’s iconic Rinconcito en el Cielo (A Little Corner of Heaven) as our first dance rather than a standard American ballad.  The upbeat ranchera style song, played by a classic four-piece band, had us whirling around the dance floor.  On my 47th birthday, just months out of the hospital after my health crisis of 2010, Sandra and my family surprised me with a norteño band playing in our backyard.  We capped the night gingerly dancing to Rinconcito.

This weekend, I crossed off an item from my bucket-list by going on a pilgrimage to Reno with about 25 friends and family to see “The King of the Accordion” in concert.  As people were filing into the grand ballroom of the Silver Legacy Hotel, it seemed like I knew everyone that walked by.  Even though I didn’t know them, the faces in the crowd brought back childhood memories as generations of families came together for the show.

When Ramon Ayala casually walked onto the stage, the sold-out crowd erupted in a roaring cheer that didn’t stop until the concert was over.  From the first note of the first song, the audience danced in the aisles and swayed arm-in-arm as they sang every word of every song releasing passionate gritos during the musical interludes. Before long, I was no longer in a Reno ballroom; I was transported into a backyard, a wedding, and a family party.  The highlight of the night was jumping into the aisles to dance with Sandra as Ramon Ayala himself played Rinconcito en el Cielo.

On the 5-hour drive home, I thought about growing up as a Mexican American on the east side and my career as a high school basketball coach, corporate executive, political chief of staff, and school board member.  I’ve had some amazing experiences in my professional life that I never dreamed could be possible.  But when it comes right down to it, the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy had it right, “there’s no place like home.”

The Mexican American community, and the Latino community in general, is highly misunderstood in mainstream American life.  Our zest for life and our passion for culture are often mistaken for a lack of desire to achieve academically or professionally.  That’s not true.  We work hard to make a better life for our children.  By the same token, from the vibe of near nirvana at the concert, it seems to me that Latinos can teach a lesson or two about living a balanced life.

Mexican Americans place a high priority on family, relationships, love, heartbreak, and surviving life’s day-to-day challenges.  We also place a high priority on working hard to earn our keep.  It’s these seemingly contradictory notions that make us a special, yet misunderstood, people.  For a half century, Ramon Ayala, a Mexican-born musical artist, has brought the shared experiences of Mexican Americans to life.  On Saturday night, he took me on a wonderful two-hour journey back home.

Educating Latino Students is a Team Effort

(Stock Photo - www.csusb.edu)
(Stock Photo – http://www.csusb.edu)

Since my tenure on the school board, I’ve been an advocate of investing in raising expectations for Latino students.  With my ongoing blog discussion about this issue, I’ve heard from many readers, especially teachers.  One educator wrote, “It all starts with the priorities in the home.”  Another commented that, “Latino parents need to know that their involvement is critical and necessary.”

A parent responded to the teacher comments by asking, “Can you educate parents on district policies for enrolling our kids and what to do?” That’s an important question.  Another teacher agreed with that parent and described how she and her colleagues invest time in families because “parents want to help their kids but they don’t have the tools to do it.”  So who’s right?

They’re all correct.  Every study about student success identifies strong parent support as an essential factor.  This component makes up one of the four legs of the stool that holds up high achievement in school.  The other three legs are high academic standards, sufficient resources, and high student expectations.  California schools are addressing standards and resources, but haven’t invested in engaging Latino parents or raising student expectations.  Why is this?

Raising academic standards and allocating sufficient resources are concepts that are easy to understand.  Test score goals and a college-prep curriculum are measurable, so policymakers just need to adjust the benchmarks to raise those standards, which is starting to happen around the state.  Governor Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula provides school districts with funding based on the demographic profile of their students, so financially underprivileged students will have more access to resources.

Increasing parent engagement and raising student expectations are harder to understand.  Immigrant Latino parents know little or nothing about our school system and American-born Latino parents are products of the very same system of low expectations that is hampering their kids.  Our school systems can’t expect parents to set academic priorities for their children if they don’t even have the means to understanding those priorities.

