La Junta Collective in South Central LA is Rebecca Rodriguez, German Gallardo, Carlitos Cortez, and Pedro Gomez, four educators who are starting a school that will be a place for an entire community to heal from trauma together.
Rebecca and German came to High Tech High and talked to Alec about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what’s standing in their way.
[MUSIC PLAYING] Hey, everyone. Before we get started, this episode has some swearing, so consider yourself warned.
We don’t talk about this a lot as educators, but people forget most of what they learn in school. I’m looking at you here, listener. What can you tell me about a sine, a cosine, and a tangent? What did James K. Polk do in office? Was the difference between metonymy and synedochy?
But you know we don’t forget? Getting humiliated by a teacher.
I was 12 in a sixth grade class, and Mr. [? Stetzel ?] got very angry at my class. And he called us a bunch of lazy Mexicans. The makeup of this class was overwhelmingly Mexican, one African-American child, and a Vietnamese kid, and he told us not to be lazy Mexicans.
Made one of my friends cry because his father was a painter. He looked at him and said, you can’t hide from the truth. You’re going to be a worthless painter all your life if you don’t change who you are.
Seeing that, I cursed him out, went to the office, and was given an option to either apologize to the teacher in front of everyone or take suspension. I decided suspension. My parents backed me up, but on the walk home my mother cried. And when I asked her why she was crying, she told me it was because we were undocumented in this country.
And I had to learn that in this country, I needed to be quiet because if I got in trouble, then child services would be called, and then immigration would be called. And we would lose everything because I didn’t know how to just be quiet. I knew that was wrong, and so I decided that I was going to be a teacher for the rest of my life and try to fight that.
From High Tech High, this is the Unboxed Learning Podcast. I’m Alec Patton. This episode is part of “Groundwork,” a series of conversations with school leaders who are building something radical. You just heard from German Gallardo. I talked to him and Rebecca Rodriguez, who form one half of La Junta Collective, four educators who are going to start a school in South Central Los Angeles or something like a school.
The thing is, they’re working from two big ideas about trauma. The first is that when a community has been subjected to trauma over multiple generations, self-care isn’t enough to repair that. The community needs to heal collectively and on its own terms. The school that they’re envisaging is a place for that healing to take place.
Their second big idea is that the trauma experienced by the people of South Central Los Angeles has been visited on them through the systems of the state, especially prisons, law enforcement, and schools. When that’s your starting premise, founding a school is kind of awkward, and getting funding for that school is really awkward. We’re going to get into all that, but first, we’re going to go back to German, now 15 years old and fed up with school.
I was at a point where I wanted to drop out. The day that I decided to drop out, I decided to go to a friend’s house and have fun with him the rest of the day instead of going out because I knew I couldn’t go home. As soon as my family would know that I dropped out, they would kill me, so I didn’t go home.
When I went to my friend’s house, I was met with a lot of anger and a lot of absolutely positively not allowing me to stop going to school. And so him and his father convinced me through some threats to go back to school that day, and I did go back to school.
On the way to school, my friend and I were caught in a drive-by, and he was shot. And he died in my arms. The last thing he told me or he asked of me before he passed away was to keep my promise about being a teacher that I’ve been saying since I was 12. And so I teach because of his sacrifice for me.
What did he see in you?
I don’t know, man. That’s something that haunts me. I don’t know what he saw. I do know what made me different, and that was a super strong family.
So most of the trauma, and hurt and pain that I felt was instituted on me by the system, the education system, the system of policing. All those have been trauma-inducing for me and in my life, but my family has been something that I could retreat to. Whatever horrible message I got at school would be countered by that love and that relationship I had with those people when I got home.
I had trouble squaring this closeness with a comment German made when he was telling me about his sister.
My sister went to college. She was the first one in our family to go to college, but she dropped out. She still had access to the university library, and so when she heard my anger– and she never really knew about this. It was just anger in general.
But when she heard my anger, she’s like, you need to read some books. And my response was, I’m not going to read a damn book about why I’m mad. I know I’m mad. She’s like, no, you don’t.
