Author: Alyssa Rodriguez

West Wind Aims to Provide Web Accessibility for All

West Wind Aims to Provide Web Accessibility for All

Reading Time: 2 minutes

In an effort to learn about ways to make websites more accessible to all, I had a conversation with Jonathan Green, Communications Specialist with the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN) recently. Thank you to Jonathan for taking the time to share his knowledge.

His advice was very helpful with respect to being mindful about the difficulties some may experience looking at the internet or participating in webinars. Continue reading “West Wind Aims to Provide Web Accessibility for All”

Two Latino-Focused Events, This October!

Two Latino-Focused Events, This October!

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The Latino Midwest Symposium and Iowa Latino Conference are taking place in Iowa City October 11-13.

The University of Iowa Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, under the direction of three UofI professors (Claire Fox, Omar Valerio-Jimenez and Santiago Vaquera-Vasquez), organized the symposium which features a stellar lineup of academics well-versed in Midwest Latino influences across many fields. Continue reading “Two Latino-Focused Events, This October!”

Keeping the DREAM Alive

Keeping the DREAM Alive

Reading Time: 2 minutes

A new online higher education program has given renewed hope to students of undocumented status (or, “DREAMers” as they are affectionately known).

On July 30, applications became available to the public for students interested in attending National Dream University, a collective formed by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and National Labor College (NLC). In 2013, the program will allow students to take online courses, with visits to the National Labor College (Maryland) and UCLA at the beginning and end of the semester, respectively. This program currently consists of six course-offerings with hopes to expand into Associates and Bachelor’s degree programs. For now, UCLA and other universities will accept credits from NDU through its accreditation with the NLC. Continue reading “Keeping the DREAM Alive”

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

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“Whatever we do to strengthen and elevate the teaching profession, we should bear in mind that reforms that fail to heed the voice of teachers are doomed.” Secretary Duncan

West Wind took to Twitter (using the below hashtag) to thank some of the influential teachers in our lives. It was often difficult to come up with just one!


Continue reading “Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!”

HB2281 and the Arizona Politics of Fear

HB2281 and the Arizona Politics of Fear

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.

–John Steinbeck

What seems like a staunchly anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant saturated Arizona agenda has now irrevocably seeped into the state’s education system, risking the success of its many Mexican students.

The Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) was denied reinstatement of its Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program last week after the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed the request over a month ago.

Since January, the MAS Program has been closed down on the grounds that it violates one of Governor Brewer’s approved laws, HB2281.

In Arizona, following Brewer’s signing of HB2281, school curriculums “[can]not:

  • Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  • Promote resentment toward a race or class or people.
  • [Be] designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”[1]

The MAS Program’s vision is as follows:

“The Mexican American Studies Department is dedicated to the empowerment and strengthening of our community of learners. Students will attain an understanding and appreciation of historic and contemporary Mexican American contributions. Students will be prepared for dynamic, confident leadership in the 21st Century.”[2]

This hardly sounds like something to be so fearful of that one is led to dismantle it. The benefits of the MAS Program (i.e. a 93% graduation rate of MAS students; improved grades and attendance) can easily be seen upon viewing the trailer to a new documentary, “Precious Knowledge,” wherein MAS student profiles, classroom conversations, etc. are featured.

Another reason behind the cancellation of this program has been twisted into being a financial one. In what the New York Times called a blackmail tactic[3], $14 million would have been withheld from the district per TUSD Superintendent Huppenthal, if the program was not shut down. But, how costly is it to empower students with their cultural; and yes, American history—at minimum to simply ensure them they have a place in it, too?

Why must education reform conversations often resort to focusing on the technical?

Failing to look further allows us to be in the dark about how beneficial a tailored, more relevant curriculum can be for students. I would argue that empowerment through the MAS program has led to a better school climate and a more positive socio-emotional experience for its students; which in my mind, is priceless.

Stripping students of the opportunity to acquire “precious knowledge” about their cultura is a detriment to not only the students themselves but to Jan Brewer’s entire constituency.  When the Program was stripped away, so was a chance to achieve the Program’s goal of preparing “dynamic, confident leadership in the 21st century.”