The misconception within education circles is that Latino parents don’t care about academic success and don’t make school a priority at home.  When I served on the school board in east San Jose, a predominately Latino community, I found the opposite to be true.  Latino parents were constantly asking me for advice about how to access district administration to share their concerns and seek counsel for their children.

Many school districts have active Latino parent groups that advocate for their students with few resources allocated by the district.  With the new funding formula, school leaders now have an opportunity to invest in parent groups that want to be more engaged with their students’ education.  For those who say ALL parent organizations, not just Latino parents, should have access to more district resources, my answer is “absolutely yes.”

Raising expectations for Latino students is a little trickier.  This is an issue I’ve discussed in past posts.  Proponents of educational equity and culturally relevant teacher development have argued with solid evidence that school systems have been historically biased along racial lines, thus creating an environment of low expectations for students of color.  In fact, educational equity experts call this the “missing link” in academic achievement.  I call it the fourth leg on the stool.

Despite recommendations from the state superintendent of schools and a Silicon Valley Education Foundation report, investing in a comprehensive program to address these real issues has been non-existent.  During the last decade of school budget-cutting, policymakers haven’t even considered addressing the fourth leg of the stool.  Local control funding provides a historic opportunity to change this.

Academic standards are rising and new school funding formulas are increasing resources.  With a growing Latino population, our education leaders can no longer accept the argument that the foundation of academic achievement can only be started “with priorities in the home,” especially when parents are asking for the tools to build that foundation.   Educators play a major role in the foundation of academic success and it must start with high student expectations.

By the same token, Latino parents can no longer relinquish the role of setting the foundation of academic success solely on the school system.  If school systems provide tools for parents and welcome them to engage in their children’s education, then Latino parents must meet their obligations and responsibilities to guide students toward a successful academic career.

Ensuring a robust economic future for California will hinge on the success of today’s Latino students, who will make up a majority of the state’s breadwinners within a generation.   We can no longer put all of the responsibility on the school system, nor can the school system merely rely on the home to achieve this.  California’s future rests on a team effort.  Schools need to provide all four legs of the stool to achieve success, and Latino parents and students need to answer the call.

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Eddie is available to speak at your next event or conference.  To learn more about speaking services click on the “Speaking Engagement” tab under the banner on this page.

To schedule Eddie for your next breakfast, luncheon, or dinner event, e-mail eddie.m.garcia@comcast.net, or call 408-426-7698.

We Must Invest in Raising Expectations of Latino Students

(Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis)
(Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis)

Last week, I wrote about California’s Latino student population becoming the majority in the state and how education policymakers have historically struggled to educate them by focusing more on social and political solutions rather than academic rigor. The result is that most Latinos still work in low-paying service jobs.  I concluded the post by rhetorically asking, “Could it be that the mindset of our school systems is that Latinos should be working in service and support roles?”

A couple of readers, both educators, responded with well-reasoned comments.  They mentioned the lack of professional Latino role models, student apathy toward academic achievement, and the social challenges faced by today’s digital world. Self-motivated students do well one reader wrote, “it is those in the middle and below that we are fighting against cultural, societal, and self imposed limitations.”

It’s the students “in the middle and below” that have been collateral damage to policies that rely on social and political solutions. High standards, tools to achieve them, and high expectations form the foundation of Latino student success. In recent years, we’ve seen positive change in raising standards and providing resources.  One reader was on target by writing, “I believe the challenge is getting students to believe that they are NOT limited to those [low-wage service and support] roles.”

What are those “cultural, societal, and self imposed limitations” the reader mentions in his comments?  What causes them and how can school systems overcome them?

My friend Linda Ortega, a retired educator, recently posted a video on Facebook that shines a light on how cultural and societal representations of people of color impact children.  The video shows young Black kids evaluating the value of white and black dolls solely based on color.  Their answers are predictably disturbing: the white doll is good and black doll is bad.

