A Q&A with Judge Nelson A. Diaz

This week in North Philly Notes, an interview with Nelson A. Diaz, about his inspiring new autobiography, Not from Here, Not from There.

You came to America as a child—literally—in your mother’s belly. Can you discuss the experience of being part of the wave of Puerto Rican immigrants post-World War II?
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, many Puerto Ricans came to New York in search of greater job opportunities because the economic hardships confronting Puerto Rico after WWII. My mother came to New York to provide a better life for me. She was a woman who was ahead of her time because she was a working mom at a time when most mothers stayed at home with their children. She did not have a choice. She worked as a seamstress in a factory to make ends meet. Although I grew up in very humble circumstances, my mother always provided the example of love, hard work, and faith. The Marine Tiger where she landed was a famous ship used in WWII for transport of soldiers and many came to the shores of NY the same way having American citizenship since 1917. Public Policy in the availability of Public Housing made a major difference in our lives.

You grew up in Harlem and had some hardscrabble experiences. What was that period of your life like?  You talk about being in fear at age 15. What helped you get through that time and not just survive, but thrive?
Growing up in poverty does not give you many options. Violence, gangs, and drugs are all around. I had a lot of problems in school much of which stemmed from my inability to speak and read in both English and Spanish. Trying to live in two different worlds – Puerto Rican culture and American culture – was difficult. I was not doing well in school and was always struggling to get better grades. At the age of 15, I went from being a D student to an A student in one year through the saving grace of the church.

Through faith, I felt hope. Hope for my future, an expectation that better things lied ahead and a strong desire to work hard for it. Through faith, I no longer felt unworthy and I knew that I could achieve greater things, not only for myself but also for others. The intervention of people in my life made a difference.

Not From Here_smYou faced considerable discrimination in Philadelphia (e.g., passing the bar). Was there a particular experience that made you learn and grow?
Growing up as a poor Puerto Rican kid from Harlem, I always had to overcome the barriers of stereotypical attitudes: a school counselor who believes that you are not college material, or institutional or systemic bias in law schools and government, or law firms and corporate boards that lack diversity even though there are highly qualified people of color. That is why civil and human rights are important issues that I have spent my life fighting for. I have spent a lifetime breaking barriers so others can walk through the doors—whether it was becoming a founding member of Black Law Students Association and the Federation of Puerto Rican Students because I understood the power of coalitions of interest; or becoming a community activist to protest the lack of diversity and open up law school doors for others; or promoting economic development in the Latino community; or becoming the first Puerto Rican White House Fellow, where I worked for Vice President Mondale and was able to promote Latino diversity in the political arena and influence public policy both domestically and internationally; or becoming the first Latino judge in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; or becoming the first minority administrative judge and presiding over court reforms that brought seven years of backlogged cases to the present and saved the courts millions of dollars; or fighting for the human rights of Soviet Jews; or becoming the first American judge to sit on a Japanese Court; or fighting against segregation in housing nationwide; or promoting the inclusion and promotion of minority and women lawyers in the profession; or fighting for diversity on corporate boards. I may have been the first, but I did not want to be the last!

The history of anyone but Caucasian who had passed the Pennsylvania Bar demonstrates that until the Liacouras Bar Committee found discrimination in the Bar exam the Commonwealth of PA since its founding, the bar had only admitted 67 African Americas and no Latinos before 1969 when I entered Law School. It was apparent that it was impossible to believe that I might get admitted and the city was so segregated by neighborhoods with continuous racial conflict between neighborhood boundaries.

