Leadership Story: Isabel Morales, 2013 Graduate School Fellow, Los Angeles

I received a card from a student last month, which read: "You're such an inspiration for me because I see how much a girl from Boyle Heights has accomplished and I think to myself, I can do it as well." I am my students. I feel like I say that a lot, but sometimes, people need reminding.

My elementary years were spent in a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood that my mother, father, sister, and I shared. Our living room was frequently converted into a bedroom, a temporary refuge for uncles who had fought with their wives and needed a place to go, or family members who had just crossed over from Mexico. I thought I was a regular kid, just like the ones I saw on TV. I didn't consider myself different until the day that my elementary school, a magnet school in the Hollywood Hills, informed me that I would be receiving a "charity basket." Not knowing what that meant, I went home and asked my mother, who responded, "It's when you give stuff to poor people." Poor people...?

Young and oblivious to the socioeconomic differences between my classmates and I, it had never occurred to me that I was poor. I didn't understand why my family reacted the way they did when I went home and told them that I had shared the following journal entry with my class: "This weekend, we went to the yard sales again. That's where I got the dress I'm wearing today. It only cost 50 cents!" I didn't understand why my family members' faces got red, or why they told me "Don't tell people we go to yard sales!"

When we moved to a two-bedroom apartment in East L.A., I was excited that, for the first time in my life, I did not have to share a bed or a room with my parents. Despite popular media images of East LA as a violent community, we lived a mostly peaceful existence. We had one gangster neighbor, saw one drive-by, and experienced one auto theft; but I had a Super Nintendo and Doctor Martens, and was really happy in my new apartment. At that time, the schools in my new neighborhood had a reputation for underperformance and violence, so I continued riding the school bus to magnet schools located miles away on the other side of the city.

As I grew older I began to realize the patterns of inequity and injustice that plagued low-income, youth of color. My daily school bus rides showed me that Los Angeles was a city of contradictions and juxtapositions, neglected neighborhoods adjacent to impeccable communities that seemed worlds apart. It seemed unfair that I and so many other students should have to leave our neighborhoods in order to receive an adequate education. Opportunities to learn and thrive should exist in all communities, regardless of socioeconomic status. My cousins, and my sister, who all attended the local neighborhood schools, brought home old textbooks and horrible, mind-numbing assignments. I'd get upset, and would tell them, "that's all gonna change when I become a teacher. I'm gonna give our community a REAL education."

I chose become a teacher, to provide students like me with a rigorous and inspiring educational experience. I've been teaching for nine years, and am going back to school to earn my doctorate. My reasons for pursuing this degree have nothing to do with career opportunities or salary bumps. When I was growing up, I didn't know anyone with a Master's degree, much less a doctorate. My community needs role models, and I'm getting this degree to show my students that even though we don't see many people like us with advanced degrees, it CAN be done.

But getting a degree isn't enough.

My family also instilled in me a deep sense of justice. When I was in 8th grade, my mom started taking classes at the local community college. She'd come home after her Chicano Studies classes, talking to me about the artistic and historic achievements of people like us.

When I was in 9th grade, California passed proposition 187, which sought to deny undocumented immigrants educational and healthcare services. My dad, who is an immigrant from Mexico, took my sister and I to the streets, where I participated in my first protest.

In the 11th grade, my Spanish teacher showed us the Chicano documentary series, and taught me about the rich history of East LA, where students walked out of their schools to demand better educational opportunities.

In the 12th grade, the ban on affirmative action in public universities went into effect, and the students of UCLA, where I would study in the fall, held a large student protest, which dominated the airwaves.

Fast-forward 15 years, and we're still talking about immigration and affirmative action. My dad is currently in deportation hearings. My students and their parents are, too.

And it pushes me to ask myself, and my students, what will we do with our education and our resources? Will we become the leaders, policymakers, and community advocates that our families so desperately need?

I am my students, and we've got a lot of work to do.

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