(To see the video go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mPtHpgjEP8)

Cultural images of Latinos are similar, so one could argue that the resulting negative effect is the same for Latino students.  In the mainstream media, Latinos are portrayed as tattooed gangsters, illicit drug traders, domestic workers, gardeners, and Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants.  Given these images, it’s understandable that all but the most motivated students impose limitations on themselves and don’t do the hard work that’s necessary for academic success.

The cultural and societal representations of Latinos also impact the expectations of educators and school systems.  School board members, administrators, teachers, counselors, and school support staff also see the same portrayals of Latinos in the media.  Former California State Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell called this phenomenon the “expectation gap.”  Despite his recommendations to address this gap, little has been done about it at the policymaking level.

So how do we as a society overcome these cultural and self-imposed academic limitations on Latino students?  First of all, we need to talk about it.  We should have what educational equity experts call a “courageous conversation” about how race impacts our school systems and students of color.  This is difficult to do in an era when people don’t want to acknowledge that race is still a barrier to achievement.  The video that Linda Ortega shared proves that we’re not even close yet.

Once we have that “courageous conversation,” school systems may better understand why many Latino students truly believe that they are limited to the roles portrayed in the media and that educators unwillingly may perpetuate that expectation.  Many Latino professionals I meet during my travels recount stories of teachers and counselors with good intentions encouraging them to seek opportunities in the trades and the service industries.

In California, the governor has changed the funding mechanism to provide schools with more dollars to better serve its students.  School boards and administrators are rushing to upgrade technology and infuse teacher development funds for the Common Core, the latest one-size-fits-all social and political solution to academic achievement woes.  Despite higher standards and increased funding, our state is headed down the same road unless we truly change what we expect from over half our students.

Education policymakers at the school district level need to invest in raising the expectations of Latino students through systematic and comprehensive educational equity and culturally relevant teacher training, as recommended by former State Superintendent O’Connell over five years ago.  This will help resolve the challenge of “getting students to believe that they are NOT limited to those [low-wage service and support] roles” described by a reader of this blog.

It could be generations before the mainstream media and society change their perceptions about the largest growing community in the United States.  That’s why our education systems are so important in effecting change and preparing the next generation of breadwinners and leaders.  Maintaining a large and permanent underclass in the nation’s biggest state doesn’t bode well for our future.

Education policymakers can take the first courageous step by investing in systematic change in their perceptions of Latino students.  Only then can Latino academic achievement begin to reach the levels necessary for our state’s future success.   I hope to hear from readers on this as I continue the conversation next week.

The Latino Decade Is Here…Now what?

Speaking at Gavilan Community College
Speaking at Gavilan Community College

I was invited a couple of weeks ago to be the featured speaker at the Enhance Your Potential Conference hosted by Gavilan Community College.  The conference included workshops on practical skills to provide students with tools to navigate through college and the competitive job market. My role for the conference was to give a motivational talk about the value of a college education and the limitless opportunities available to those with a degree.

I was rehearsing my prepared remarks on my morning walk through the neighborhood when I was pleasantly surprised to hear norteño style Mexican music blaring from a house.  Since it was home to an Indo-American family, I was confused until I saw Latino workers inside. On the drive to Gavilan College, I stopped at a McDonalds drive-thru for a Diet Coke.  The young woman who took my order was Latina as was the older woman who gave me the soda.

A group of about 70 undergraduates attended my talk at the conference; about three-quarters of the students were Latino.  After the speech, on my way back to San Jose, I heard Latina megastar Shakira singing on a easy-listening radio station. I started reflecting on how every ten years since the 1980s demographers proclaim that we’re living in the “Decade of the Latino.” Given that Latinos and Latino culture was all around me that day, it appears that the Latino Decade has arrived In California.

What does that mean?  Now what do we do?

