Escaping the April Abyss: a Reflection & (a first) Thanks to the Seniors

I’m finally escaping “the Abyss of April.” This month on the college academic calendar is CRAZY. You start the month believing that Spring Break will help you catch up on the numerous projects on your plate, only to face the fact that at the end of that sacred week away from teaching you are still behind. Classes start back up and you realize there is now less than two months before finals and graduation!! For professors this usually means that we have another set of midterms and/or papers we need to collect and grade, student projects to oversee, and the inevitable reality that you over-assigned readings and topics that you still hope you will finish. During this time, we also find ourselves advising –helping continuing students select classes and stay on course to graduate, and the life advising for graduating seniors (which I’ll get back to.) Compounding this –April is admissions recruitment month where we are inundated with events related to recruiting next year’s incoming classes –so add to the calendar dinners, lunches, and coffees. Oh did I forget to mention that every organization, academic and student affair unit has also scheduled some sort of event that they’d like you to attend. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve double scheduled myself –only to be saved from offending my students or colleagues by the fact that I teach evening classes. (translation,: I rsvp’d yes to an event I never could have attended–that’s how busy it’s been). Yes –negotiating the Abyss of April requires a firm hold on the little bit of sanity you have left at the end of the school year. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and my students –but sometimes you just want to slow down, take a breathe, and savor the moment –particularly when you feel like time is flying by.

This May marks the end of my fourth year at the University of San Diego, and over the last few weeks I’ve come to the bittersweet realization that this year’s graduating seniors that I advise (formally and informally) are the first group I’ve traveled the academic cycle with –they started with me at USD and are now moving on to get jobs in ‘the real world’ we’ve ‘prepared’ them for over the past 4 years. This group of students survived my transition into teaching (which wasn’t always pretty), some started the Sociology Major in my Introduction to Sociology, almost every single one of them was tortured/taught Research Methods from me. These students taught me the USD culture, which included: dedication to philanthropy and community service, redefining the terms ‘academic drive,”commitment,” “ambition” and “excellence.” I learned Thursday nights redefined my understanding of ‘club attire’ and that Coachella is a university holiday. I learned the importance of waiver forms when you ask students to do observations on the San Diego trolley (thank goodness my softball player students didn’t have to beat up the man who decided to inappropriately flash them.) I learned the delicate balance between tough love and student support. I’ve witnessed my students’ great capacity to love, and their ability to redefine what resilience and perseverance means. Maybe more than anything else, this group makes me laugh until I’m ready to cry or fall out of my chair –they gifted me with the kind of laughter that heals and sustains the soul.

I’ve watched them grow from 18 year old, wide-eyed fresh persons into the young men and women set to conquer the world. Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve learned that my students are set to start post-baccalaureate programs to prepare for health careers, are enrolling in Masters or PhD programs. Some will work for Teach for America, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or the Peace Corps. Other students are heading to international locations to work for non governmental organizations (NGO’s) on HIV/AIDS prevention, sustainability, or education. While I’ve graduated a lot of really phenomenal and amazing students before –this year is different.

Now as my mind clears from the Abyss of April, I realize what makes this moment special is that that I’ve traveled a parallel road with this year’s seniors and grown up quite a bit too. While I will savor the next five weeks, I know that as they continue on their life’s path –they will do nothing short of amazing things. So, before life speeds up, and time flies by, I’m stopping for a moment to thank each of them for helping me improve, change, and grow.

Community, Dignity of Work, and Responsibility: Honoring Cesar Chavez and Philip Veracruz

Two years ago the young men and women of MEChA and AChA of USD asked me to deliver comments at the annual Chavez mass.  In 2009, after reading the Autobiography of Philip Veracruz, student organizers decided to rename the mass to honor both Cesar Chavez and Philip Veracruz and the spirit of multiethnic and multiracial union coalitions.  Today, on the eve of Cesar Chavez’s birthday, I decided to repost my comments to both honor the legacies of both men, but also to remind us all of the importance of Community, Dignity of Work, and social justice.  Unions across the country are being attacked for standing up for the rights of all workers. Lost in the media representations and rhetoric are the facts that unions were responsible for the 8 hour day, overtime pay, child labor laws, and collective bargaining rights.  As we celebrate Cesar Chavez’s birthday –let us remember not only his legacy of work, but his commitment to working people.