With the growth of Latinos continuing to be a hot conversation topic, I have seen fears arise in many different forms. One being a fear of Latinos holding power that they are not prepared for – what with their young demographic and their drop-out rates being the highest among all other minority groups.

We’ve seen this argument aplenty in the National conversation on the importance of Latino educational success in our classrooms. The future of our country will soon depend upon it.[4]

But from HB2281 comes another fear. An undeniable assertion and simultaneous attempt to deny the fact Latinos will take away [our] power, whether they are ready or not. Whether [we] want them to or not.

Or, as one blogger put it, “It (the closure of the MAS Program) happened because the state’s Latino population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years and the right wing is angry and afraid that it is helpless to stop it. In one generation, Latinos will be 50 percent of the state’s population and, short of declaring martial law and deporting everyone with brown skin, there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent that.”[5]

Clearly, Arizona is not ready to accept the outcomes of its ever-changing demographic. Underlying this fear of losing power is a long-held belief that is being threatened—one of white as unarguably dominant and deserving of power over any other group of people.

Through this situation in Arizona, we see that much of what James Baldwin asserted in his “Talk to Teachers” decades ago is still true today:

Without a robust understanding of one’s identity both personal and cultural, less will be achieved—for individuals and for society as a whole. When we embrace diversity, we all reap the benefits. Forcing instead a common knowledge that does exactly what it forbids (pitting the contributions of one ethnic group above another) will lead to an “ideal” society—a society that may perish because of its refusal to embrace changes that are inevitably forthcoming.

Arizona is just one example of the inability of a system to look at things in a whole new way. The MAS Program was a counterexample to this and the 93% graduation rate of students within the program is proof of its success[6]. Without continuing to approach things differently, those dismal outcomes that my fellow Latinos typically experience in school are bound to remain the same, and that makes me afraid.


[3] In his 2011 Townhall with Latino students, President Obama stressed that one of the major ways to regaining dominant status on an international education spectrum was through Latinos: “The only way we can achieve these goals is to clearly understand that the future of America is inextricably linked to the future of the Latino community”




Power Struggle

Power Struggle

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
-Mark Twain


I recently went to Ecuador on a “Fellowship and Learning Tour” via The Ecuador Partnership where we were able to learn about some churches and schools that [our] U.S.  Mennonite congregations have helped to sustain over a period of 10 years.

The problem with being able to provide (mainly financial) sustenance to these congregations is the sense of dependency that is evident during our visits with each other.

As an American, we are held in high regard, even revered, but it’s not a comfortable feeling.

The Ecuador representative confided in me that because of this dependency, true growth in these congregations is stunted. Autonomy is still a far-off goal.

In our visits with each other, we recognize the great need of the congregations. But, instead of speaking financially with the Ecuadorian congregations, our American leaders simply refer back to the importance of relationships and how this 10-year-long relationship is helping to show whether financially supporting Ecuador will be “worth it” or not. In other words, [we] want to support something that can be self-sufficient and sustainable.

My hands, as an American with a fondness for fellow [email protected] and a passion for helping those who need, remain tied. I tagged along to learn and kept an open mind as to what I would learn, even though I do not carry much weight when it comes to deciding whether/how to support our Ecuadorian partners. The Ecuador Partnership has existed for over 10 years and consists of 3 Mennonite organizations: Central Plains Mennonite Conference, Mennonite Mission Network and the Colombia Mennonite Church. Every other year or so, this partnership tries to set-up travel groups from the U.S. to Ecuador and vice-versa. Anybody affiliated with the Central Plains Mennonite Conference and who is interested in learning and seeing the partnership in action is invited to travel to Ecuador. Members of the two Ecuadorian congregations travel to the U.S. as well.

Living for a few days in the circumstances these Ecuadorians find themselves in makes it impossible not to embrace such lifestyles, because the people unquestionably embrace you. As the trip went on, I reminded myself to refrain from taking too many exploitative photos and keep my potentially harmful observations as an outsider to myself.