The Pew Hispanic Research Center estimates that there are 14.3 million Latinos statewide, which represents a plurality (39%) of the Golden State’s population. A more telling number is that over half of the state’s 12 million students are Latino, according to the California Department of Education. Latinos are part of everyday life in California and come from every sector of our community. This means that a whole bunch of us live in California.

Before racist fear-mongers prepare to fight a Latino revolution or old-school Chicanos call for a coup, let’s look at the reality that, despite the massive shift in demographics, most Latinos still work at low-wage service and administrative support jobs. This isn’t good news for California’s future. Public policy analysts have been warning for years that the state can’t sustain itself if more than half of the population is undereducated and absent from civic life.

So, what do we do about this? First and foremost, we must provide access to a quality education for all students, including the 50-plus percent who are Latino. Unfortunately, state policymakers have historically failed to do this. During the 1930s, 40s, 50s, educators sought to “Americanize” Latinos by teaching valuable skills like eating bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast instead of chorizo, beans, and tortillas. I’m not making this stuff up.

In the 60s and 70s, the Chicano Movement took hold and forced school systems to realize that Americanization wasn’t working. Bilingual education became all the rage in California schools throughout the 70s and 80s. There was one major problem with this, most Latino children were born and reared in the United States and grew up speaking English. The watered down bilingual curriculum was devoid of academic rigor.

When Mexican immigration increased during the 80s, Ron Unz and his entitled Silicon Valley chums thought ridding the state of Spanish altogether was the solution. Voters passed his state initiative banning bilingual education and education policymakers were again scratching their heads. English as a Second Language (ESL) was the answer, they thought. Forget math, science, and history.  Immersing students in English for the entire school day will prepare them for the 21th century.

The state’s response to educating Latino students has always been based on political and social practices, rather than academics. Americanization, bilingual education, and ESL all left out the most important factor of a quality education: high academic standards. Each one of these movements places the responsibility entirely on the socialization of the student and not the practices of the system. If students just assimilated to “our” ways, the thinking has been, they would be smarter.

Most experts agree that a quality education is multi-dimensional.  High academic standards, well-trained teachers, high expectations, and parent involvement form the cornerstones for academic achievement. Traditionally, schools with large Latino populations lack one or more of these cornerstones, thus access to a quality education is difficult. That’s starting to change in Silicon Valley.

The East Side Union High, San Jose Unified, and Palo Alto Unified school districts have all raised graduation requirements to meet college entrance eligibility and the state plans to spend $1.25 billion dollars training teachers in the recently approved Common Core Standards. Parent involvement is also increasing and these school districts have active Latino parents groups. Missing are high expectations for Latino students.

A 2009 State Superintendent of Schools report on closing the academic achievement gap recommends that high expectations, educational equity, and culturally relevant teacher training should be included in schools’ approach to educating Latino students. However, little has been done to implement this recommendation. Could it be that the mindset of our school systems is that Latinos should be working in service and support roles? If so, why? Could we even change that mindset? Look for more on this next week.

Leadership is a Tough Business…What’s the Goal?

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Five years ago, I helped create the Latino Leadership Alliance (LLA) Leadership Academy in collaboration with Stanford’s Center for the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity to identify, develop, and support emerging leaders that work with Latino communities. Last week, the group introduced Cohort 5 of the LLA Leadership Academy and Stanford Leadership Institute, and continued to strengthen its role as a respected institution of leadership training and learning in the Silicon Valley.

The LLA Leadership Academy developed a model of servant leadership based on bringing together the business, community, education, and public sectors for the common good of the community. In addition to the intensive eight-month program, one of my favorite dynamics of the academy is the ongoing dialogue the cohorts have about the practical practice of leadership after graduation.

At last Thursday’s announcement event, one of the academy alumni posed a fascinating question. She was deliberating on an issue as a leader of a community group that appeared to be in conflict with her role at work and her personal values. Her thought-provoking description of the situation reminded me that leadership is a complex and tough business.

