While the majority of California community college students are Latino, that proportion doesn’t carry over to the ranks of top administrators in the system — and until five years ago, there was no statewide organization focused on promoting them, in all senses of that term.
“That whole embrace of who I am isn’t necessarily there,” says Idler Betacourt Lopez, vice president of learning and student success at Pierce College in the Tacoma, Washington, area, who formerly worked in both California and Arizona. “Community colleges do try, but there’s definitely a sense of, ‘I’m not fully part of this. I’m an outsider.’”
Enter the California Community Colleges Organización de Latinx Empowerment, Guidance and Advocacy for Success (COLEGAS), founded in 2018, which aims to both elevate Latino/Latina/Latinx leaders and look out for those coming up through the ranks, faculty and students. Borne out of a gathering after a conference for vice presidents of student services, the founders aimed to fill a niche at a time when national politics had turned harshly negative — and their own informal research showed the list of Latino leaders was short compared to the proportion of students.
“There was this feeling that we needed to galvanize and bring groups together throughout the state, so that we could control the narrative around the value that we bring to the state, to our local economies and to the California Community College system,” says Mark Sanchez, superintendent and president of Southwestern College and a founding board member.
Lopez, another founder, relates an experience from one of his previous career stops that underscores the lack of support Latino leaders sometimes feel, even at institutions where they’re well-represented numerically. As dean of humanities and social sciences, he attended an academic senate meeting at which a resolution was unanimously passed condemning racist e-mails sent by a senate candidate to garner support. But beyond the resolution, the lack of consequences the candidate experienced was disheartening — and bewildering.
“I remember feeling completely numb,” Lopez says. The college’s leadership “responded a couple of months later with something to the effect of, ‘Yes, it was unfortunate. However, there is nothing you can do. Sometimes, people slip up, and we have to learn to forgive.’ … I spent the rest of that academic year adjusting my behavior and my schedule around that faculty member, who sent that e-mail. The thought of seeing him provoked so much anxiety.”
Being part of COLEGAS provided a safe space among people who intuitively understood why the experience was traumatizing and helped him to heal from it, Lopez says.
“COLEGAS, with its emphasis on supporting other Latinos, you definitely feel different there. You embrace the opportunity to be yourself, fully,” he says.
Culturally grounded professional development
Given that Latino students comprise the majority, COLEGAS wanted to organize to advance their challenges to the forefront.
“Many of them are first-generation, and a lot of us are first-generation professionals,” observes Michelle Batista, vice president of student services at Lake Tahoe Community College and a founding board member of COLEGAS.
Administrators, faculty and leadership were the other focus.
“We realized there was this void around professional development that was culturally grounded,” says Angelica Garcia, the new superintendent and president of Santa Rosa Junior College who is also vice president and president-elect of the COLEGAS board. “We asked, ‘What does it take to support Latino campus leaders? What does it take to support Latino students, to completion?’”
The organization started with regional daylong summits in central, southern and northern California to take in feedback from Latinx professionals throughout the state; 30 attended the first meeting, 60 came to the second and 120 to the third. Along the way, the group solidified its purpose — to support Latino student success and completion via leadership grounded in culture — while also engaging in continuing education and building a community network, Garcia says. “Those were the three components,” she says.
“It just kept multiplying,” says Batista, a Ph.D. candidate who has written her dissertation about COLEGAS. “We wanted to make sure that folks had a professional development experience, and that they could take something concrete away with them to immediately implement into their work, and also to build relationships and networks. That’s also how we pulled the speakers we had — we called the people we knew, asked them to come and speak, and they were more than willing.”
Then Covid hit, but COLEGAS pivoted and began holding free webinars — with an assist from the statewide chancellor’s office, which lent its Zoom account to the effort — focused on topics important to Latino students and professionals. The professional development opportunities have come along at a time when baby boomers are retiring in great numbers and younger professionals are asking to work remotely — or participating in the Great Resignation.
“We’re actually building in succession planning, where we’re growing our next generation of leaders to fill these vacancies,” Sanchez says. “We just can’t do it fast enough to meet the needs and the vacancies in the California Community College system.”
The webinars, which quickly became monthly, covered topics like educating the community about the pandemic and what was needed to support students, faculty and administrators, and exploring anti-Black sentiments that can exist even in the Latino community during the racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd, Garcia recalls.
“We realized the folks who were connecting with us really liked coming together,” she says. “We started addressing topics related to classroom teaching, student support services and leadership. The goal was always to profile and highlight colleges doing good work and ask what we need to do to support one another and our students.”
