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Volume 50 Number 2
Committee on Ethnic and Racial Affairs
Edited by Chiara Sabina
Penn State Harrisburg
Kinship, Justice and Students of Color
Written by Bianca Guzman
California State University
In 2012, I published an article in the Journal of Community Psychology (Guzmán, 2012) called “The educational journey of a Latina feminist community psychologist.” This piece was part of a special issue on feminist community psychology. The main goal of that piece was to describe in some detail the journey that had led me to become a Latina feminist community psychologist. At that point in my career I had just been promoted to an associate professor at a primarily teaching institution. Over my 21 years in academia I have taught and mentored hundreds of students, mostly of color. Recently, I was asked by the Committee on Ethnic and Racial Affairs to write a follow up piece on my journey and to discuss how my journey has included students. My first thought is why would a piece like this be interesting to the field of community psychology. I mean really, what could I add that has not already been said about teaching and mentoring students of color? So, my response to this question is complicated. First, there is too few Latina women who receive doctoral degrees in psychology, many fewer specialize in community psychology and fewer yet have the opportunity to teach and mentor at an urban institution that has a diverse student population. I am also a triple threat minority in that I am a woman, Latina, and an immigrant so the views and conclusions I hold about higher education may be unconventional. My colleagues and other academics comment that I am at the margins of my field. This is not an offensive comment to me since I have always felt that I am swimming upstream and that the theories and concepts that I endorse are often controversial. I find this a welcome challenge but it does not come without a lot of struggle. This idea of struggle is nothing new to people of color or to other groups or individuals that are often marginalized. Given this information perhaps what I share can provide some valuable information about how students of color can be mentored to succeed in higher education with techniques that may often seem unconventional. I must point out that I am not sharing any techniques that are radical; anyone can do the things that I am suggesting and I predict that rewarding experiences must follow. The other caveat that I want to mention is that I am 100% invested in the success of my students as I am sure we all are. I am also passionate and love interacting with them and I think the environment I create in the lab is warm and welcoming.
In order to situate my lived experiences with students I must explain my environmental context. The university where I reside is California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) a comprehensive university designated a Hispanic serving institution. Cal State LA is located in University Hills near East Los Angeles, where more than 97% of the population is Latina/o, less than 6% of the residents aged 25 or older have a four-year degree, and 24.2% live below the federal poverty rate (U.S Census Bureau, 2014). The student population on campus is 60.9% Latino/a, 14.4% Asian American, 7.8% White, and 4.1% African American. The majority of Cal State LA students are the first in their families to attend college and many are first generation Americans (CSU, 2016). Over 70% of the University’s students come from households with few economic resources. In 2016, 2,932 Bachelor’s degrees were awarded to Latina/os (Malhorta, 2016). Incidentally, the New York Times has ranked Cal State LA as the number one university in the United States (US) to propel low income students into upward mobility based on a study conducted by the Equality of Opportunity Project. The study found that Cal State LA has propelled a higher percentage of students from the bottom fifth of income into the top fifth of US earners, from among 2,000 colleges and universities that were studied (Aisch, Buchanan, Cox, & Quealy, 2017). I believe this makes Cal State LA a pretty incredible place to work and make a difference.
I am a full professor of Chicano (a) Latina (o) Studies and I am an administrator. I currently direct the universities cradle to career pipeline called Great Outcomes (GO) East LA. The GO East LA initiative is a presidential initiative that is administered out of the Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good. The GO East LA Initiative is a partnership between Cal State LA, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)- East, and East Los Angeles College (ELAC). The main goal of GO East LA is to advance a college going culture in the East Los Angeles area and to ensure that Latina/o students have the opportunity to complete higher education. There are many activities that we conduct to outreach and educate the community such as leadership visits to all participating schools, parent academies, kindergarten college admissions days, college/university campus visits, community celebrations and forums. We also conduct evaluations and research projects as part of the initiative. As can be seen from the activities that I engage in I do have a support staff of students who assist in the daily operations of the work. So, while I no longer teach in a traditional classroom sense I do have a social science research lab that administers the GO East LA initiative and it is here where I have student interns, directed study students, work-study students, students completing thesis and dissertations. Moreover, prior to being in this position I was the chair of the Chicana (o) Latina (o) department and I also taught.
So, where do I begin? Recently, I was reading a brief article about what the authors called impostor syndrome (Strahm, & Littlepage, 2017). The authors define impostor syndrome as an unwarranted fear that students have of being found out or discovered that they are stupid or unworthy to be a college student. The article goes on to conclude that the students who experience this syndrome in their sample were first-generation college students, working-class or poverty-class college students (sic), women, and/or students of color. The authors state that these students often described feeling inadequate—like they are frauds who do not deserve to be members of an intellectual or campus community. Although I can understand that students may often feel unprepared and uncertain about their abilities I think the conclusions reached by this work can be problematic. In my experience with hundreds of first generation mostly Latina/o students that come from families with little economic resources I see first-hand the struggles they have on campus and feeling like an impostor is just one of the many things that may impede their educational success. Moreover, in the last decade researchers, have talked about student’s feeling a sense of belonging is what helps students to succeed in higher education. So how does this idea of impostor syndrome connect with a student’s sense of belonging? In examining this work from a Latina critical race perspective as well as a feminist community psychologist perspective I see that these ideas of impostor syndrome and sense of belonging are to some degree focusing on locating a problem within the students rather than in locating a problem within institutions that may often be the inhibitors to the success of first generation students of color. This observation leads me to suggest that students and the success that they experience cannot be solely explained by their individual behavior. In examining students with an ecologically based lens we understand that students exist within and in between larger structures that often shape the path of their educational experiences and success. I believe if we situate a student within their ecologicalcontext then we are less likely to try and go down the path of diagnosing a student with a problem that then we have to provide a solution/service for. So, in a sense if a student is feeling like an impostor is it fair to suggest that institutions or faculty who hear students make these comments have a responsibility to critically examine how the institution or the ways of teaching/mentoring students may be promoting these feelings of inadequacy in students and explore how to change the larger university structures so that students can survive and thrive.
In returning to this idea of sense of belonging which to some extent suggests that students must conform and learn to belong to an institution in order to experience success is also challenging. This idea seems difficult to embrace when institutions of higher education have historically been dominant structures that perpetuate structural inequalities for students of color. For example, some researchers, have suggested that many students of color do not find a positive level of comfort on a university campus for their entire college career. Turner (1994) has pointed out that the metaphor of “we are a guest at someone else’s house” describes more what students feel. That is to say that students of color can never relax in someone else’s house and just put their feet up on the table, they must keep out of certain rooms and always be on their best behavior. Turner also suggests that this metaphor can be extended to the campus environment where students have no history of the space they occupy, there are no pictures that reflect their images, no scents they recognize and no sounds they hear in their own environments. I think what this work points to is that the behaviors of students and the outcomes of the interactions of student’s in an educational environment like a four-year university are complex and cannot be reduced to a syndrome or a sense of belonging. I am not suggesting that this work does not have worth, I am just not clear that the solutions being proposed are so one dimensional. As part of our training as community psychologists we do uphold that there are many factors to the success of students. So, do I have any suggestions? Well in my experience, I think that one of the ways that students can succeed is through the concept of kinship.
A couple of years back I read a book by Father Greg Boyle (2010) called Tattoos on the heart: The power of boundless compassion. The topic of the book was gang members and/or former gang members of all races and ethnicities. What I remember most about this book is that it made me see gang members in a different light. It shifted my conversation about who gang members were. Through Father Boyle’s stories of interactions with gang members both male and female I was able to see that there is no difference between a gang member and a student or myself. What this book taught me is that individuals who live in communities that have little to no resources are often left to turning to gangs in order to have kinship which is a complex web of support systems, feelings and emotions that humans need in order to be healthy and successful. I was reminded of this message again this past week when Father Boyle came to speak on campus. Father Boyle spoke eloquently about the lives of gang members and he kept saying “No kinship, no justice”. This really struck me because it made me question what justice looks like in an educational setting.
Merriam-Webster (2017) defines kinship in two ways 1) as the state of being related to the people in your family and 2) a feeling of being close or connected to other people. To me this signifies a pretty intense bond that humans make with each other in order to feel loved. Kinship means creating an environment with a student where the student feels perfectly whole and complete just the way they undergraduate students. I know from my own experiences as a psychology undergraduate student I hardly ever got to interact with the faculty member in charge of the research lab. Most often who I created kinship with was the graduate students. While I do believe that undergraduate students creating kinship with graduate students is important it is 0also vitally important for students to establish kinship with faculty members. The other criteria I have for students is that they must sign up for a year-long process whether they are student interns, directed study students, work-study students, or students completing thesis and dissertations. I also do not create a distinction between any of these student categories. To me all the students in the lab are here for one reason and that is to learn about how higher education works and how to create a path that they canbe successful in. We have weekly two-hour staff meetings with students where we discuss the interventions we are conducting, the research, and the community services we are delivering. As a lab, we also do weekly readings on a topic. The weekly readings are intended to advance the critical consciousness of the students so that students can awaken/advance their political consciousness as critical race scholars. Our meetings are also meant to be a safe space where students can learn from each other as well as from myself how to be critical researchers with the communities we conduct research with. They learn about the value of are. This idea of unconditional acceptance for a student is what I think is at the heart of feeling kinship. So how does this happen in a mentoring relationship between student and faculty member and/or administrator. I think that what is hard to understand is that in a traditional sense of a mentoring relationship we often assume that there is one individual who has more authority or position and this individual—usually the faculty/member administrator—is teaching or imparting some wisdom to the student/mentee. From my perspective, I do not believe that this is all a mentoring relationship can be. I am clear that students have as much to offer me as I have to offer them and it is in this development of a reciprocal mentoring relationship that creates a sense of kinship. In order to explain my mentoring relationships with my students I feel it necessary to describe the setting in which we interact.
As I mentioned previously I run a social science lab where students participate in a variety of ways. My goal for the lab is to have students have a well-rounded experience in community based research. I have learned over the years that in order to have a good cohort of students the magic number that I can mentor effectively is 10 students at any one given time. I feel that having any more than 10 students begins to cut down the quality of time and experiences I can create for the students and myself and that in turn affects kinship. I also believe that I am the one that needs to make the connections with undergraduate students. I know from my own experiences as a psychology undergraduate student I hardly ever got to interact with the faculty member in charge of the research lab. Most often who I created kinship with was the graduate students. While I do believe that undergraduate students creating kinship with graduate students is important it is also vitally important for students to establish kinship with faculty members. The other criteria I have for students is that they must sign up for a year-long process whether they are student interns, directed study students, work-study students, or students completing thesis and dissertations. I also do not create a distinction between any of these student categories. To me all the students in the lab are here for one reason and that is to learn about how higher education works and how to create a path that they can be successful in. We have weekly two-hour staff meetings with students where we discuss the interventions we are conducting, the research, and the community services we are delivering.
As a lab, we also do weekly readings on a topic. The weekly readings are intended to advance the critical consciousness of the students so that students can awaken/advance their political consciousness as critical race scholars. Our meetings are also meant to be a safe space where students can learn from each other as well as from myself how to be critical researchers with the communities we conduct research with. They learn about the value of the research that is socially conscious. They learn about how to see individual human behavior from an asset-based perspective rather than a cultural-deficit sense. We discuss at some length the cultural biases we all may hold and how to break down our thoughts and behaviors around these issues. These conversations are often difficult to have and sit through. My students and I share our own hardship experiences about surviving on campus and in our daily lives. This is a time where we all can offer advice as to what techniques we can use to cope and survive with in hostile environments. I feel that it is also important for them to hear that I continue to experience racism, discrimination, macroaggressions, micro-insults and micro-assaults both on campus and in the community. Often students feel that once you get to be a professor that racism, discrimination and any kind of negative interactions stop for a faculty member/administrator. I want them to realize that as mostly students of color they will have to deal with these issues for the entire duration of their academic journey. Initially many students are shocked that I would continue to experience negative consequences. I think this belief that students hold may be because they see faculty and administrators as individuals who are far superior in a university setting that they should not be experiencing these events. I think that once students hear m experiences it helps them to humanize faculty and administrators. It helps them to see that we are people just like them and that we continue to have personal challenges along with all the success we may experience. I think it also makes me vulnerable and this is what creates affinity between my students and I. They root for me as much as I root for them and once that occurs we are kin.