Although there have been leaders since the dawn of humankind, leadership as an academic discipline has only been around for about 50 years. The academic research has resulted in many schools of thought on business, organizational, educational, and political leadership.  There are common threads like trust, integrity, and the common good.  Unfortunately, however, there’s no silver-bullet to help resolve complicated questions around conflicting considerations.

As a corporate executive, I faced many decisions when company goals, a community group’s objective, and my personal beliefs were seemingly in conflict.  Adding to that soupy recipe are personal relationships and political considerations.  Once you stir it all up, it’s a thick stew that requires balanced deliberation to get to the right decision.  So how do you do that?  One question serves as a solid starting point when confronting these sticky situations: What’s the goal?

The question sounds so simple, but making difficult decisions is usually fraught with a complex web of potential winners and losers, advocates on all sides of the issue, and negative impacts if the decision isn’t sound.  If your goal is to save your own skin, then get out of leadership business.  However, if your goal is to take the best course of action, you must eliminate the noise that could cloud your decision.

Executive management deals with thorny choices on a daily basis.  One such decision I made in my corporate career stands out for me.  When I had secured a coordinator position for my department, the job description was going to be a dynamic on-the-job process because the position was new to the organization.  Therefore, the qualities needed for the role weren’t cut and dry, which made the decision even more complex.

After an initial round of interviews, two candidates stood out from a long list applicants. They had distinctive personalities, unique relationships within the company, and different skill sets.  Since I’ve never made a secret about my passion for providing opportunities to qualified and talented Latinos, the fact that one candidate was Latina and the other wasn’t complicated matters.

The lobbying for both applicants was spirited to say the least.  At the local office, managers and employees vouched for the Latina who worked there while higher-ups and department colleagues advocated for the other candidate who had previous experience in the department.  I had to consider how the decision would impact my personal relationships with the local team and my department colleagues, not to mention trying to keep my bosses happy.

It was a perfect storm where upper management and local office wants, and my personal beliefs seemed to swirl in conflict with each other. The whole purpose for creating the job posting in the first place disappeared in the cacophony of issues not related to the position. Since the pressure from upstairs and my department was stronger than that of the local team, I leaned toward hiring the applicant with department experience.

When I shared my thoughts with Sandra, which I always do before making a decision on complicated work matters, she counseled that I may be hiring someone for the wrong reasons. A sleepless night of tossing and turning ended when I finally cut through the noise and asked myself what I advise others to do in that situation.

With one simple question, I started a deliberation process that addressed the needs of my department, not the personalities or external desires of others. I had created the new position to coordinate employees in the field from the local office to better meet department needs and achieve company goals.  Out of that simple question came a simple answer.

I ultimately selected the person who met the company’s needs and reflected my personal values, the Latina from the local office. At first, the decision was met with skepticism from upper management and my colleagues.  But the new coordinator turned out to be an excellent choice and erased any doubts. I also learned a valuable leadership lesson: When confronted with a complex decision, cut to the chase and ask yourself, “What’s the goal?”

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Eddie is available to speak at your next event or conference.  To learn more about speaking services click on the “Speaking Engagement” tab under the banner on this page.

To schedule Eddie for your next breakfast, luncheon, or dinner event, e-mail eddie.m.garcia@comcast.net, or call 408-426-7698.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 1 (excerpt #3)

My Family - standing L-R: David, Stevie, Patty, Barbara (Garcia Family photo ca. 1966 )
My Family in Front of Fireplace at 48 Viewmont Avenue – Standing L-R: David, Stevie, Patty, Barbara (Garcia Family photo ca. 1966)

Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life. It’s the third excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning.  To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”

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After a few years of marriage and the births of my brother David, and my sisters Barbara and Patty, my parents found that there were no opportunities for them in Phoenix. My dad was going from job to job, many times working two at a time, but none was steady. He scraped enough money together to pay rent on a studio apartment, feed the kids, and buy a broken old Ford to take him to and from his various jobs.

