Last week a
long-simmering debate about which kinds of diversity—ideological, political, socioeconomic, racial or ethnic—should matter most in our education reform community boiled over into public view. This debate comes at an interesting time in my life because I am in the middle of a year-long leadership development program—
50CAN’s Education Advocacy Fellowship—which was created to provide an on-ramp for more people to serve as education reform leaders. This experience has led me to realize something so simple it’s perhaps overlooked in all the back and forth in this debate: There is more than enough work to go around. It is exactly because of the scale and complexity of the challenges we face, and the numerous gaps left unfilled, that increasingly the best work in education advocacy is being carried out by coalitions that span the traditional divides. That means intentionally elevating both ideologically diverse and racially and socioeconomically diverse leaders because we all have something to contribute that is unique and different. Making room for a greater diversity of voices doesn’t have to mean asking anyone to step back from their work. During my time in the 50CAN fellowship, I have come to learn from and respect the contributions made by conservatives who don’t look like me. They in turn have made time to listen to me and other emerging leaders with firsthand experience of the ways our education system has left poor kids and children of color behind. We both leave a little wiser because we are taking the time to truly listen to each other.
Where I Come From
Often in my meetings with new people, I make time at the beginning to share why I feel so strongly about the need for change. I come to this work in Arizona by way of Compton, California, where I grew up. My parents loved us very much but they struggled to give us everything they knew we needed. Life wasn’t easy. We didn’t have a lot of money, our neighborhood wasn’t safe, and the neighborhood schools we were zoned for were dropout factories. My parents were only able to save up enough money to send one of us to a Jesuit high school. They chose me. My brother Ulysses had to stay behind in the public high school. Four years later, when at 18 I became the first in our family to be accepted to college, my brother was entering the Los Angeles County jail. Four years after that, as I walked across the stage as a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, my brother was entering the penitentiary system for the second time.
Here’s What Happened
My brother and I had the same parents and the same potential. We lived in the same household and we shared the same Mexican heritage. But there was one thing that we did not have in common: We did not have the same educational opportunity because only one of us was able to attend a high school that worked.
I know that access to educational opportunity is what made our lives as different as they are. It’s a conclusion that left a scar on my heart. I went to college determined to become a lawyer so I could fight for people like my brother as a public defender. But as I reflected on what happened to him I came to the conclusion that as a public defender I would reach him too late. I decided instead to become the teacher he never had, the one who would understand him, who would take the time to connect with him; the one who he would remember later in life thinking, “If not for this teacher, I would be in jail.” The difficult truth is that my path diverged from my brother’s so dramatically because we ration high-quality education in our country. There just aren’t enough good schools to go around and it’s students from low-income families—like my brother—who pay the price with their freedom. The research and statistics show us this is true but for me this reality was much more stark because it is also my life. I live with that difficult truth every day. It opened my eyes in a way that will never be closed. Most education reformers are committed to this work because we believe you don’t need to ration good schools. It is our firm conviction that if we can muster the political will, we can create a system where everyone has an opportunity to get a high-quality education, regardless of address. It would be ironic, then, if in our quest to achieve these ambitious educational goals we slipped back into the mindset that causes us to think we need to ration leadership roles: that in order for progressive people of color to take a step forward, white conservatives need to take a step back. I don’t believe that, because that is the mindset of defeat. And defeat is the one thing we cannot accept. The price—paid in the broken dreams of kids like my brother—is simply too high.
What Real Leadership Is About
Over the past year I have witnessed time and time again how the education reform community in Arizona has embraced a broader conception of leadership. It starts at the top with leaders—like Lisa Keegan, the former superintendent of public instruction and the executive director of
A for Arizona, and Tommy Espinoza, president and CEO of
Raza Development Fund. Lisa and Tommy have worked tirelessly to bring new voices into Arizona’s education reform community and open up more opportunities for new people to lead. They have sought out partnerships across the political, racial and ethnic boundaries that too often divide us as a state and put the needs of kids above the jockeying for the spotlight among adults. Most importantly they have modeled what real leadership is all about: making the people around you more powerful rather than positioning yourself as gatekeepers to their success. While I am still early in my journey as an education advocate, I am convinced that the states that will make the most progress in transforming their education systems will be the ones that adopt a mindset not of scarcity but of abundance. States led by education reformers who are constantly looking for ways to make room for as many people as are willing to commit their hearts and minds to this cause. This approach of addition not subtraction increasingly defines the Arizona education reform community of which I am proud to be a part. I believe it points the way forward for an education advocacy movement strong enough, and diverse enough, to achieve our ambitious goals.
Martín Pérez grew up in Compton, California, and was the first in his family to attend and graduate college. After receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley, he joined Teach For America as a corps member at Phoenix’s Alhambra School District. In 2014, Martín was named Alhambra School District’s Teacher of the Year. He currently serves as an education ...