Lady O: A Mutual Birthday Wish for Equal Education

Lady Obama,

Birthday cheers from one January spirit to another!

I am writing not just to celebrate your birthday, but also to remember the younger Princeton scholar whose thesis has allowed us to see the struggle that still remains today. I thank you for your thesis, for being part of the Education Summit, and for not changing.

On your birthday weekend is also the Education Summit, and so I believe this is a great wave of synchronicities in which your vision, our vision — that of a more inclusive university, where students from marginalized communities feel welcomed as individuals, where the next generation represents a culmination of dreams and hopes that are necessary for addressing the questions of tomorrow — can come to closer realization; a birthday wish, if you will.

And, so, in addressing these questions arise another set of questions:

  • rising student debt

  • rising college President pay rate

  • the DREAM Act

  • the Achievement Gap

  • the School-to-Prison Pipeline

  • Texas’s State Board of Education’s cultural erasure

  • Increasing recruitment and retention for students of color from marginalized communities into institutions of higher education, especially the “elite”

  • Creating cultural awareness on campuses so as to foster an environment for first-generation students and/or students from marginalized backgrounds
  • institutional racism in form of the glass ceiling on the total population of student, faculty, and staff of color at elite institutions

  • and even the more philosophical problem of making students from marginalized communities feel more included at these institutions.

I’ve read Mr. Obama’s poetry and critical thought — and in this capacity would like to share that I, too, am a poet and critical thinker. I believe we share this affinity for a love that transcends boundaries, hate, and confusion, and also the need to create a better world through that human connection. I believe that love compels to me speak and act.

Lady Obama, I thank you for the candor of your thesis, for the connection I felt albeit we represent different spaces and times; and I also feel that I have been made more aware of my Latinidad after having attended Macalester, a predominantly white, “elite”, private college in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Macalester provided my first mattress, first bedroom, the promise of consistently healthy meals, a gym, community garden, artistic spaces, a neighborhood in which I could feel safe (though I was arrested at gun pointed, pressured to identify a suspect, but declined because I could not recall any of the three faces), and I ultimately found, on my own accord, spaces in which I felt culturally accepted — the Department of Multicultural Department, and our English and American Studies Departments. I think it’s understandable that the latter would be one of the more diverse, and so I came to appreciate the English Department for the diversity it did contain. Outside of these departments, there is very little overall diversity in the college.

I stayed within the American Studies and English Departments, because they were the few spaces where I felt first like a student, and second like a person with a certain skin tone.

Last year, I wrote an article addressing the 10-year 20% glass ceiling on the total number of faculty and staff of color which Macalester hires — a trend that seems to operate at other “elite”, “hyperselective” institutions of higher education, too. It all came about whenever Wang Ping — the oldest English Department faculty member, a judge for both the National Endowments for the Arts and Griffin Prize of Canada, director for the international Kinship of Rivers Project, and who authors consistently ground-breaking poetry — spoke up about having been denied several promotions, which were instead given to newly hired staff with a fraction of her publications, and who were also usually white and male. In my article I present the need to address this glass ceiling as a perpetuation of institutional racism, and also the need to resolve it.

While Macalester used its monetary resources to fund lawyers and attempted to impose those costs onto Wang Ping’s personal finances, we ultimately won against her deposition. We were happy to have won, because it was also a symbolic gesture that the (majority white) administration at Macalester accepted the identification of institutional racism; however, and around the same time, the college “let go” of another Asian-American faculty member, and thus “balanced out” the population of faculty of color on campus — a mathematical prediction I conjecture in the article. It was and is at this point, what we saw, again, the perpetutation of the glass ceiling.

It appears to me that we have thus reached the next frontier in Civil Rights: representation as faculty, staff, administration, and presidents of color in institutions of higher education — especially those of “hyperselective” status.

I made aware that the critical committees at Macalester — namely the Faculty Personnel Committee, that which decides fair pay, promotion, tenure — remain majority white, and so do not reflect the shift in paradigm Macalester theoretically upholds; its four pillars are: multiculturalism, internationalism, civic engagement, and academic excellence. And yet when I erected these four pillars by discussing the problematic nature of Macalester’s 20% glass ceiling on faculty and staff of color retention, which has occurred for at least 10 years, the following year, in 2014, Macalester’s committee did not diversify but rather regressed by voting out the remaining 3 faculty of color and replacing them with white members instead.