Later in life, my parents would laugh about the time their car had a dead battery and they couldn’t afford to replace it. My dad would get up early in the morning, open the hood of the jalopy and peer into the motor as if there were a problem. Without fail, a Good Samaritan would ask if he needed help and my dad would explain that the battery wasn’t working that morning, and he would appreciate a jump to get the car started. Once his work day was over, he would begin the same routine until a passerby would lend him jumper cables to start the car for the return trip home. This would last for months.

He quickly realized that this was no way to live. He had traveled around the world as a sailor fighting for his country, seen New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles. He knew there were opportunities for those who took risks and sought a better life. So, with a used battery in the rickety car and protests from my Grandma Joaquina, he and my mom packed up their three babies, their meager belongings, my Abuelita Chabela, and headed for San Jose, California, to join his sister Maria, her family, and relatives on his father’s side of the family to find work in the orchards and canneries of the fertile Santa Clara valley.

In San Jose, my parents moved into a relative’s garage until they were able to earn enough money to find a place for their growing family. They found a small apartment not too far away from the town’s bustling canning industry. My Abuelita Chabela took care of the kids at night while my mom worked at the canneries. It’s a cliché, but my dad worked day and nights to earn just enough money to keep a roof over their head and dinner on the table, and there was enough work for my parents to rent a small house in San Jose’s east side.

My brother Steve was born shortly after they moved into the rented house on the east side, and with another baby to clothe and feed, my parents found extra hours working for slave wages in the apricot orchards of the east valley picking the fruit and cutting it for the lucrative dried apricot market. Every bit helped, but they needed steady income to provide stability for their growing family.

During that time, San Jose was rapidly growing and the postal service was looking for reliable veterans to meet the demands of its burgeoning workforce. Soon, my dad’s status as a World War II veteran would pay off when he got a job working at the downtown post office. Although the pay wasn’t nearly enough to meet the needs of their family, the stability gave them a chance to achieve the American Dream and buy a house. They found a house just a couple of blocks away from their rented house.

My parents borrowed money from relatives to put a modest down payment on the outlandish $11,000 mortgage they took to buy the house on 48 Viewmont Avenue. For the next several years, my dad would dutifully drive downtown to the post office to earn a living and my mom would supplement their income taking jobs cleaning houses and working part-time in the cafeteria at the new IBM headquarters in the south side of town. My dad would take every opportunity to work overtime to help pay the bills.

Lucky for them, my abuelita was available to take care of the kids while my parents struggled to stay afloat. This steady way of life continued for nine years and it looked like my parents were starting to slowly build a solid foundation for their family’s future when I arrived.

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Next Wednesday: Chapter 1 continues with my first years growing up at 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 1 (excerpt #2)

My parents taking a walk in Phoenix, Arizona (Garcia Family photo ca. late 1950)
My parents taking a walk in Phoenix, Arizona (Garcia Family photo ca. late 1950)

 

Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life. It’s the second excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning.  To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”

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My parents were children of the Great Depression, an era of desperate times for all but the richest Americans. For both my parents, poverty was compounded as they were children of widowed mothers who endured the racism and discrimination faced by Mexican Americans of that time. As children, they had no understanding of the American Dream and no real path to achieving it. As adults, they worked tirelessly to provide that opportunity for their children, and the little house on 48 Viewmont Avenue was the base of operations for their pursuit of the dream.

My dad was born Federico Olquín García in the dusty hamlet of Las Cruces, New Mexico, on April 15, 1926. The oral history of my family doesn’t provide much about the first 16 years of his life. This much we know: his parents were Juan and Isabela “Chabela” García, also native New Mexicans, and he had one brother and two sisters.  Juan worked in the dangerous and back-breaking copper mines of southern New Mexico and Chabela tended to the home and their four children.