Community, Dignity of Work, and Responsibility are just 3 of the central principles that informed the lives and organizing of Cesar Chavez and Philip Veracruz. While many are familiar with the amazing work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, far fewer realize that Veracruz, as a first Vice President of the UFW, and the Filipino farm workers were equally instrumental in those successes, for if it were not for the spirit of collective solidarity and multiethnic coalitions, the farm worker movement would not have been as powerful or influential as it was.  So today, we gather to commemorate the lives of both Chavez and Veracruz who along with their fellow workers, teach us the importance of fellowship, human dignity, and sacrifice. More importantly, we gather as a community, to celebrate and honor workers and the dignity of work here on our campus.  We honor the contributions of those at the University of San Diego, who contribute everyday to all aspects of campus life. We honor those whose dedication, commitment, and contributions –whether big or small, are often overlooked and unacknowledged.

Cesar Chavez once said, “When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us, so it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of people we are.“ So, in the few moments I have, I want to reflect on the ideas of solidarity, social responsibility, and dignity of work which were central to the work and activism of Chavez and Veracruz, and to the Catholic Church. More importantly, I want each of us to think about how these ideals pertain to us individually as well as our university community.

Solidarity, simply defined, is the union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities, interest, and purpose.   However as most of us know, whether through our everyday experiences, or our involvement in clubs, organizations, and community work –developing this union or fellowship among individuals is not easy. There are often conflicts, differences of opinions or in approach –however, it is often the process of working through these differences that provide the unique opportunity for creating understanding, empathy, and purpose.  The development of the farm workers movement is no different.  In his autobiography, Philip Vera Cruz critiques and analyzes the development of the UFW and the leadership –including and perhaps most pointedly the work of Cesar Chavez.   His concerns were often rooted in, what he felt, was the silencing of Filipino membership within the union. Despite these frustrations, both he and Chavez felt that unity could be achieved through the development of greater understanding of the common issues all farm workers faced.  Veracruz says, “ I know that misunderstood issues can become destructive and eventually divide individuals and groups, even a union.  But I believe workers will unite successfully only when there’s a better understanding of the issues in their entirety, including honest differences of opinion which could give a broader view of the solutions to our problems.”  In order to achieve these aims, the UFW needed to find ways to bridge their communities, by communicating honestly about the issues facing them, and creating new ways of working collaboratively. Without a doubt, this type of work must continue to be embraced both within our university, our country, and our world.

In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo VIII reminded the Catholic community that the well-being of the rich and working class are intertwined and that each had the responsibility of looking out for one another.  He wrote, “Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create-that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable.  Pope John Paul II, reaffirmed this belief in his 1981 encyclical Laborem exercens, when he wrote, “the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and the rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated,“  These ideas of interconnectedness, social responsibility, and dignity at work are central to the work of the UFW, Chavez says, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community…Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

As a university community, we must be more diligent in working to embody the spirit of these writings and principles. Even today, as we celebrate a mass honoring workers, -many of the workers who take impeccable care of our classrooms, residential halls, gardens, and offices are unable to join us at mass because they either had to take vacation time or lose pay in order to participate in a mass held in their honor. To truly honor the dignity of the worker, we must move beyond picnics and celebratory pictures and instead reflect on how we can improve practices and support workers in ALL parts of the university.  Even in fiscally challenging times, it’s easy to push aside years of dedication and service to our university in favor of outsourcing and subcontracting.  Like many publicly and privately held corporations, we need to hold ourselves as an entire institution to moving away from what’s comfortable and hiring those ‘like us’ and instead consider what differences does to enhance us.  As a university, more importantly a Catholic university, committed to promoting the core values of academic excellence, knowledge, community, ethical conduct and compassionate service we have a responsibility to do more, and be more –to privilege humanity, and honor the dignity of work and the lives of the workers who assist us everyday by showing the same commitment to them as they show to each of us.

The news is not all dire.  In fact, I believe that many of our students work proactively to make change happen. Veracruz would say that our students are the “golden foundation for the struggle of all people to improve their lives.”  Recently, a group of our students banded together to address the issue of sweatshop labor and worked to advocate for a change in our University bookstores purchasing policies. Particularly after learning about the exploitative conditions and labor violations that Honduran garment workers faced when sewing for Russell athletics –one of our major clothing vendors –they worked fastidiously to implore and motivate this university to make the ethical and moral decision. Their efforts were rewarded with the University putting the vendor on probation. The simple fact that our students embody the spirit of Veracruz and Chavez’s work –and the morals and values advocated through Catholic Social teaching should make us proud –and motivate all of us, individually and collectively, to do more to both honor and protect workers at our campus.