I am writing to you, because I believe that higher education is in a state of emergency. Lady Obama, I was happy to read your thesis, because it made me feel as if I was not alone. And I do believe there are other students out there who feel the same way.  Indeed, a recent graduate from Wheaton focused on the retention rate for students of color, and between our two articles there are clear trends which affect students, faculty, and staff of color on campus in very similar ways.

I am writing because time is critical. The question is how to bring in more students to the universities and increase their matriculation and retention, especially if they represent historically marginalized communities. I graduated from Macalester not just because of my personal drive, but because I surrounded myself with faculty and staff of color with whom I could identify, who could understand me as a person, and thus guide me in the exact ways I needed. It is crucial for students to find their true mentor.

I find it hard to compromise that the same majority-white faculty members, who perpetuate the power against faculty and staff of color, are also professors; that these “teachers” see first my skin and then, maybe, recognize my brain; moreso, that they keep behind the faculty and staff of color, whom one day I wish to be, I thus begin to question: If these white faculty members and committees do not recognize the gifts of my professors — and if these decisions reflect in institutionally racist patterns, which thus reflect their aggregate individual attitudes and behaviors towards scholars of color — how will they recognize the gift in me, in my classmates and colleagues?

Please, let me be clear in saying there is great support from individual faculty members, especially faculty of color, who were — and even to this day, are — dedicated to see me and many alumni of color thrive. It’s usually the majority white administration and majority white committees which continue to hold back students of color, by repressing the individual faculty and staff of color, who are interested invested in creating structural support.

The road toward becoming the faculty, staff, professor, administrator, president of color is also a difficult journey. Just today at the dinner table, my sister — in her second year at a community college — informed me she did not qualify for financial aid; and had to pay out of pocket. I myself, though an MFA student, had to take out loans so that I could have a place to live, food to eat, a metrocard to last me, and even now do not have my own computer. The debt I have incurred is one I will be paying most likely well into retirement.

It’s not uncommon to hear people from my neighborhood — the North Side of Fort Worth, a community of majority-migrant, ESL, first-generation people of lower income — to weigh out either the short-term pay of a vocational job with the long-term debt with which higher education has now become “equitable”. And I cannot necessarily blame them. The average student debt has increased by 63%, roughly $25 thousand dollars, in less than a decade; and though there seems to be a movement against the banks’ avarice, at which rate or when this might be addressed seems far from predictable. Further, this equation is in certain ways a privilege in and of itself; because the North Side is majority-migrant, some people will never have the opportunity to weight such a decision — the opportunity for higher education is indeed more of a dream, and this is why we call my brothers and sisters DREAMers.

I want to clarify that I’m not trying to be a “downer” on your birthday; rather, I see this as a celebration: that, because of your work with the community, people like me, who call the North Side home, have risen despite circumstance; that, I believe, your thesis from ‘85 had something to do with the liberation I’ve found today; this is, I believe, the butterfly effect at work, and I am able to “converse” with you through this letter even now. And we can celebrate the gifts that have been gifted through some strange synchronicity, earned through determination and vigor, by giving back — as we already do, and by this, I thank you again — to those who are still in the circumstances and times we can identify as our personal past.

Lady Obama, your thesis appeared in 1985, and yet the sentiments of nuanced discrimination, alienation, not-being-brain-enough still resonate when I graduated in 2010. I see my baby sister, niece, and nephew, and fear that their generosity, tenacity to learn, and even how they question unequal polities (“Why does A get  ______, but not me?”), will go unnoticed; that they will have to navigate the already convoluted racial constructions in higher education; that, if they decide to become poets, they will use their voice on dismantling racism, and not on the creation of love (I hope to have dismantled at least some of it, so that their focus could be on love). I know we are far from this ideal world, but I believe reaching the mountain top begins with steps like these. This summit is the perfect way to begin these hard, serious questions; to recognize that the future has given an opportunity to provide justice for even the inequities our former selves have lived, the same experiences others live today.

Mr. and Lady Obama, I thank you for the Summit, for your warm hearts and the many ways you make this country more inclusive. I thank you for the thunder you made with your theses, your poetry. I thank you for the ability to say thank you, for the opportunity to tell you what we might have known all along.

It is a pleasure even to think that these words might meet your eyes. It wasn’t until your election and residency at The House that I first began to feel a part of this great nation; that you represent the hope we have heard all along awakened in me a new sense of possibility.

Best,

Daniel Vidal Soto
AKA Professor Mex

PS: My mother wants me to relay that Mr. Obama’s election was the first in which she voted (and, of course, what a mother requests of her son, he must obey!).

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