Credit to his sister, German started going to the library. He read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and those books transformed him. But did you notice that he just said, she never really knew about this? I had to follow up about that.
When you said your sister didn’t know why you were angry, what did she not know about?
Any of the stuff that I just mentioned. She didn’t know about the death or that I witnessed any of that.
Your sister didn’t know you saw your friend–
No, that’s not something I share with my family.
Wait, do they know now?
You had that happen and just carried that without telling your family?
Yeah, but it’s not unique. That would be surprising if it was something that doesn’t happen consistently, but it is a fact of life. It is so prevalent in Black and brown youth that those experiences are there, caught, felt, and never talked about that I’m not unique, and this is the sickening part, really. I’m not unique. I’m not special. I’m not the only one. If you hear or understand those communities, all of our kids feel that way. All of our kids deal with these incredible pieces of trauma that they’ve had to see. I saw that, and it was somebody who was like a friend to me. Some kids see that with their own families. Some of our students see that perpetuated within their own families– domestic abuse, sexual abuse, violence just everywhere. And all of our youth swallow it, carry it, and don’t tell a soul. They come to school and are expected to pretend like everything’s OK.
You become a container.
That second voice is Rebecca Rodriguez, La Junta member and current principal of Vox Collegiate Middle School. What Rebecca and German are talking about here is what La Junta collective is all about. Their point is that holding onto this trauma is work that students are doing 24 hours a day, both in school and out, and crucially, German and Rebecca don’t think kids are necessarily mistaken when they choose to keep their trauma to themselves.
You justify it by thinking you’re helping save someone else. A lot of times, it’s the parents. Seeing what our parents are already going through– chronic poverty, chronic stress– the last thing you want to share is some of the crap you’re going through. Your mom doesn’t need to know with her level of stress.
Yeah, what’s going on. Maybe she’s going to cry.
And she’s going to blame herself [INAUDIBLE].
She’s going to do nothing. Yeah, so you become that container. And then you go to school, and you’re continued to be taught to be silent, to be quiet because it doesn’t matter there, either. It doesn’t matter anywhere, really.
And then if you go to something like, say, law enforcement, most of our communities live in fear of law enforcement. And so the option of saying something to the police isn’t an option that will bring any kind of healing to you or anybody. It just makes things–
–infinitely worse. And so you’re kind of locked into this space. I have nobody to tell, so I’m just going to swallow it.
It’s learned in schools, too. As a school leader now, I have to battle that all the time when I know, I know, and I can feel that something is up with the kid. And they’ll be like, Miss, I can’t tell you, because I know what you have to do. They’re sixth and seventh grade, and they already know that if they share what’s hurting them, I have to call someone that’s not going to be helpful and that’s only going to make it worse.
Because you’re a mandated reporter?
And sadly, the systems that we have in place to deal with those traumas and those issues are punitive– take you away from the family, move you to some other place. And that’s increasingly traumatic to somebody that may only have one tie of stability in their life. And there may be some situations where that’s needed, but in others, what’s needed is our services, our psychological services, our–
An investigation into the roots which is spawning that versus trying to snip at leaves. But that’s where, again, we come back to this knowledge of oppressive systems because the reality is, the state isn’t going to investigate the roots that it planted.
The four members of La Junta Collective are trying to create a place where students can safely share the burdens that they’re carrying, but before we go further, you need to know a little more about Rebecca. When Rebecca was 18, she got hired to tutor junior high school students in an after-school program.
I was the only Spanish-speaking person at that junior high when all of the kids at that junior high were Latino. And I realized that as soon as parents realized that I spoke Spanish, I started having people show up at the door to my classroom, like, [SPANISH]. And they were bringing water bills and things that they were getting in the mail, and it was at that point that I realized like, holy shit, there is a need for basic resources. And I was able to foster that in connection.
And of course, when parents would show up with items in hand, I couldn’t help but see my mom. My mom is from Sinaloa. She was raised on a ranch about 45 miles from the nearest city. She meant she didn’t get a birth certificate until the next time grandpa was going into the city to register, so we’re pretty sure we don’t know her birthday.