Let me end my comments by borrowing the words of Dorothy Day, a woman whose activism with the Catholic Workers Movement inspired both Chavez and Veracruz.  When reflecting on the movement, she says, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?“  Each of us has an opportunity to live the morals, values, and ethics promoted by Chavez and Veracruz… it’s time for each of us to love our community and our university enough to make change happen.

Se Puede?

Si Se Puede!

Mabuhay Estudyantes! Que Vivan los trabajadores!

Glamour Shots, Basketball, and a Few Things I Wish I’d Said

Super Fans and Sociology Professors: Liu, Schlichtman, & Lum @ WCC tourney in Vegas

What a unique day –I spent my morning contemplating presentable “jewel tone” wardrobe options for my 11am photo shoot. Yes, you read that correctly photo shoot.Next week, the USD College of Arts and Science (click here –>) website will go live with a feature article and video about my support of the USD Women’s Basketball team, and the relationships and friendships I’ve developed with the student athletes and their families over the past 4 years. Although I’ve yet to read the article, I know that the word “super fan” will probably come up. The interviewer did ask if I painted my face for games, after all. (The answer is no, in case you were wondering). Given the popularity of basketball in the Sociology Department and my colleague, Dr. Judy Liu’s 25 year love affair with Torero Basketball –I think it’s important to note, I have a hard time owning the “super fan” identity –but I digress.

My glamour shot photo shoot involved taking pictures with Sam Child, Dominque Conners, Emily Hatch, and Morgan Woodrow –four phenomenal basketball players with majors housed in the College of Arts and Sciences. During the session, I learned a bit about their personalities through the glitter laden eye-shadow, the “blinged out earrings” (as Chris called it), the meticulously done blue nail polish (that managed to get chipped during weight lifting) –and their ability to be relaxed in front of the camera (something I struggled with). As a sociologist (aka professional people watcher) I’m compelled to look beyond the aesthetic. In the half hour I spent with them before practice started (and they became the ‘blurry blue background’ the photographer wanted to capture) I witnessed the depth and breadth of sisterhood that you can’t see when you’re watching from the stands. The teasing, the laughter, finishing each others sentences, the way they seamlessly interweave discussions about life, school, graduation, Justin Bieber fever (a team affliction/addiction I’m still baffled by) with guesses about the drills Coach Fisher will call for, is simply amazing to watch unfold. In fact, I’m not quite sure they realize how in sync they all are with each other. Equally amazing was how quickly they snapped into work mode —hips wrapped, ankle braces tightened, practice jerseys and game faces on –and away they went. Coach’s whistle blew and bodies were immediately thrown into motion with 120% of their energy focused on the drill at hand. I found myself fascinated not only by the speed and intensity, but the ways that the players were simultaneously students and teachers. For example, when one of the coaches explained to freshman center, Kam Knutson the appropriate way to play “Torero defense,” I watched senior, Nya Mason correct Kam’s posture and hand position so that it complied with coach’s instructions. I think the artistic director in charge of the photo shoot said it best, “It’s so easy to be distracted by the amount of energy these young women show –and this is only practice.”

During both interviews for the piece, I was asked, “Why do you love watching the women’s basketball team? What do you think we can learn from them?” I know I was clear about my admiration for their work ethic, on and off the court. In fact, I talked about Coach Fisher’s “Blue Blood” philosophy of working hard and putting the time and effort in to succeed (take a look at the shirts they wear in the photographs), but what I forgot to say is this. While some watch sports for the action, the scoring, and the “show time” moments, the true art of the game is in understanding the life lessons the students and their families live out in relationship to the game. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

1) Loyalty. This is not simply about allegiances –but a true commitment to improving those around you through respect, tough love, and mutuality. At their best, I’ve watched these women push each other to excel. Sliding by, giving less than their all –even if unmotivated is not allowed. Doing this during a game, gets you benched. Doing this in school gets you academically disqualified. I’ve watched the best of these students push each other and remind one another to put in the time, and do the work.