Eventually, your career took off with appointments as the General Counsel at HUD, and as a city solicitor who helped with immigration issues. Can you describe your experiences?
The White House Fellows program gave me an education on the world and lifted my profile in my professional life.  The Judicial appointment and election also changed the public perspective of me. Both of these appointments, including the Administrative Judge title, were avenues of increasing diversity in the workplace. Although I was flattered to have been asked to by Henry Cisneros, who is a trailblazer and friend, to become his General Counsel at HUD, I did not want to go to Washington, DC. Henry was persistent and I eventually agreed. By breaking another barrier—becoming the first minority General Counsel—I was determined to increase the numbers of minority and women lawyers hired, retained and promoted because of the shocking lack of diversity among the government attorneys. I have always felt that the inclusion of minorities and women is an important step to changing systemic bias that exists in most institutions. As Latinos, we need to select our own leaders and continue to help each other climb the ladder of success.

Your book’s title is curious, it suggests a lack of belonging. Can you discuss that?
The title of my book, “I am not from here and I am not from there/No soy de aqui, ni de alla,” is about being a Puerto Rican born and raised in New York. We are not accepted here because of stereotypes and prejudice and yet not accepted as Puerto Rican from the Islanders because we were born in the States. It begs the question so where do we belong? That is a difficult barrier to overcome. You continue striving for excellence, inclusion, and moving the agenda forward so there is equality for all. There are many examples of rejection on both sides of the Atlantic both professionally and community where Puerto Ricans resided.

My parents lived most of their lives in Puerto Rico while I lived all of my life in the United States. I visited regularly since the age of 10 was educated in the issues of both countries, despite my professional capacity and assistance was there rarely an opinion they sought or cared particularly as you can see from the major Hurricane Maria. When they used my help it was limited to educate their officials and not my expertise which normally was ignored. That never gave me pause to keep trying wherever possible.

Do you think you achieved the American Dream?
Latinos positively contribute to the wellbeing of this great country. My story demonstrates some of the many ways, Latinos contribute to America. I hope that this book is seen in a bigger context than just my story. In the backdrop of the negative and racist attitudes about Latinos being only “criminals and rapists” my story is one of many, Latinos who work hard every day to put food on the table, house their families as best as they can and educate their children to have equal opportunities for the future. Isn’t that what everyone wants – the American Dream? History has eliminated most of our contribution and we fail to tell the story of how we have made America better.  My book will hopefully inspire young people to strive for a better life.

Advertisements

Go “Back to School” with Temple University Press books

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate the start of the fall semester with some of our favorite education titles.

2448_reg.gifIn Journeys of Sociology: From First Encounters to Fulfilling Retirements, edited by Rosalyn Benjamin Darling and Peter J. Stein, twenty-two eminent retired sociologists reflect on their lives and their career choices.

For most sociologists, their life’s work does not end with retirement. Many professors and practitioners continue to teach, publish, or explore related activities after leaving academia. They also connect with others in the field to lessen the isolation they sometimes feel outside the ivory tower or an applied work setting.

The editors and twenty contributors to the essential anthology Journeys in Sociology use a life-course perspective to address the role of sociology in their lives. The power of their personal experiences—during the Great Depression, World War II, or the student protests and social movements in the 1960s and ’70s—magnify how and why social change prompted these men and women to study sociology. Moreover, all of the contributors include a discussion of their activities in retirement.

From Bob Perrucci, Tuck Green, and Wendell Bell, who write about issues of class, to Debra Kaufman and Elinore Lurie, who explain how gender played a role in their careers, the diverse entries in Journeys in Sociology provide a fascinating look at both the influence of their lives on the discipline and the discipline on these sociologists’ lives.

2411_reg.gifAddressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses, edited by Catherine Kaukinen, Michelle Hughes Miller, and Ráchael A. Powers, considers what we know, what we are doing, and how we can improve our prevention of and response to violence against women on college campuses.

Violence against women on college campuses has remained underreported and often under addressed by both campus security and local law enforcement, as well as campus administrators. The researchers, practitioners, and activists who contribute to the pertinent volume Addressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses examine the extent, nature, dynamic and contexts of violence against women at institutions of higher education.

