25 Years Later

Last week I received an invitation to create an entry for the 25th reunion registry for Harvard College’s class of 1991.  Generally, I have not responded to these invitations, which inevitably end with a donation request.  This time, though, I took the opportunity to reflect, with what I hope is “reasonable brevity,” on how my four years at Harvard affected the trajectory of my life thereafter.  Here are those reflections for those of you who may be interested:

Oddly enough, the 25 years since graduation took me nowhere I imagined they would while I was at Harvard. Still, they seem to have brought me exactly to where I am supposed to be.

My Harvard experience, while rewarding, was difficult. Coming from a humble, working class background—and having a very thick Boston accent—the vast wealth and influence on display at Harvard was at once awesome and alienating. I had great respect for my peers, and a desire to be accepted among them. Yet I always suspected that full entry into the world of Harvard Students and alumni, and the kind of success that entailed, was neither what I wanted nor what was meant for me.

Perhaps for that reason, I spent much of my time at Harvard on the fringes—spending summers working at home or with kids from Cambridge’s Jefferson Park housing projects, afternoons and weekends with the other misfits from the HRFC, and evenings bouncing or tending bar at the Bow and Arrow Pub. I wrote my senior thesis on scholarship students at Harvard, missed out on the finals club scene, and bombed my interviews with Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch.

After graduation, I took a teaching position at Santiago College in Santiago de Chile. There, I taught IB English, backpacked the Andes, and learned, for the first time and first hand, the impact of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. In 1993, I entered a Ph.D. program in American Studies at Yale, hoping to draw from my experience to imagine ways that elite education could be a tool for collective uplift rather than individual achievement. Little did I know that the current trend among universities away from tenure and tenure-track positions toward contingent faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, was making such a prospect more and more unlikely.

As fortune would have it, Yale University was at that very time the hotbed of a movement—buttressed by Yale’s unions of graduate-student teachers, dining-hall and maintenance workers, and clerical workers—to counteract the corporatization and erosion of academic freedom Yale and its counterparts (including Harvard). Initially reluctant, I became a leader of that movement in 1996 when, after joining a strike of graduate-student teachers at Yale (for equal pay for equal work, same-sex domestic partner benefits, diversity, and affordable child care), I witnessed the wrath of university administrators and senior professors who threatened to fire, expel and blackball the striking teachers. Moved by the sincerity, compassion, commitment, and strength of the strike’s leaders, I decided, though I did not fully realize it at the time, that I wanted to be one of them for the rest of my life.

I received my Ph.D. in 2001, and stayed on as an organizer with the unions at Yale for 4 more years. In 2002 I married Rachel, herself a dynamic leader in the union, and in 2005 we had our first daughter Anna. Also in 2005, at the request of the union, our family moved to Phoenix, Arizona to start a new Hotel and Airport workers’ organizing program there. Here we joined my parents, along with two of my brothers and their families, who had all migrated West a decade earlier. In 2007 we had a second child, Naomi, and in 2008 Rachel and I together helped found CASE (Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy), a non-profit organization which works to improve working and living conditions for low-wage and immigrant service workers in Arizona through workplace organizing, naturalization assistance, youth leadership development, and voter engagement. I have served as CASE’s Executive Director since 2009. Resisting the horrendous attacks on immigrant families by the Arizona legislature and law enforcement agencies, and creating workplace democracy in a state that crushed the mineworkers and farmworkers movement before ours, is truly a very difficult task. My family has begun to enjoy the challenge, however, and we are very proud of the work we do every day.

Thanks to all of you classmates who tolerated and supported me during those 4 critical years at Harvard. And please come to Phoenix to visit. We would love to host any and all of you at any time. Blessings to all.

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