She never attended one day of formal schooling. I always tell it like one of the best gifts she can give me is a handwritten card. She’s embarrassed at her writing. She doesn’t know where the spaces go, so she’ll always try to convince somebody else to write them for her.
German and Rebecca both became teachers and ended up teaching at the same brand new charter school, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in South Central LA.
That was at the school that I was a founding teacher at, Camino Nuevo. He came in the second year. He was our US history and AP gov teacher, and I was doing worlds and geography or something like that. At that point, it was our second year existing, so he was the second history teacher and my partner.
Another collective member, Carlitos Cortez, was also–
–was also the third history teacher in that group came in that year. And then the year after that, the fourth collective member, who was our dean of students that year and is now currently a therapist, came into that school.
But that school was very unique in terms of charter schools in Los Angeles. Most of the students we had that first and second year were students that had been kicked out of every other school in the area, and these kids are freshmen and sophomores that have been kicked out of five or six schools in that area. Our school was full of those kids, and those kids, by way of the poverty in the area where they’re from, had huge amounts of trauma. And it was a really challenging space to be in. Our kids were hurt, angry, confused, didn’t know how to sit still in a room because their brains and their emotions were everywhere.
But at that school, every single teacher connected with students. Even our custodial staff had kids that would come and find them for advice. Our lunch lady would get involved in kids’ lives and be like, yo, I heard your grades are bad.
And it’s working. We’ve gone from kids walking out and not being able to regulate their emotions to the point where they would get so angry and hurt that they would have to leave to now having these kids talk about, I want to apply to college. Their grades would improve. Their behavior would improve.
Their everything was getting better. Their social emotional care was getting better, and it was all because of the love we were able to create as a group. And that was wonderful.
However, our leadership didn’t know how to take advantage of all those things, and so I was constantly thinking to myself, man, what we’re building is so powerful. But as soon as it gets out of our hands as teachers, there’s a disconnect, and things would fall apart. After that, I felt like my relationship was hurt with the principal. I got asked to leave that school, and that broke apart.
What were they not seeing?
They weren’t seeing literally the things we were taking care of because we took care of them, and so they didn’t understand exactly how much we were doing.
And tell me about– was there a moment when you were like, we got to start a school, or I got to start a school?
[LAUGHS] Didn’t we find stickies?
Yeah. We did.
You start a school. No, you fucking start a school. No, you do it.
We did get the stickies. Somewhere, there’s a picture of our sticky, and I remember the exact day that we were writing those notes to each other. We were in another professional development that missed the mark. They were talking about a certain student and how horrible they were, and we just checked out.
And she wrote me a note that said, when are you going to start your school? And I wrote back, my school? We’re just waiting for you. You’re going to start the school, and then went back and forth like that. And I think that’s where it started.
And then more conversations like that, like what we would like in a school. What kind of things are missing in this for our students? What kind of things are missing for the teachers that deal with those students authentically?
What’s missing for the entire community? What’s missing for the families? And we were here because of those conversations.
Pedro and Carlitos joined the conversations, and that led to La Junta collective. And they’re all doing this while working full time on other jobs.
German is teaching history now at a different school. Rebecca is principal of Vox Collegiate Middle School. Pedro is getting a family therapy certification and doing social work, and Carlitos is still at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. It’s all part of their master plan.
So we’ve been making strategic choices about what we do with the idea of, this could help us build the school. Rebecca, I think, of all of us, has the best leadership skills, so when she had the opportunity to become a principal, we looked at her and said, you have to. You’re going to have this great experience of starting a school from the ground up, seeing those pitfalls, and making those mistakes, so when we start a school, you can do that.
The same thing with the other one. You’re adding all these other things to what you can do. When we get a school, you’ll be able to bring what you learned to create a more robust service for our students and understand what other organizations do, what other agencies do, and how we can bring those services for us.
The other two, it’s like, how can we improve our instruction to the point that when we start a school, our instruction is as powerful as it can be? So we know that everything is happening, yet the instruction is authentic. It’s powerful, and it’s meaningful to the students and the community. So all our movements have been strategic in terms of, these are the things that we have in our vision and things that we need to bring to the table and who’s the best match at this moment to be able to do those things.