On the 12-day tour, I started to understand how polar our lives are – struggling to access daily transportation, living off of about $5-10 per day and raising three growing teenagers on your own like my host mother; living as a Colombian refugee, in fear for the safety of yourself and your family;  uncertain about how well the water will run on any given day; but, I still had a return flight scheduled back to America a few days later, where customs are hardly the same.

Being an outsider American is one thing. But, almost immediately, upon being picked up from the Quito Airport, I was aware that being a Latina American outsider may alter how I was seen in comparison to my fellow travelers.

In Ecuador, straddling the line that distinguishes two hemispheres simultaneously took on a new meaning.

I am Latina. But I am still (and probably more so) American, in Latin America.

Our hosts respectfully question why I don’t (really) know Spanish and leave it at that, after I give the response I have been primed to give (it’s hardly the first time I’ve been questioned about this).

 I learned Spanish in High School after my father refused to make any real effort to teach me and my sisters, fearing discrimination similar to what he experienced growing up, only speaking the minority language.  

But as the trip goes on, they compliment how much of the language I do know and can understand. Still, I wish I could relate more to them. To be in the company of fellow [email protected] is something I generally appreciate because it does not happen all of the time. It also lent a sense of guilt that I wasn’t prepared for.  Nothing, not even double-checking the contents of your suitcase and making sure you have your passport can prepare you for that guilt.

When we had to say goodbye to each other, I was tongue-tied. I could not fully articulate how grateful I was for their hospitality, but I hope my hugs translated some of it.

I learned that one of the challenges of being privileged/having power is knowing how to use it for good and how to respectfully involve the less privileged in deciding what will help most. What will lead to the greatest level of autonomy so true fellowship can take place?

I’ve witnessed these lifestyles while trying not to exploit them, now what?

In my very spacious office room to which I arrive via guaranteed transportation; a room complete with heat and the assurance of running water, I will continue pondering this.

Empowering Students through the Iowa Latino Conference

Empowering Students through the Iowa Latino Conference

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Note: Earlier this year, I wrote about the Iowa Latino Conference that I was participating in for the first time.  More recently, I shared the highlights from the October event.

From participating in most of  Youth Development Summit planning meetings last Spring, Summer and Fall to attending the two-day conference, I realized something was missing that could hugely impact the conference planning in the future: the students.

Reflecting back on my years as a student, there were few times when my opinion and preferences were directly called upon. In retrospect, such an opportunity would have strengthened my investment in such events, and it would have stretched my knowledge and abilities by allowing me to try something new.

To reflect on what were really highlights of the 2011 Iowa Latino Conference (Youth Development Summit), I asked the students.

Here is what they had to say:

I had a great time at the 2011 Latino Youth Leadership Summit. I learned a LOT from Michael Benitez. He taught me how it’s important to remember where you come from. Though we might learn something different living here (USA/Iowa), we must also remember our roots…It’s so true when he said that we may not be a fan of our history classes because we don’t feel we are a part of it, this is exactly how I feel. It was a great experience. (11th grader)

Mike (Benitez) talked about how you can change your life by forgiving people. (12th grader)

I learned that education can get you anywhere; that culture is very important; to listen to others; and to stay in school. (9th grader)

I learned that education is something very important for everyone, especially us Latinos and that we should be responsible. (9th grader)

I learned about Latino culture and where I actually come from. I really enjoyed the trip because it was very informational and interesting. I thought the speaker was very motivational and entertaining. (10th grader)

I really enjoyed the Latino Conference this year. The Aztec dance performed by the Omeyocan Dance Company was amazing and I liked being a part of the energy transfer, like they explained and how they prayed to each direction (i.e. North, South, East & West) with purpose…. As for Michael’s speech there are barely any words to describe the impact he had on me…I will reference his speech throughout my life; it made me question so many things I have done wrong and what I shouldn’t do just because people (i.e. peers) think it’s cool; and not to let any opportunities go by. Additionally, just because I think I can’t or other people say I won’t be able to, doesn’t mean I can’t; it means that I should try a little harder and I’ll be able to accomplish anything. (11th grader).

Planning has already begun for next year’s conference even though buzz from this year is still being heard. Evaluation forms collected student contact information for those who were fired up about helping out next year. This will be the first time that students are directly engaged with conference planning. Without this input from students themselves, issues most pertinent to them and most appealing to their communication-style may be lacking.

What seemed to work so well for this year’s keynote, Mike Benitez, was that although he is in higher education now, he has remembered the struggles he came from when he was [these students’] age. Doctoral candidacy isn’t something youth may relate to, but being 15 and trying to stay out of trouble more likely is. What’s more, his triumph over such troubled times is a great bit of inspiration for all students. An inspiration one chaperone[1] said students will “carry in their hearts and minds…”

Welcoming students at the planning table, I’m certain, will make for an even better conference next year. And, capitalizing on youth excitement about issues pertinent to them is something that can inspire us all.


[1] Names have been kept confidential at the request of the students and their chaperone. In her words, while students were inspired by the experience, “they are not ready to wear that inspiration on their sleeve but are willing to carry it in their hearts and minds…” Here is hoping that the continuation of the Iowa Latino Conference can encourage that inspiration to be seen on everyone’s sleeves.



Iowa Latin@ Conference Engages, Embraces Growing Population

Iowa [email protected] Conference Engages, Embraces Growing Population

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Earlier, we wrote about the planning of the Iowa [email protected] Conference[1]. Every year for the past thirteen years the conference has occurred in a different town across the state – it was Muscatine’s turn in 2011. In just about the same span of time (about 10 years), Iowa’s Hispanic population has doubled, still totaling just 5 percent of the whole[2].

The selfish urgency to attend to an increasing [email protected] population for the greater good of the majority is a notion I increasingly see in a lot of public messaging as [email protected]’s populations increase in many places across the US. But, that was not the message behind this conference.

The conference convened over 200 Iowa youth and adults over two days to learn about the importance of uniting, becoming informed and advocating for the good of [our] people who are dispersed across Iowa’s changing communities. West Liberty, Iowa City, Dubuque, Waterloo and other Iowa towns were represented at the Youth Development Summit portion of the conference and individuals came from as far as Michigan to attend the Professional Institute portion.

Two sophomores, Joanna and Areli from West Liberty High School attended the conference for the first time with one of their teachers and some of their classmates.

One thing Areli, originally from New York, enjoyed about the Youth Development Summit was the opportunity to meet new, [email protected] youth. Both she and Joanna agree that being Latina in Iowa is something they appreciate and embrace– recently their West Liberty place of residence (also located in Muscatine County) was recognized as the first Hispanic majority town in Iowa.

With an offering of a variety of workshops – from a showcase of indigenous dancing by Omeyocan Dance Co. to a session on trading Gang affiliation for Academia and a screening of the film, “abUSed: The Postville Raid,” there was much to take in.

The girls’ favorite part of the Youth Development Summit; however, was its Keynote Speaker, Michael Benitez Jr.

Benitez Jr., a doctoral candidate at Iowa State University engaged the over 150-student audience during his 45-minute speech and encouraged them to become young activists. He urged them to be willing to listen to and believe in the stories their elders (“wisdomkeepers”) told them. But, he also asked the same of the wisdomkeepers – that they take the time to hear what young people (“wisdomseekers”) have to say, even if it isn’t stated politically correctly.

What Joanna and Areli took away most from Benitez Jr.’s speech was the significance of being  bicultural; that we must adapt to and continually learn from our [email protected] identity in the United States (and Iowa). In other words, while understanding American culture, “we have to be proud of our culture, [too]” Joanna said.

One example Benitez Jr.’s used to illustrate this notion took place in his classroom experiences, long before his doctoral candidacy days—“I got all A’s in my classes except for in Social Studies, History…because I didn’t see myself [in the books].”

Much like the duality of cultures, American History cannot be considered without considering [email protected] History, too. They are one in the same. Unfortunately, though as Benitez Jr. sought a raise of hands from the audience, asking what pertinent Latino history—i.e. the 1930 Lemon Grove, California desegregation case and the Bracero Movement of the 1940s, they have learned (as high school students) in their classrooms, few hands were raised.