This book is designed to facilitate an ongoing discussion and provide direction on how best to prevent and investigate violence against women, and intervene to assist victims while reducing the impact of these crimes. Chapters detail the necessary changes and implications that are part of Title IX and other federal legislation and initiatives as well as the effect these changes have had for higher education actors, including campus administrators, victim advocates, and student activists. The contributors also explore the importance of campus efforts to estimate the extent of violence against women; educating young men and women on the nature of sexual and dating violence; and shifting efforts to both make offenders accountable for their crimes and prompt all bystanders to act.

Addressing Violence Against Women on College Campuses urgently argues to make violence prevention not separate from but rather an integral part of the student experience.

2464_reg.gifKnowledge for Social Change: Bacon Dewey, and the Revolutionary Transformation of Research Universities in the Twenty-First Century, by Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, John Puckett, Matthew Hartley, Rita A. Hodges, Frances E. Johnston, and Joann Weeks, argues for and proposes concrete means to radically transform research universities to function as democratic, civic, and community-engaged institutions.

Employing history, social theory, and a detailed contemporary case study, Knowledge for Social Change argues for fundamentally reshaping research universities to function as democratic, civic, and community-engaged institutions dedicated to advancing learning and knowledge for social change. The authors focus on significant contributions to learning made by Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Seth Low, Jane Addams, William Rainey Harper, and John Dewey—as well as their own work at Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships to help create and sustain democratically engaged colleges and universities for the public good.

Knowledge for Social Change highlights university-assisted community schools to effect a thoroughgoing change of research universities that will contribute to more democratic schools, communities, and societies. The authors also call on democratic-minded academics to create and sustain a global movement dedicated to advancing learning for the “relief of man’s estate”—an iconic phrase by Francis Bacon that emphasized the continuous betterment of the human condition—and to realize Dewey’s vision of an organic “Great Community” composed of participatory, democratic, collaborative, and interdependent societies.

1941_reg.gifRace and Class Matters at an Elite College, by Elizabeth Aries, considers how race and class collide at a prestigious liberal arts college. Aries provides a rare glimpse into the challenges faced by black and white college students from widely different class backgrounds as they come to live together as freshmen. Based on an intensive study Aries conducted with 58 students at Amherst College during the 2005-2006 academic year, this book offers a uniquely personal look at the day-to-day thoughts and feelings of students as they experience racial and economic diversity firsthand, some for the first time.

Through online questionnaires and face-to-face interviews, Aries followed four groups of students throughout their first year of college: affluent whites, affluent blacks, less financially advantaged whites from families with more limited education, and less financially advantaged blacks from the same background. Drawing heavily on the voices of these freshmen, Aries chronicles what they learned from racial and class diversity—and what colleges might do to help their students learn more.

2248_reg.gifSpeaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College, by Elizabeth Aries with Richard Berman, examines the challenges of diversity from freshman orientation to graduation. This follow-up volume to Race and Class Matters at an Elite College, completes a four-year study of diversity at a prestigious liberal arts college. Here the fifty-five affluent black, affluent white, lower-income black, and lower-income white Amherst students whom Aries interviewed in their freshmen and senior years provide a complete picture of what (and how) each group learned about issues of race and class.

Aries presents the students’ personal perceptions of their experiences. She reveals the extent to which learning from diversity takes place on campus, and examines the distinct challenges that arise for students living in this heterogeneous community. Aries also looks more broadly at how colleges and universities across the country are addressing the challenges surrounding diversity. Speaking of Race and Class testifies to the programming and practices that have proven successful.

Liberating Services Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement, by Randy Stoecker, challenges—and changing—our thinking about higher 2401_reg.gifeducation community engagement.

Randy Stoecker has been “practicing” forms of community-engaged scholarship, including service learning, for thirty years now, and he readily admits, “Practice does not make perfect.” In his highly personal critique, Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement, the author worries about the contradictions, unrealized potential, and unrecognized urgency of the causes as well as the risks and rewards of this work.

Here, Stoecker questions the prioritization and theoretical/philosophical underpinnings of the core concepts of service learning: 1. learning, 2. service, 3. community, and 4. change. By “liberating” service learning, he suggests reversing the prioritization of the concepts, starting with change, then community, then service, and then learning. In doing so, he clarifies the benefits and purpose of this work, arguing that it will create greater pedagogical and community impact.

Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement challenges—and hopefully will change—our thinking about higher education community engagement.

2414_reg.gifIncidental Racialization: Performative Assimilation in Law School, by Yung-Yi Diana Pan, examines racialization, inequality, and professional socialization.

Despite the growing number of Asian American and Latino/a law students, many panethnic students still feel as if they do not belong in this elite microcosm, which reflects the racial inequalities in mainstream American society. While in law school, these students—often from immigrant families, and often the first to go to college—have to fight against racialized and gendered stereotypes. In Incidental Racialization, Diana Pan rigorously explores how systemic inequalities are produced and sustained in law schools.
Through interviews with more than 100 law students and participant observations at two law schools, Pan examines how racialization happens alongside professional socialization. She investigates how panethnic students negotiate their identities, race, and gender in an institutional context. She also considers how their lived experiences factor into their student organization association choices and career paths.

Incidental Racialization sheds light on how race operates in a law school setting for both students of color and in the minds of white students. It also provides broader insights regarding racial inequalities in society in general.

 

Exploring the nuances of race and racialization in the United States

This week in North Philly Notes, Diana Pan, author of Incidental Racialization writes about race, inequality, and professional socialization of Asian Americans and Latinos in law school.

Mention “race” in a conversation, and two things often come to mind: the history and current social experiences of black Americans, and the image of poor, urban communities. With regard to the first imagery, common topics might include the black Civil Rights Movement (there were in fact, other race-based civil rights movements as well), residential segregation, Black Lives Matter, and a host of topics perhaps learned in high school classrooms, or gleaned from mainstream media. Rarely do we consider how race matters for nonwhite racialized groups whose histories are not represented in standard curricula, and who are rendered invisible in conversations about race in America. Further, many Americans assume that if nonwhite individuals enter mainstream professions and interact with more white Americans, race would no longer be a heightened concern. The experiences of nonwhite Americans, across the socioeconomic spectrum, do not support this assumption.

Incidental Racialization engages the nuances of race and racialization in the United States. The purpose of this book is to:

  • explore how race matters in professional socialization
  • give voice to those racialized groups – Asian Americans and Latinos – who are often underrepresented in discourse on racial inequality
  • complicate understandings of inequalities that are sustained among elites.

I contend that we, as a society, cannot truly understand inequalities if we do not interrogate how they differ within and between social strata. Studying “up” (i.e. elites) then provides an opportunity to disrupt the “one size fits all” trope of economic success diminishing racial inequality. It also permits a lens to understand the various ways that racialization happens alongside professional socialization.

Incidental Racialization_smPerhaps not surprising, but certainly revealing, law school rank appears to influence how students talk about their racialized experiences. While students at the two law schools studied shared stories of race-based discrimination, or race-based interactions, the rhetoric used was different. For example, students from the lower-ranked law school frequently recount particular discrete treatment that made them feel like second class citizens or racial “others.” Yet, these lower-tier law students provide excuses for this same treatment. In a way, they appeared to rationalize race-based experiences in law school. This differed from the narrative provided by students at the elite law school. They were more affirmative about race-based discrimination, and recounted their experiences in the context of institutionalized cultures and norms. Privilege, in the relative prestige of the law school attended, seems to equip nonwhite law students with stratified language to convey and navigate their own racialization.

Studying social inequalities can take many forms, and Incidental Racialization demonstrates just one axis of intersection. The next step is to understand how racialization translates into the world of work. In other words, how does race matter for lawyers? In what ways is racialization sustained? And, what are the implications? Perhaps of note are the findings in a recently released report, A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law, that while Asian Americans are the largest nonwhite group in major law firms, they have the highest attrition rates, and attain partnership at the lowest rate. There is a clear leak in the pipeline, and the question begs: how might racialization be a part of the problem?

%d bloggers like this: