Last fall, Associate Director for Academic Civic Engagement and Scholarship Emily Oliver and community organizer Cynthia Gonzalez taught a course on civic engagement. Below, Gonzalez reflects on the experience. This is the first in a two-part series.
By Cynthia Gonzalez, Community Organizer and Co-Instructor of Community-based Learning & Scholarship: Ethics, Practices, taught Fall 2020
Cynthia, who are you in your own words?
I am a daughter of Mexican immigrants who would come to MN for 6 months as a migrant worker to work in seasonal jobs of the pea and corn packing in Montgomery in 1989. In 1994, my husband and I decided to stay to work to obtain financial stability since where we lived back in Texas there were no job opportunities like here. It was very difficult for us and our families to leave everything behind and start a new life with our three young children only. I worked in different jobs from farm work to factories, from real estate agent to office work to community organizing. My mentality was programmed to just work and work, help my husband with all the housing expenses, save money, buy a house and give the best to our children.
After working in various fields of work, without any purpose, with a closed mind, I came across a crude reality of what many people in my community lived, especially families without documents. It was in my last job in Northfield at the CAC, that my eyes were opened on how unfair laws and policies impacted Latino families: economically, socially, their health and well-being. Especially immigrants and low-income families. I saw a lot of injustices being done to the Latino community who were experiencing cheap labor, wage theft, unsafe conditions of work, many were paying a lot of car tickets for not having a DL and others who were not able to obtain a car insurance, were getting tickets for not carrying a car insurance. Most of them were paying twice to 3 times higher in car insurance premiums than a regular person with a driver license would pay. I wasn’t aware about policies, laws, local ordinances, human rights, because my mind was programmed to just work and work. I believe that in order to succeed here in the United States, we must become informed on how a system works. Become aware of the rules of a game in order to play and be part of the systems. In 2015, I decided to join the cause of driver license campaign with Mesa Latina back then and now MN immigrant movement and started the work as community organizer where I found my passion.
How did you become involved in co-teaching this course and why were you interested in doing this? Do you think it was important that you and Emily had worked together in the PAR project? If so, how?
I became involved in co-teaching this course through my partnership with the Center for Community and Civic Engagement and my work as Latino community organizer with Community Without Borders, which was the avenue to be part of the Faribault-Carleton Participatory Action Research project. A community-based project focused on educational equity.
I was interested to co-teach this course because of the work I have been doing with Emily for the last 2 years. We have developed an authentic relationship and a healthy trust in relation as a person first and then to the collaborative work. In this relationship of partnership the titles do not exist, nor individualism and always honoring the knowledge and dignity of each other.
I never imagined I was capable of co-teaching a course of this nature at a higher institution because we are two worlds completely different but interconnected in a way. When I think about the environment at a university, I think about privilege, intellectual people and mostly white with a lot of power. Whereas, community work deals with communities impacted by colonization in the past, not informed of the systems in which they lived in, oppressed, disadvantaged, without privileges, low income families, and people of color. But in reality, there’s a hidden treasure in these communities that flourishes and is empowered when the necessary tools are provided. However, my perspective towards the university environment changed when I met Emily, Amel [Gorani, past Director of the CCCE], Anita [Chikkatur, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies], and staff from the Center for Community and Civic Engagement at Carleton and was impressed by the connection with the community and the simplicity of treatment of community partners.
Also, I was interested in co-teaching this course to learn, understand more deeply, and interchange knowledge from both sides. And most of all, that the students would experience more directly with the real world outside the school setting.
What was it like co-planning and teaching this class in this political moment (alongside the protests for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd, the ongoing pandemic crisis and the looming presidential election)?
I think that each life event marks an important story where the experience is recorded. Co-teaching this class in the midst of these unique events in current history, it was a moment to: analyze the vulnerability of people of color, minorities, and poverty; to bring out the heart of this nation where racism has from the beginning been the system to oppress and control people and thus maintain that power of selfishness; to witness the suffering of many families who lost a loved one due to complications with covid-19, lost a job and consequently a financial stability leaving them without housing and food; to witness also all the division of democracy. I believe that by addressing these issues in classroom and having discussions, connected us in a way not only to be in solidarity but also to act and take responsibility for a social change that includes the well-being of a community, leaving aside racism, discrimination, and white privilege.
Many students reflected that your “Story of Self” presentation, about how you became involved in community work, really framed the core ideas of the class. Why did you choose to include that presentation and why do you think it was so effective?
I think that when one begins to work on a project where there will be interaction for a time, developing an authentic relationship of trust, transparency, and honesty, being yourself, will shape the effectiveness and product of the work with whom you are working with. In the presentation I gave, I wanted to share a bit of my background to lay down a foundation of how I became involved in community organizing through my personal experiences. I wanted to show the students that situations that we live and experience in life shape our character for better or for worse. In my case, these experiences awakened in me this passion to work with people by organizing for social change where our community thrives socially, economically, and politically. Our Latino community are hard workers and very familiar that possess many beautiful assets such as culture, knowledge, history from our ancestors, traditions, food, and are skillfully in artcraft.
A fund is currently being developed to support community partner co-educators. To support this effort, class TA Win Wen Ooi ’22 recorded a short video reflecting on the course. Check it out!