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You are here: Home News CRP Bulletin/Noticiero Volume 1, Issue 2 FEATURE STORY: CRP Co-Director Patricia Gándara on Utilizing Research for Positive Change

FEATURE STORY: CRP Co-Director Patricia Gándara on Utilizing Research for Positive Change

The 2013 inaugural issue of CRP Bulletin/Noticiero featured Co-director Gary Orfield’s recollection of the founding of the Harvard Civil Rights Project. In this issue, CRP’s other directing half, Patricia Gándara, co-director since 2007, traces the origin of her dedication to education policy research and equity. She elaborates on how the scope of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles has expanded upon moving to UCLA, while maintaining the same mission begun in 1996.

The roots of my concern for equity in education begin in my own family where my older brother, who began his education at an excellent school in Mexico, and whose first language was Spanish, was basically unsupported (and viewed as a “problem”) in public schools in Los Angeles. He ended up dropping out in the 9th grade, which, of course, curtailed his opportunities for the rest of his life. I, on the other hand, grew up on this side of the border, knew English and attended solid public schools in a working class community. I was rewarded for being a good student and had wonderful opportunities, which led to very different possibilities and a very different life. This lesson in inequitable opportunity stayed with me for the rest of my life.

My interest in policy grew more serendipitously. I began my career as a psychologist in 1972 with a specialty in assessment, working mostly with low-income, African American and Spanish-speaking children. This taught me a lot about the conditions and limitations of schooling, and of many of the tests we give students, and the importance of broader supports for young people and their families. Nonetheless, I thought that I would probably follow the career path of an educational psychologist, but I ended up taking my first post-Ph.D. position at RAND, where I was literally re-trained as a policy analyst. That position led me to the California Legislature, where I oversaw the education research that supported a number of bills put forward in the area of education. Between those two positions-–both of which were wonderful, exciting experiences—I was pretty sold on policy research and the potential to utilize my research to help create more equitable opportunities for underrepresented youth.

When I went to UC Davis 1990, the Ed School was just beginning its Ph.D. program. It was small and the idea of education policy research was still not fully accepted as a truly “academic” endeavor by many folks within the university. I was a bit of an oddball at the time!  However, I had been quite deeply involved with the UC Office of the President (UCOP) in various capacities. For one year I was “faculty liaison” to UCOP, representing UC faculty in the Office of the President (a position that was created by Winston Doby). In another capacity, I was associate director of Linguistic Minority Research Institute, which was a multi-campus research unit, and I was also a member of President Richard Atkinson’s faculty group on response to proposition 209. I was frequently called on for meetings at UCOP on issues of diversity. I also collaborated with other UC colleagues, working and writing on issues of access to higher education. We were all deeply disturbed by the inequalities in access, the low representation of “minority” students in the UC, and then the crushing blow of Proposition 209, which further reduced representation and produced even greater challenges for diversifying the university.    

At the same time, the Civil Rights Project (CRP) was being founded at Harvard (1996) in direct response to the assault on affirmative action. I knew of the CRP and their work, and I thought this was a place where I could contribute my knowledge of education policy and the inner workings of state government and policy making, and also find supportive colleagues who shared my interests. That is exactly what I found during the sabbatical I spent there in 1998-99, in addition to meeting a lot of wonderful students interested in the same areas I was working on. Having gotten acquainted with the folks at CRP, I guess they felt I was a kindred spirit, and they decided to offer me a visiting researcher position. I was, at first, reluctant, as I had numerous projects in process and worried about being away, but we negotiated a situation that worked, albeit keeping me on the road a lot! It was a very formative experience.

In addition to the fact that folks at CRP were both interested in, and supportive of my work with language policy, Latino students, and college access for URMs [underrepresented minorities], the CRP was filled with interesting and smart people who were generating ideas right and left. Gary Orfield rarely has a day in which he doesn’t come up with a new project, or a new insight about an ongoing one. So, it is/was a fast-paced, very creative and stimulating environment. Usually without funds to do all the things that are envisioned, it is/was also a place that tests one’s creativity in figuring out how to do more with less!

It is also worth mentioning that when I first went to the CRP and to Harvard, the CRP was just getting on its feet. A young Master’s student, Michal Kurlaender, was the total staff support.  In spite of the fact that she was juggling her own M.A. program and had a dozen balls in the air with the Civil Rights Project, she reached out to ensure that I connected with the project and was taken care of by folks in the Harvard administration who might otherwise have overlooked me. Michal was very instrumental in setting a tone for the project that I think was critical to its success. Today she is a dear and highly respected colleague at UC Davis (what goes around comes around!) who continues to work with CRP.

Co-incident with my joining CRP as co-director, the project also moved across the country to UCLA and became CRP/PDC [Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles] in 2007. So both of those things impacted the direction of the Project. Certainly the CRP has much more focus now on issues that are of particular concern to the West and Southwest: demographics, immigration, Latino students, California and Arizona education policies, plus my own interests in language policy as it intersects with segregation, language as a right, and college access in a Southwest context. These are all core issues for the Project. Also, we added Proyecto Derechos Civiles to the name! I wouldn’t say that we decreased anything as a result of the move to UCLA. We just take on more projects. This year some of our priorities include affirmative action–once again--college access, bilingualism, US-Mexico educational initiatives, and a project we call LaSanTi, which is mapping the demography and the educational and economic future of the huge land area from Los Angeles to San Diego and Tijuana, a major economic engine for the nation that is currently at risk of decline due to the under-education of its youth.

Plus, Los Angeles has its own compelling issues. For example, one of the first things we noticed when we came here was the amazing amount of artistic talent in this city, yet, with only a few exceptions, low-income students of color were not offered an arts curriculum in their schools. Only the schools serving more advantaged students seemed to be able to do this. This struck us as highly inequitable; we have not yet found support for doing work in this area. 

I am very proud every time we release a new book or report that captures people’s attention and gets people thinking a bit more or a bit differently about the issues the Project works on. I think the proudest moment I have had in the last few years was when we were able to convince 21 researchers, at four major universities, to conduct groundbreaking research on the language education policies in Arizona, with virtually no money and an unheard of timeline. They all dropped everything else in their lives and conducted this research pro bono in an effort to demonstrate the effects of these policies on English learners in that state. We didn’t win the case (though we were able to garner the attention of the Department of Justice), but we filled two entire prestigious journals, and contributed to two books with this research. The issues we deal with aren’t easily resolved and we often don’t see immediate policy changes as a result. Civil rights work is all about building, piece by piece, a long term strategy. It is more than anything about faith in the future. The Arizona research now stands for the next cases that will surely come along. And, we demonstrated that there are many highly regarded researchers who are willing to use their skills to advance justice, even under very difficult circumstances—and this is very hopeful for the future of education policy and centers like ours, which rely on the skills and goodwill of colleagues to advance the cause of justice.

I also feel particularly proud – and mostly happy — every time a student says to me, “You have really helped me to find my own path.” Teaching is terribly rewarding because you get the opportunity to help launch smart young people into important careers, and it is a venue for discussing and interrogating your own research. I think there is a song that goes something like, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you will be taught ...” And this is true. Students bring many good ideas and help you to think through your own ideas at a deeper level. These young scholars often contribute as well to the work of the Project. Research keeps us asking new and better questions and makes us better teachers, I think, because it doesn’t allow us to get stale.

We are also very committed to the idea of supporting a new generation of young scholars to continue the work of the project and to bring their own ideas to this work. We are actively looking for individuals who want to partner with us to ensure that the project continues to grow and prosper and eventually bring on new leadership. Unfortunately the issues that concern us – educational equity, housing policy, racial equity, and the like -- don’t seem to have politically easy answers, so there is no reason to believe that we won’t be working on the same issues in another decade. Hopefully, though, we will have made enough progress so that we are further down the road in finding solutions.

I sometimes think that Latinos in particular don’t pursue an academic career because they see it as “ivory tower,” too distanced from the real world. They prefer to be lawyers or health professionals or to take positions where they can see their impact on a daily basis with “real” people. But, in fact, the academic life can offer the opportunity to effect real changes on people in large and significant ways. And we badly need the voices and the experience of Latinos; we remain a rare species in academe. Also, through working with young people who will take important places in the society, we can influence a whole generation.

My advice to students is to be open to new possibilities; don’t overcommit to a single pathway. Sometimes the most interesting things in life and in your career come about by being willing to take a detour off the beaten path. Set high standards for yourself and your research and then take it out into the world! Don’t be content to just leave it in a journal on a shelf.


Patricia Gándara is the co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA. Gándara's central interest is education policy research, with a focus on language policy, Latino students, and college access for underrepresented minorities.

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