Written by Alexander Vasquez-Ibarra
Alexander is the Communications & Engagement Coordinator at Our Children Oregon and here shares his first-hand experience with reading, life-long learning, and spoken histories in relationship with Oregon's education system.
While a broken education system is not a unique problem to the United States, in the state I live in (Oregon) 72% of 4th graders do not know how to read. Our education system is widely failing marginalized students when it comes to teaching reading. As the oldest child, i’m one of the lucky ones though. When I was a wee 3 year old, my mom utilized a program known as “Hooked on Phonics” to teach me how to speak, read, write, and understand words and the sounds that letters make. Many of my siblings and extended family have not been so lucky and were taught in schools “balanced literacy” instead of structured phonics, like my instruction. Only did I learn about the devastating impact of these two different methods and the disparities they create years later as an adult.
Literacy is a civil rights issue in the age of information we live in, and it’s little surprise that when looking at race and class these disparities are widespread and rooted in empirical evidence. I am reminded of what Audre Lorde writes: “in a country where racism, sexism, and homophobia are inseparable” because this is the current context of the world we inhabit. When we think about how young learners learn how to read and write, it all comes down to if students feel valued for their community cultural wealth and the unique strengths they bring to the table. When students are made to feel less than, undeserving, or that our lived experiences are not relevant in the classroom it leads students to often become disinterested in their studies. Representation matters. Meeting kids where they are at matters. Can you reflect on a time when your presence inspired a student to keep moving forward?
In order to reach students who are being failed by the current education system through no fault of their own, teaching history reflective of ethnic studies and lived experiences of BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ communities and histories is a way to increase access to quality education and meet the needs of marginalized students and learners. Interweaving instruction in multiple languages teaches kids who speak multiple languages that their multilingualism is an asset, rather than a deficit. We can begin to teach reading in an organized manner as well when we make sure everyone has access to quality literacy education, books for all, diverse books that students can relate to and learn from and spaces where students can reflect, try, fail, and try again. An inclusive learning environment where students’ needs are met and marginalized youth are protected from prejudice and discrimination. Reflect back to middle school for a moment. This was one of the unsafest places for me as a young queer person. Did you support and make friends with LGBTQIA2S+ youth when you were in middle school? Were you a bully? Were you a bystander?
Can you reflect on a time when your presence inspired a student to keep moving forward?
I have experienced prejudice and discrimination and racial profiling in all the public schools I have attended in Oregon. I navigated a high school of 2,000 students and came out Valedictorian. I was then the first in my immediate family to attend University at a Liberal Arts institution in the undergraduate level where I graduated Magna Cum Laude. With each success and milestone accomplished, there were many experiences and varying levels of obstacles including accessing basic needs while navigating predominantly white institutions and facing unconscious bias. Finding mentors and building community care have been the unseen support networks that have kept me afloat all these years. Friends, teachers, professors, colleagues, and mentors who have accepted me and celebrated me for who I am keeps me going. I have built my own chosen family. My passion for education is part of an intergenerational thread connected to the dreams of my grandparents. What dreams did your parents or grandparents have for your life goals? How have those dreams impacted the way you see yourself? Did their dreams create stress for you?
Did you support and make friends with LGBTQIA2S+ youth when you were in middle school? Were you a bully? Were you a bystander?
My grandmother’s story inspires me to this day. In her early twenties she fled military dictatorship in Central America and the active genocide and land displacement against her Indigenous community in her own country. She met my grandfather in the USA and had 4 kids. She dreamed for them to pursue education and to escape working in the fields or in seamstressing as she and her husband had. She herself faced innumerable challenges, hardships, and barriers to accessing basic humanitarian services and education in her home country and along the journey to this country. She continues to be an elder and storykeeper of ancient familial wisdom that she imparts to me. Her lack of formal education did not hinder her ability to provide love, teach the value of hard work, or impart grit onto my father and my tías who still live.
I learn with her when we visit and we make tamales, pupusas, and other ancestral foods passed down as part of our cultural heritage. All the best knowledge-sharing happens in the kitchen, cooking collaboratively and this act of community care is a part of my unfading memory. It reminds me of the power of listening and learning by doing. Hands-on learning has always been her style and the stories she shares with me about her sacrifices and dreams are etched into my memory and associated with cooking cultural foods. I am reminded that every person has the capacity to act and learn and try and fail. We all move and learn at our paces and that uniqueness is beautiful. In what ways do you learn best? If you are a more visual learner or auditory learner, can you imagine if the predominant way of teaching and instruction in your classroom was not the way you learn? If it was inaccessible and hard to picture how you would get through every single day?
All the best knowledge-sharing happens in the kitchen, cooking collaboratively and this act of community care is a part of my unfading memory. It reminds me of the power of listening and learning by doing.
My grandmother’s act of lifelong resilience to flee her home country and bring as many of her siblings with her—as well as her unwavering commitment to seeking freedom and a better life for herself and my family continues to awe me. She dreamed education could change lives. I dream that education can change society.
Thanks to her sacrifices and her efforts my family was able to have a better life, access to better education, and opportunities she didn’t have for herself. I am my grandmother’s grandson. Her dreams live on in me. The paths she paved for my father and for myself are an act of defiance in a world that seeks to gaslight and erase us. I take up this mantle and continue to pave pathways of new beginnings and choices for the next generation of students so that all children can thrive.
After earning my Bachelor’s Degree (B.A.) from my university, Willamette University located in Salem, Oregon on Kalapuya Land I worked as a Career Advisor for Public Service, Nonprofit, & Law to support interested undergraduate students. I used personal storytelling of my own experience working in Oregon politics and advocacy and empathized with their dreams. I created physical representation and a potential roadmap of an alum who graduated the previous year. Several students shared with me how powerful and inspiring it was to see representation and to learn from my story. Representation matters and it can change lives.
My grandmother’s story inspires me to this day. She dreamed education could change lives. I dream that education can change society.
Mentorship and connecting with people from vastly different lived experiences is a type of often lost art. When we empathize with those alike and not alike, we see mirrors to our innermost selves at other points in the journey. How can you view the world from someone else’s perspective? When we ask for permission and then truly center their stories and hold their vulnerabilities and needs with tenderness and care, we realize that perspective takes on a type of magic. I believe that when the public learns the perspectives and points of view from marginalized communities, and particularly marginalized students, we can build an education system that is reflective of the student population, representative of their needs, and designed to teach holistically. As the public, we can invest affirmation and support for BIPOC & LGBTQIA2S+ students to reimagine what education looks like, just like my grandmother invested affirmation and support in my own dreams. Can you take a few minutes today and look into the policies as they affect education in your region, whether they are school district/school board or statewide policy level. What is one thing you would tell your elected officials that they can do better on to support marginalized youth? Then write it and send it to them. Research local advocates in your community. How can you get involved locally and make a difference in someone’s education journey today?