The key to this strategy, as you might anticipate, is that every decision is collective, and while this collective starts with the four of them, it’s going to get a lot wider.
The spirit of being a collective is making sure that we can have parents and students be part of this design committee because our school will not be something that we just gift to the community. It’s going to be something that’s born of them. We may be steering this now, but everything has to come from them. So we won’t be ready to do anything until we have parents who are at these tables at this conference, until we have our students here at this table at this conference doing this work with us because they’re the ones that know, more than we do, what is needed in those communities.
So a lot of this is going to be collectively done. That’s going to mean letting go of a certain amount of stuff potentially about your own vision. What are the things that you’re like, if the parents we talked to said x, then we’re not the place for them? And we just have to walk away. What are the core things that make this venture this venture?
Overarching ideas that are at the core of everything we do, our community, and collective healing and everything that comes with that. And in our culture, our Western culture, American culture, we have this idea of self-love, right? And that has its place, and it’s really powerful. But we’ve lost the sight of the community healing together, and we lose sight of generational trauma.
One of our core principles at the heart is being able to heal the whole community, and all the work that we do, the decisions that we take, the pedagogy that we use, the lessons that we will deliver on a daily basis are meant to create that healing within those spaces, not just for the child in there, but the adult in the room and the families that come with them. I think that’s one of our key founding principles.
A second one is a decolonial lens, understanding that everything around us isn’t broken. These systems of oppression have been created to work specifically how they are now, and the outcomes have been designed. And because of that, we strive to be decolonial in everything we do– anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-homophobic, and abolitionist in nature.
And when German says “abolitionist,” what that means is–
I believe we should abolish and recreate something other than the prison-industrial complex. That’s prisons, jails, and all the things that feed into them.
So those are the core principles. The school will be a place for healing as a multigenerational community, and it will be anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-homophobic, and abolitionist. And German knows exactly what kinds of tough conversations he anticipates having with parents.
Having police officers on campus– why? And then the conversation of safety would happen. What is it that happens with that? My personal belief and our view as a collective now is an abolitionist view, that those systems are inherently oppressive. So having police officers on campus doesn’t mesh with that vision.
But instead of being like, this isn’t the place for you, it would be a conversation in the spirit of that consensus. What is it that makes you feel safe about having these folks here? And can we achieve that safety without that?
And this is the slow part. Everything’s the conversation, and what is it that needs to happen? And how do we understand these things, and how do we come to a community understanding? Because we’re going to have to come to a community understanding.
Do you remember that back at the start, I said, figuring out how to fund the school is going to be awkward? We got into that.
It feels for me like I am putting on my Sunday best and coming to plead for money to rectify the wrongs that I didn’t do.
Yeah, man, it’s real.
So at one point, I was like, well, fuck it. I don’t want to ask you for money. I don’t want your money. But then reality– you’re like, oh shit, I ain’t got no money.
No, the reality of we need political support, right? We need some rubber stamp of approval. We need some funding. We need to be able to have the time to think. We need these things, which is difficult.
It’s difficult to reconcile, especially when you’re doing things that is like– we don’t want to create just another school. We don’t want to recreate the systems that led to this oppression. We want to dismantle. We want to reimagine, and we want to build new systems.
And that’s going to mean we’re not going to fit in a lot of places. That’s going to mean a lot of this frustration constantly. I mean, we could very well not get a charter. We could very well not get funded.
We could very well get kicked out of every program we try to get into, but the point is, we’re trying. The point is that we have hope that this can happen, and we have a vision.
And holding people accountable to what they say, right? There’s a lot of words thrown around about disruption, and so.
And there’s a lot of talking that happens.
So it’s like, OK, let’s go.
We like radical thinkers. We’ll see. [LAUGHS]
That was German Gallardo and Rebecca Rodriguez, who make up one half of the La Junta Collective in South Central Los Angeles. Their new school creation fellows at High Tech High’s Graduate School of Education.
This episode of the Unboxed Learning Podcast was written and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Hershel. Thanks for listening.