The growing togetherness brought the ability to leverage political power, if not necessarily in the formal sense, Lopez says. “I mean in the form of using advocacy for the better good,” he says. “We saw the benefit of doing that for Latino students, who are a big part of the system, but also for employees, as we are growing in the system.”
Lacking the capacity to deal with the financial and legal ramifications of becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the board of COLEGAS pitched the idea of becoming an affiliate of the National Community College Hispanic Council (NCCHC), an America Association of Community Colleges (AACC) affiliate that agreed to the arrangement, and since then additional chapters have opened in Texas and Arizona.
“On the macro level, in the state of California and now nationally, we’ve provided this space and become a platform for bringing folks together who have academic research and practitioner expertise around supporting Latino students,” Garcia says. “We’re able to influence and become part of the table with the state chancellor’s office.”
A key initiative in helping support career advancement has been the La Escalera Project, through which participants can gain individualized coaching in preparing for job applications, interviews and salary negotiations. During the past year and a half, the program has provided assistance to approximately 200 Latino professionals, mostly for the first two goals, Lopez says.
“The idea behind it is, let’s leverage our knowledge, let’s leverage our positionality to help other Latinos who want to enter the system and move up the system,” he says, adding that he’s spread the concept to Washington state since moving there. “The coaches run from faculty members to deans, vice presidents, presidents and even chancellors. They believe in the mission, and they’re willing to volunteer their time. … We’ve seen people move up in their positions, or get into the system [in the first place].”
“We have had pretty significant gains in participants getting a good job, everything from tenure track faculty positions, to manager positions, to executive,” Garcia adds. “The founding vice presidents of student services, all of us have become college presidents since that time. Deans and directors have now become vice presidents. We have been instrumental in helping to get more Latino faculty into statewide leadership.”
A grant from the College Futures Foundation has helped COLEGAS build its organizational infrastructure, hiring a director for the first time and funding the webinars and advertisements for them. COLEGAS expanded its board by five members starting this summer.
“This is very much a practitioners’ board,” Garcia says. “Within a couple years’ time, we’re going to outgrow that. We will continue to do things like fundraise and bring in experts, but not necessarily run the conferences like we have.”
In recent weeks, COLEGAS has begun a new venture offering institutes to individual community colleges to equip them with culturally affirming practices that they can embed on their respective campuses. They will start in August, and as of late May, 13 schools had signed up, says Cynthia Olivo, president of Fullerton College and another founding board member.
“It’s a train-the-trainer model,” she says. “They’ll come and learn the particular topic that they signed up for, and the team of five from every respective campus will go back to their institution and implement that practice.”
COLEGAS also would like to start chapters on campuses or in college districts, Garcia says, “so the movement and work can be very localized at the college level. As a board, we can be focused statewide and nationally, through partnerships like NCCHC and AACC. A group from Florida reached out to us, especially with the policies there, asking us for ways to collaborate with them to talk about how we can think through what their professional development curriculum looks like. That’s a new venture. … We’re activating the Brown Bat-phone.”
The webinar series now runs the last Thursday of every month. In May, for example, the webinar focused on mental health, a topic that educators have been especially zeroed on since Covid, while giving it a culturally relevant lens. In July, it will focus on cluster hiring, and how it can help bring to campus a diverse set of faculty. And spun out of the webinars is the COLEGAS Institute, a professional development workshop series to help change existing practices in culturally relevant ways in order to eliminate racial equity gaps.
Between Batista’s dissertation and an article that COLEGAS published in a peer-reviewed journal, Garcia sees the group contributing to the literature in the field, as well.
“We might be able to introduce a conceptual framework that guides leadership development and professional development for folks that work with predominantly Latino communities,” she says.
Legislative advocacy has been another focus. Sanchez led a letter-writing advocacy effort in partnership with African American and Asian American/Pacific Islander community college organizations in support of a bill that would allow any student living within 45 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border to enroll in San Diego Community College District campuses for the in-state tuition rate.
“That’s important because right now, we have a significant number of vacancies in our local workforce,” he says. “Because we haven’t prepared the talent workforce.”
COLEGAS also has begun to gear up for its second annual conference November 1-3 in Long Beach. Lopez notes that the first one deepened the sense of community and fellowship, and he sees further potential to scale that.
“What I experienced there, and heard from others, and what we see in the data from a post-conference survey, is that it was a conference unlike any other,” he says. “It filled people’s spirits and provided so much positivity, holistically. I’m excited we were able to deliver that kind of experience to our membership.”