2) Vision. Freshman students (all students, not just athletes) often arrive at college thinking they know everything. They assume if they simply do the assignments they get their degree. I tell students and student athletes that the University and the coach didn’t recruit you to come here because of who you were in high school –that’s only 10% of it. We (faculty, staff, coaches, etc) recruit them because of who they can become if they work hard while here. For athletes, this can be difficult. They were probably the best in their sport at their high school –but they forget that they join a team where every individual was the best too. The real question is do they have the vision to put in the work to become better than who they were yesterday. Without fail, I’ve watched Coach Fisher’s players at the end of four years profess what so many of us want to hear, “that the worst thing to witness is unrealized potential.”

3) Faith. I don’t mean this in the religious sense. I define faith as hope in the unseen. Put simply, I admire the fact that these women have faith in the idea that hard work pays off. You may not know the results, and may hate the process, but at the end of it all there are always lessons learned.

4) Love. Love of the game, love of family, love of each other. Good or bad, happy or sad, I witness a connection that’s hard to describe. The love and community we see among the players extends beyond them to their families. Circumstances (aka holiday basketball schedules) usually mean that the women are away from their families during Thanksgiving and have an abbreviated Christmas break. Holidays that traditionally translate into extended time with family for the rest of us add up to sacrifice for the team and families. Instead, parents of the players become an extended family in their own right. The families, often spend Thanksgiving or part of the New Year together with the team and coaches. As a whole, I know that these families, along with their daughters, have been there through it all for each other –births, deaths, illnesses, marriages, retirements, accomplishments, promotions, and accolades. If all communities were as invested in each other as these families are, the world would be a better place.

In the end, I guess my only answer to why I love Torero women’s basketball is this,

“What’s not to love?”


Miscellaneous thoughts on Diversity, Inclusion, and Academia

I’m sitting in an airplane flying over the Mediterranean Sea on my way to another short, but sweet adventure in Portugal. Left in my wake are 10 spectacular days in Italy –Rome and Florence specifically

For those of you who don’t know, my trip to Rome was sponsored by an anonymous donation to the University of San Diego Center for Catholic Thought and Culture. The donor wanted to provide USD faculty an annual opportunity to travel abroad and learn about Catholicity as it relates to different geographic contexts and social issues Last year’s group traveled to the Dominican Republic and focused on issues related to environmental sustainability. This year’s theme focused on diversity, inclusion, and interculturation. While I have other blog entries written, I wanted to share some questions and ideas that are running through my mind right now.

When I first applied to the program, I did so with a healthy sense of skepticism, after all, work related to diversity and inclusion are embattled, contentious, and at times superficial. This isn’t an indictment of my university specifically, but it is a statement of fact as it relates to the very real work that occurs in higher education. If we simply open up the newspaper or turn on the news we find attacks on diversity related curriculum at every level of education, and legislative initiatives that make what I teach and research at worst illegal and at best “irrelevant.” Unfortunately, there are many who are either too afraid, or too lazy to engage in the work necessary to talk meaningfully about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and disability in substantive ways. They’re afraid of facing head on the constructive criticism, or develop a strategy and vision for change. They fixate on numbers, and forget that real change isn’t just about numbers but how people treat one another everyday. Realistically, they are afraid to spend time reflecting on identifying privilege in their own lives and committing themselves towards a more sophisticated form of personal growth. In truth, many of these things are difficult for us to do in our daily lives, let alone in the context of our roles within a bureaucracy.

As a sociologist with interdisciplinary training in American/Ethnic Studies, I often take for granted that while “difference” (broadly defined) is a normative part of the research and teaching that we do, this is not true in other areas. During our immersion trip, I found myself both fascinated and appalled by the idea that privilege, power, race and gender have made very little entre into theological and religious studies. My surprise is not because of any familiarity I have with that field, but rather, the simple fact that the people I know best within my university actively address these issues. When I read chapters, or discussed ideas with them, I never realized that the work they do was met with such skepticism (and at times vitriol), or that there was even an argument within their field that diversity matters. I know—this isn’t a very scientific way of coming to any conclusions about a field of study that examines thousands of years of history, ideology, morals, values and ethics, but it’s real.

In all seriousness though, if religion is the opiate of the masses, the cornerstone for how hundreds of millions of people structure their moral and ethical approach to the world, isn’t it just a little scary that diversity is such a ‘new’ issue in a discipline that’s so old? Just a thought and reminder. There is work that’s left to do.