It is in these meetings where students share their lives and their insecurities. Prior to beginning our meetings, we always have a check-in where the students and I talk about our week and we say whatever we need to say to be present in the meeting. It is during these check-ins that we learn about each other’s aspirations, shortfalls and successes. We share family events, health concerns and overall life activities. In my experience our lab space becomes an extension of their family. This is not to say that we do not experience challenges and there are students who have not respected our safe space. All of these things have occurred and we have addressed these issues and have developed solutions that work for the entire group. We negotiate and re-examine our practices continuously. We call each other out if we feel someone has been inappropriate or hurt someone’s feelings. I have to admit this process takes a lot of commitment and energy and it is so worth it when it works. I see students who enter the lab scared to voice an opinion open up over the year and take leadership roles and offer advice about issues that we might be experiencing. The other key thing that happens in this process of kinship is that students become family to each other. They have each other’s back they become good friends and often go to events together outside of the lab. They give each other rides, they come to each other’s rescue if someone is sick and they cover for each other when necessary. They love and care for each other like family. This enables students to trust and this trust lets students explore issues they would have never considered.
One issue that I see student’s consistently exploring after they begin participating in the lab is the idea of graduate school. Many times, when students first come to the lab they are just looking to finish their bachelor’s degree and nothing more. As they watch other students talk about their aspirations and experiences in applying to master’s and doctoral programs they begin to change. Pretty soon they are also talking about graduate programs. To me this is just about the most rewarding experience I can have and in the 21 years that I have been teaching all the students that have participated in my lab have completed their bachelor’s degree and many have moved on to graduate programs. Finally, I am at a point where I have students that have become full professors and administrators and I just marvel at the idea that I had the opportunity to have been of service to them.
As a final note, I have to say that part of kinship is also sharing important events, food and having fun. I have had the privilege to do all these things with my students. I have even become a godmother to some of my student’s children. First, we always have food in the lab. I find that most college students are always hungry and so students are almost always in a better mood if they have some food. In addition to food in the lab we celebrate monthly birthdays and you guessed it we bring food in a potluck style. I also have events in my house and student’s invite me to their family events. The most special event of all is graduation where I get to meet my student’s parents and I get to tell them how incredible their student is. These are the times I enjoy most of all seeing the families be so proud of the things their student has accomplished.
In conclusion, I return to the idea of kinship creating justice. Can I claim that I have contributed to justice for at least the students I have mentored and have mentored me throughout the years? My answer is that I have worked locally and narrowly with small groups of Latina/o students over the years and I feel that all of the students that have been in my lab are creating justice in the settings they are in. If this is part of the criteria, then I say “yes, I have made a small difference in the microcosm of my side of the world.” Moreover, I have written these observations in the spirit of offering my insights about what practices can advance successful students of color. My observations are not definitive and may not be useful to some but the thoughts I have shared have been my lived experiences.
Aisch, G., Buchanan, L., Cox, A., & Quealy, K. (2017). Some colleges have more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60. Find yours. The New York Times. Retrieved February 13, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/upshot/some-colleges-havemore-students-from-the-top-1-percent-than-the-bottom-60.html?emc=eta1&_r=1
Boyle, G. (2010). Tattoos on the heart. The power of boundless compassion. Detroit, MI: Free Press.
CSU Enrollment by ethnic group and student level, Fall 2016. (2017, January 03). Retrieved February 13, 2017, from http://www.calstate.edu/as/stat_reports/2016-2017/feth03.htm
Guzmán, B. L., (2012). The educational journey of a Latina feminist community psychologist. Journal of Community Psychology, 40: 62-76. DOI:10.1002/jcop.20503
Malhotra, M. (2016, December 13). CSU undergraduate and graduate degrees. Retrieved from http://www.calstate.edu/as/stat_reports/2015-2016/deg12.htm
Merriam Webster (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2017, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kinship February 13, 2017,
Strahm, A., & Littlepage, E. (2017). Campus highlight: California State University, Stanislaus “Do I belong here?” Unmasking the impostor syndrome. Bringing theory to practice. http://www.bttop.org/news-events/campushighlight-california-stateuniversity-stanislaus-
Turner, C. S. V. (1994). Guests in someone else’s house: students of color. The Review of Higher Education, 17(4), 355.
United States Census Bureau. (2014). Small area income and poverty estimates. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/did/www/saipe/data/interactive/saipe.html?s_appName=saipe&map_yearSelector=2014&map_geoSelector=aa_c&s_state=06&s_county=06037.