They lived in a small adobe structure with a dirt floor built by Juan and a younger brother. When my dad was about eleven years-old, his father died of respiratory problems related to his endless hours working in the mines.  With her four kids in tow, Chabela left Las Cruces to join relatives in Phoenix, Arizona. Family stories contend that my dad had to help drive the long and hot road to Arizona. If this is true, his childhood had disappeared in a flash and his years of responsibility and obligation came upon him overnight.

In October 1942, my dad left the small apartment he shared with his mother in south Phoenix to join the U.S Navy. Like many of his generation, my dad shared little about his experience as a sailor during World War II. He told us that he served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp in the Pacific Ocean, but recounted nothing about battles and dangerous situations. History tells us that the Wasp engaged in several brutal battles with Japanese aircraft from October 1942 through the end of the war, the time my dad served on the carrier. In a personal log he carried, he wrote in detail about the last days of the war and the Wasp’s return to the United States.

My mom was an only child born to a single mother in on January 31, 1930, in Colton, California. Colton, a busy railroad hub and farming town in southern California, was one of many stops on the state’s farm-working circuit where her mother, Joaquina Othon, and her Tía Lipa traveled in search of seasonal work. My grandmother Joaquina was an independent woman trying to eke out a living for herself and her young daughter. Like my dad, little is known about my mom’s early life.

Within several years, my mom and her mom were again on the road, this time to Phoenix to help Tía Lipa care for my great-grandmother who arrived from Sonora, Mexico, to live out the last years of her life. My grandmother continued working odd jobs as a housekeeper, babysitter, and seasonal worker to support her daughter, sister, and ailing mother. Due to my grandmother’s tireless work ethic, my mom had a financially poor, but relatively stable life during her teen years. It was during this time that the lonely young woman raised by her mother, an aunt, and an aging grandmother, dreamed of one day having a big family with many children and grandchildren of her own.

My parents met during a late summer day in 1949 when my mom went out to the neighborhood park with a cousin to watch some boys play baseball. My mom caught the eye of my dad as he strut around the diamond with a smile that could be seen across the field. He was calling at my grandmother’s front door the next morning respectfully asking permission to talk to my mom.

My dad knew his way around girls from the many ports of call on the trip back to the U.S. after the war and his frequent attendance at south Phoenix nightclubs. But this girl was different: polite, demure, and dignified. Before long, he was stopping to see my mom everyday sitting on one end of the old sofa talking with her as she sat on the other end. Her mom and Tía Lipa sat across the tiny living room knitting a blanket or listening to the radio as the young couple talked, laughed, and sometimes just sat.

Their courtship was a whirlwind. After several months dating in my grandmother’s living room, they were allowed to go out to together to the movies or to share a soda, and six months later after they met, mom and dad were married in a small Catholic church on April 23, 1950. They had no place to live, no money, and no idea what the future would hold. All they had was each other and my skeptical grandmother watching their every move.

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There will be no post next Wednesday. Chapter 1 returns on January 1, 2014, as my parents move to San Jose looking for opportunity.

 

My All-American Hero: One Story from the Other Side of the Tracks

My dad is somewhere in the first row of this photo taken aboard the USS Wasp in 1944.  The handwritten notes are my dad's (Garcia family photo)
My dad is somewhere in the first row of this photo taken aboard the USS Wasp in 1944. The handwritten notes are my dad’s (Garcia family photo)

I’ve been a history junkie ever since I was a kid.  I would ride my bike to the county library and go straight to the stacks that told heroic tales of Americans revolting against King George III, struggling on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and defending the world against tyranny.  I loved  the American History course taught by the legendary Mr. Duus and Mr. Hefelfinger at James Lick High School, and I went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in History from San Jose State University.

As a kid, I was most interested in World War II probably because my dad served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp in the Pacific Ocean.  Like most in his generation, he didn’t talk about the war unless he had a few whiskey and waters under his belt, and even then he wouldn’t say much.  With the tidbits of information he shared, I would scour the books from the library trying to piece together my dad’s experience on the Wasp.

