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Latinx Leaders Advancing Educational & Racial Equity

For Latinx Heritage Month, our community partners share how their personal journeys sparked their passion for supporting the next generation of leaders.

By Laura Zingg

September 14, 2020

A student wearing a cap and gown.

The Latinx community is not a monolith, but full of rich complexity and history. This community includes individuals with roots in dozens of countries worldwide and those with multiple racial identities, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.

As we celebrate Latinx Heritage Month, we spoke to four Teach For America partners from different backgrounds within the Latinx diaspora. They share how they are working to disrupt racism within their communities and ensuring that more Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have a seat at the table—in schools, policy, and leadership. Driven by their personal stories, these leaders have become mentors, connectors, healers, and door-openers for the next generation of rising leaders who share their backgrounds.

Healing Through Courageous Conversations About Race

Navigating candid conversations about race and racism can be difficult. For Luis Versalles (he, him, his), it’s his full-time passion.

Versalles is the director of pre-K-12 district partnerships at Courageous Conversation, a division of  Pacific Educational Group, which has been engaging, sustaining, and deepening interracial dialogue for nearly three decades. 

Versalles and his team support the largest swath of the organization’s work, partnering with pre-K-12 schools to envision an educational experience that prioritizes racial literacy and social justice in education. Courageous Conversation works with superintendents, school boards, educators, students, and families to offer coaching, workshops, and certification programs to empower others to facilitate conversations about identity and racism in different contexts.

“We're organized around a belief that systemic racism is the most devastating of the factors impacting our children of all races,” Versalles says. “The work becomes, how do we envision a schooling process that unapologetically is about creating not only racially literate young people of all races but is centering the needs of the historically least served families and communities.”

For Versalles, this work is deeply personal. As a young Afro-Cuban growing up in Minneapolis, Versalles recalls trying to reconcile conflicting stories about his identity—stories of pride for Afro-Cubans’ struggle and resilience, while also confronting “a soft tenor” of anti-Black sentiment.

“Those are some of the experiences I’ve had—of both affirmation and challenge with anti-blackness within my own family. My work has shown me that this residue of systemic racism is not unique to me,” Versalles says. “That's why I'm very grateful for this work. I didn't always feel like I had a tool or a way to have that hard conversation with people.”

Versalles is encouraged by the increased consciousness and conversation he’s encountered within the Latinx community around the deep history and complexity of Latinx identities. Through his work, he creates spaces for people to explore the intersection of Black, Latinx,  Indigenous, and other identities, which are often overlooked in racial equity transformation efforts.

While there is still a long way to go, Versalles’s work provides healing spaces for others. For Versalles, one of his most powerful healing experiences has been mentoring a Black boys’ group at his son’s elementary school, alongside Black males from the community. Versalles brings his skills into the space and helps students process their racial navigation while also challenging them to see their role as racial equity leaders.

“We create a space for their voices to be centered and really to affirm their experiences,” Versalles says. “Personally, that is probably some of the most meaningful work I've done.”

“The work becomes, how do we envision a schooling process that unapologetically is about creating not only racially literate young people of all races but is centering the needs of the historically least served families and communities.”

Luis Versalles (he, him, his)

Director of Pre-K-12 District Partnerships, Courageous Conversation

Empowering Families, Communities, and Future Leaders

Candice Castillo (she, her, hers) is passionate about service—personally and in her role as the executive director of equity and outreach at Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas. Castillo oversees the district’s family engagement programs, including parent education, support and resources for underserved families, and mentoring, and non-academic support for students.

This year, much of Castillo’s work has focused on supporting families and students through the pandemic and school closures. Castillo’s department partnered with local organizations to expand the reach of needed services for students and families, from meals to technology. Recognizing that underserved families often might not understand how to access support for navigating the school system, Castillo’s team also launched a series of parent webinars. Families receive training and resources on how to support their children’s virtual learning and access the district’s available resources, including food distribution and mental health services.

“A lot of times, our families and our communities, they look to the school to be that support for them,” Castillo says. “We have been very intentional about offering as many resources as possible to help address some of those gaps.”

Castillo’s journey began in Panama, where she was born and raised. She grew up in a racially diverse community where people from different ethnic backgrounds spoke Spanish and Indigenous languages. When she moved to the U.S. in 1998, she discovered that many people were curious about her identity. These moments are often conversation starters.

“I'm an Afro-Latina, in other words, a Black Latina. And I'm proud of that identifier because I don't think I have to choose one over the other. I'm not more Latina than Black, and I'm not more Black than Latina. I'm both. I think we need to be proud to acknowledge our heritage, both from an ethnic and a cultural standpoint,” Castillo says.

In addition to expanding opportunities for education and community connections at HISD, Castillo also serves as the first Afro-Latina president of the Houston chapter of Prospanica, a national organization for Latinx professionals’ career development. As unemployment has spiked during the pandemic, Castillo says Prospanica’s work is more important than ever for ensuring that Latinx professionals don’t fall behind during tough economic times. 

“The success of our communities shouldn't be the exception. It should be the norm,” Castillo says. “And when you have the right people in the right positions who can use their influence to bring that change, then change happens. That's when we say, 'Si, se puede,' yes, we can.”