The conference was successful for bringing Iowa [email protected] face-to-face with each other and for giving them a rare chance to embrace their impact on the state. Those who were there to learn also were given a thorough picture of what it means to be [email protected] in Iowa today. As such, we look forward to supporting the conference again in the future.

Click the respective links to read more about Muscatine’s first time hosting the conference and Benitez Jr’s keynote.



[1] The “@” is used in the term ‘Latino’ where it can apply to Latinos of both the female and male simultaneously.

[2] Schaper, David. (October 10, 2011). A look at Iowa’s first majority town. NPR. Retrieved from

What Binary?

What Binary?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Everyone looks out their own window.

White and black make up a spectrum that our society resorts to in conversations of race. By today’s standards, this binary is simply not sufficient. My vacation to the Southwest was a harsh reminder of this.

Recently, I returned to the Southwest for a range of reasons. First and foremost, it was a vacation. But by today’s standards, that does not mean I was not busy. As a former AmeriCorps volunteer in San Antonio, Texas; I find it important to not treat my year of service as only a year of service. It has shaped me in immeasurable ways. I was born and raised in Iowa, but have felt strongly rooted and cultivated in Texas.

I was 23 years old when my AmeriCorps placement in 2009 took place at a local community center. My primary responsibility was to interact with youth between the ages of 5-17 in an after school setting. That experience largely inspired me to further my work with youth, hopefully impacting their lives for the better and providing them a role model as fellow children of color.

Yesterday I visited the community center and spent the afternoon and early evening catching up with the youth I had previously worked with.  This visit was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was like any other day at the community center, as though I had never left. However, some of what I saw as a visitor reminded me of why I am so grateful to work at West Wind—why working to infuse race and equity into education policies is important.

Having recently moved back to Iowa , I am still experiencing the impact my year in San Antonio has had on me; spiritually, vocationally, etc. I reflect on my own childhood, growing up as one of the only Latina children in my classroom(s). To witness the youth at this community center in quite a reversal of settings (their neighborhood being 98% Mexican), and in relating it to my work thus far at West Wind, I have gained many insights:

  • Being the majority, obliviousness to “the other” is almost unconscious.
  • The other is either and both invisible and hypervisible at once.
  • Being Latino further complicates the self-identification process for all Latinos; including those who are a part of a majority group like the youth I served on the San Antonio Westside.

These youth freely use the n-word. With conviction. To which their peers laugh. This created for me lumps in my stomach and pain in my heart. A third-grader, knowing how to use that word so harshly and not knowing at all the hurt it stemmed from and its persistent consequences is difficult to see.

They mention a student in their class who they make fun of because, “she is brown”.

“But, you’re brown; too,” I retort.

“No miss, I’m white. I’m Mexican.”

In a world where labels are forced upon all of us, but with the complexity of having to be succinct in our self-labeling , we rush to fit ourselves into boxes that can be easily checked. White. Latino. Non-White. Latino/Hispanic, and so on.

I grew up, the rare Latina in my classroom(s), molding into that binary of black or white. (No in between existed, or at least it wasn’t prioritized in conversations on race.) I wanted badly to be positioned with the white majority, but learned that would never happen, no matter how hard I tried because of how I looked. I responded by aligning with my black peers.

These youth grow up, only surrounded by “Mexicanness” in their homes and classroom(s). But they also are unconsciously aware that, “White is right”.

In 2011, narrowing one’s identity down between White and Black is not that simple.

As I experienced while living in San Antonio, most of these youth will be born, raised, rooted and cultivated in their current neighborhoods. They will only encounter other Mexicans and, if a black person is seen walking the sidewalks, he/she would be immediately questioned. If, by chance, one of their classmates is black, that student will struggle to confidently identity as such.

Black, white, brown, Latino/Hispanic or not. The checkmarks we so frequently are asked to make in a hurry, imply a lot more than we realize; more irreversibly than we realize.

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