To this day, I could spend hours watching the History Channel and Military Channel gathering more data about our collective past.  Many episodes include stories about the courageous Black Buffalo Soldiers fighting for freedom during the Civil War and the valiant Japanese-American 442nd Regiment defending our flag in WWII.  American-born Latinos have also fought with courage and valor to defend our country, yet they’re nowhere to be found in mainstream accounts.  Why is this?

Several years ago, the award-winning PBS documentarian Ken Burns completed a 14 ½ hour series about WWII.  I had watched with admiration his comprehensive masterpieces on topics like the Civil War, baseball, the Statue of Liberty and more.  I looked forward to the series with anxious anticipation, especially how Burns’ genius might portray the half million Latinos who fought in WWII and the 13 Latino Medal of Honor recipients.  It turns out that Burns didn’t include one story about them.

Prior to the airing of the series, national Latino leaders requested that Burns find a way to tell the important stories of these forgotten Americans.  Burns initially refused to bend to “political correctness” citing artistic freedom, but he ultimately compromised by adding a few interviews with Latino veterans.  I didn’t watch.  When Burns came to SJSU for a lecture with public radio last week, I didn’t go.

In some ways, I understand why Ken Burns couldn’t comprehend what the fuss was all about.  The land that is now California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico formed the northern border of Mexico until they became the spoils of war when the Unites States won the War with Mexico of 1846-1848. Mexicans living in those territories didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them.  Since then, American-born citizens of Latino descent have been treated like foreigners in their own land.

Less than a century later, nearly 1.2 million American-born Latinos were evicted from the U.S. to Mexico during the Mexican Repatriation Program of 1929 to 1939 to open up agricultural and factory jobs for Okies fleeing the Depression Era Dust Bowl.  More recently, Arizona’s notorious Senate Bill 1070 allows law enforcement to detain anyone when there’s “a reasonable suspicion of being an illegal immigrant.”  So in our country, the rule is you must’ve been born somewhere else if you have a Latino surname.

Although those of us born in the United States represent the majority of Latinos in our country, most Americans don’t even know who we are.   I didn’t have to look far to find the answer.  My dad was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 1926.  His parents were born near the same place during the 1880s when New Mexico was an American territory.  I’m not sure how far back the family tree goes, but I’m willing to guess that the Garcías were living near Las Cruces when the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock in 1620.

When he was 11 years old, my dad, his siblings, and my widowed grandmother moved to Phoenix, Arizona where my dad went to grammar school and high school.  In 1942, at the age of 16, he enlisted in the Navy by forging my grandmother’s signature so he could fight for his country.  One of my most prized possessions is a log he kept during the last days of the war and the victorious trip home on the U.S.S. Wasp.

Back at home, he was refused entrance into a Phoenix dancehall despite wearing his navy uniform because he was “Mexican.”  He took a few classes on the G.I. Bill, married my mom, moved to San Jose looking for the American Dream, and got a job at the Post Office.  Together my mom and dad had six kids (I’m number 5), bought a house in east San Jose, and struggled to give us a better life.  We have become businessmen, school administrators, bank executives, university librarians, and public servants.

That’s my dad’s story.  He’s an All-American hero to me.  I know there are millions of others just like him.  That’s why Latinos can’t wait for Kens Burns or anyone else to understand who we are so our stories can be told.  Until we tell our own stories, our fellow Americans will continue to be confused.  One just needs to look at the recent Twitter-sphere condemnation of the American Music Awards for showcasing American-born Latinos citing that Mark Antony, Jennifer Lopez, et al, weren’t American.

A few fellow Latino SJSU alums and I traded barbs about Ken Burns on Facebook when we learned he was scheduled to appear at our alma mater.  One college friend, Xavier Soriano, reminded us that we should tell our own stories.  He’s right.  We’re proud Americans who honor and cherish our ancestry.  Our generation is educated and has access to resources.  So let’s get on with it.  Let’s tell our story.