Motivating Change

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in the Global Work Day sponsored by . The goal of this event is to promote sustainability across the globe and to bring the global Carbon Dioxide counts down to 350 parts per million. On 10/10/10, 7347 groups in 188 countries participated in event s including park restoration, beach clean-ups, planting community gardens, sponsoring bike rides, and other activities. At USD, my students and I were part of the group that helped clean and restore trails in the Tecolate Canyon –the area adjacent to our campus. Let me note that I’ve always been impressed with USD students’ commitment to philanthropy and community service. Without a doubt, the students I have the privilege of teaching and working with exhibit the type of participatory citizenship that we want in society. One of the unanticipated, but very welcomed, lessons learned is that our students want to make a difference –in fact, they often will not show up for particular events a second time if they did not feel their labor, time, and efforts were needed the first time around. The unique part of our university, however, is that our students, although generous, don’t always understand the broader social and political implications of the work that they do. As a teacher, I wonder, what can I do to better educate my students about their connection to a broader global community? As I watched the pictures come in from across the globe on 10/10/10 –I wondered if our students knew what it felt like to be part of a global movement. How do we as teachers, activists, and communities motivate our youth to become better educated about their actions and contributions?

A Question of Faith

Some of you already know that I describe myself as a spiritual person that does not subscribe to any one faith tradition. Growing up, I was exposed to numerous forms of organized religion. I attended a Presbyterian nursery school and frequented that same church when I was in junior high. My father is a baptized Southern Baptist, and my maternal grandparents practiced Buddhism. During my teenage years, I had my flirtations with a few different forms of Christian churches –none of which took a particular hold on my life. During college and graduate school, I learned about the Muslim and Jewish faith traditions through readings and exposure to the faith practices of friends. Of course, the greatest religious influence in my life was Catholicism. I attended to Catholic School for 9 years (St. Gabriel School in San Francisco) and my bonus family –The Purcells were practicing Irish Catholics –which meant that from the age of 6 until I left home at 18, Catholicism was a regular presence in my life. Today, I am a professor at a Catholic University. My reasons for not getting baptized into any one faith tradition are deeply personal and political, so much so that I won’t share them here. However, the knowledge that I’ve gained form learning and experiencing diverse forms of religious faith traditions is that the common ground that links all of them together is love –love of community, the world around us, and the environment. Each religion, in my mind, asks us to practice that love in different ways –all with the ultimate goal of making the world a better place.

I was reminded of the love ethic that should inform our lives earlier this week, when I attended the annual opening mass for the Residential Life team. This small intimate ceremony is held in the courtyard adjacent to my apartment building and serves as a time for the staff to come together and reflect on the journey ahead of us during the academic year. Father Mike, our amazing University Chaplain, reminded us of this in his homily. He said, “God’s will. What is God’s will? So often we hear people say ‘God’s will’ as a rationale for any number of things –for violence, conducting war, or as a rationale for why one group is better than another. Is this really God’s will?” He reminded those assembled that today, on the day of Mary’s Assumption into heaven, that she was a woman of faith, belief, and hope. Faith is difficult because we must continue to believe even when the outcome is unknown. Father Mike challenged us to think of God’s will as the qualities that connect us, that rather than using those words as a rationale for violence or war, that instead we should see God’s will as a call to community and a reason to connect with others around us. He reminded us that as we move forward this academic year, that we should guide our action with a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood –and a faith and belief that we can be a stronger community by working to make the world a better and more just place.
After listening to the political pundits and various ‘activists’ talk about their opposition to a mosque being built at ground zero (which is factually incorrect, the location is two blocks away) I find myself both mystified and offended by the racialized forms of religious intolerance. If religion at its core, is about loving thy neighbor –the real question is, “Where is the Love?”
The reality is that every religious order (Christianity included) has its form of fundamentalism that strays greatly from the teachings and tenets of the majority of faith practitioners. There is an estimated 2 billion Christians in the world, of which violent Christian fundamentalists make up an infinitesimal percentage. By extension to believe that ALL 1.3 billion practitioners of Islam are violent terrorist is simply ludicrous. The women and men who died in the World Trade towers on 9/11 were of all nationalities and faiths. The center itself was built on the graves of former African Slaves –some of which practiced Islam (  Ground Zero and the entirety of lower Manhattan is sacred ground. The irony is that we choose to acknowledge some histories, while ignoring others in an effort to promote forms of intolerance. Freedom of religion is a RIGHT in the United States. It’s time that we look beyond our prejudices and fears and practice acceptance and love regardless of our faith traditions. It seems to me that by educating ourselves on the diversity of faiths present here in the United States and globally, that we can find the common ground that connects us as opposed to focusing on what divides and separates us.