Supporting Latinx Professionals to Lead Systems Change

Marco Davis (he, him, his) is the President and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI), a national nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to developing the next generation of Latinx leaders. The organization offers fellowships and internships for young Latinx students and professionals pursuing careers in public policy, nonprofit, and other sectors. Since 1978, more than 4,000 alumni have completed CHCI leadership programs, gaining hands-on experience working on Capitol Hill and serving in congressional offices and federal agencies.

Young Latinx professionals who join CHCI bring an abundance of skills and talents. Many are also the first in their family to navigate a career in the policy field. CHCI helps remove barriers to career advancement by offering paid professional development opportunities where participants gain experience while also accessing a network that can help open doors. They also learn “the ropes,” the small details that can make a big difference in their career trajectory, such as how to write a thoughtful thank you letter and what kind of suit to wear on the job.

“Those are sort of subtle details that can be barriers for our community, because we don't have people who've been there before,” Davis says. “They're often blazing a trail in their professional paths and into leadership roles.”

As CHCI continues to push for progress at the intersection of racial equity and policy, the national protests against anti-Black racism have sparked critical conversations among participants about what it means to lead change—both at the grassroots and systems levels. Recently, Davis led a series of virtual panel discussions exploring Anti-Blackness in the Latinx Community and Policy Solutions to Combat Racial Inequality on how to change policy through an anti-racist lens.

“Now, a conversation has grown about how large numbers of people don't necessarily have to descend on the Hill to add pressure and offer new solutions and ideas for how public policies should change and adapt,” Davis says.

Davis hopes these conversations will continue and will lead to a deeper understanding of the diaspora within the Latinx community and increase the visibility of Afro-Latinx people—who like other members of the Black community, have long been underrepresented in leadership. Davis is one of the only Afro-Latinx CEOs of a national Latinx organization. Growing up, he did not encounter many role models who shared his unique background. His father is Jamaican and speaks fluent Spanish, his mother from Mexico. Davis regularly navigated two different cultures, which had a significant influence on his career path.

Through his work at CHCI, he hopes to create more space for members to explore the intersection of race, identity, and leadership and disrupt biases within the Latinx community, which will open up more opportunities for future leaders. 

“Thinking long term, I have every faith that we will have more diverse representation in leadership, and therefore, people will be able to see themselves, and they'll realize truly that they are capable of anything,” Davis says.

“In the interim, I think the fact that we are talking about it means that people will not resign themselves to the idea that they will never be a leader just because they've never seen it yet.”

“We need leaders of color—diverse leadership that can speak to children's needs in our country at every place where a policy decision is made that affects children and families.”

Mildred Otero (she, her, hers)

Senior Vice President, National Impact, Leadership for Educational Equity

Increasing Leaders of Color on Capitol Hill and Around the Country

For Mildred Otero (she, her, hers), supporting emerging leaders of color has become her life’s work. Otero is the senior vice president of national impact at Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), a nonprofit network of leaders focused on ending the injustice of educational inequity. LEE is a TFA partner and supports alumni to engage civically and politically.

Otero has been with LEE for more than five years and now oversees its national program teams, including elected leadership, policy and advocacy, organizing, and leadership development. Through these programs, LEE members can gain skills and experience to take on civic leadership opportunities at the local, state, and national levels.

After serving as Chief Counsel on Education for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Otero knew her next opportunity needed to center on helping others access positions of power to effect systems change. Or, as she says, “teaching others how to fish.”

“We need to build a pipeline of leaders. And we need to be clear that it needs to be led by those most proximate to the experience of inequity,” Otero says.

“We need leaders of color—diverse leadership that can speak to children's needs in our country at every place where a policy decision is made that affects children and families. So many of these decisions are made at the state and local levels.”

This work means removing barriers to entering these leadership roles, particularly for young leaders of color from marginalized communities and first-time entrants to civic leadership.

“One thing I've learned about working in the policy space is there are not a lot of opportunities to enter and gain experience working in halls of power unless you have a network that normally comes from privilege and money. Or you can't get those jobs without previous experience—but then how do you get that experience?”

The programs Otero has helped create at LEE aim to remove these barriers and open doors to life-changing career opportunities with impact on policy and advocacy. That includes offering paid fellowships in which members gain experience developing policies and working directly with leaders in state and federal policymaking—from governors, mayors, state DOEs as well as supporting members in fellowships with senators and Congress members. 

Throughout her career in policy and advocacy in Washington, D.C., Otero recalls many mentors who helped support her career. Few were women of color. Early on, she knew that she wanted to create a pathway for more young leaders of color to access roles from which they can influence systemic change.

She began by mentoring young professionals of color on Capitol Hill and continues to do so in her current role, over coffee and calls, and offering advice on decoding government environments and navigating legislative work.

“I felt compelled to become what I didn't have so that others had it,” Otero says, speaking about her role as a mentor. “I learned to create a path for myself. But the success of that path only matters if others walk through it and learn how to create their own path as well.”

 

Learn more about upcoming virtual events hosted by these partners and others in honor of Latinx Heritage Month.

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