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Personal Journeys of Transformation

Personal Journeys of Transformation

by Maria Rosales-Uribe & Rick Kappra
Maria Rosales-Uribe and Rick Kappra are both teachers at City College of San Francisco. Coming from minority communities themselves, and working with the diverse populations that make up adult basic education, they each considered themselves to be open-minded and unbiased. One day their paths crossed, and they began to challenge each other to question their core beliefs, boundaries, and teaching practices. This is the story of their transformations.

Maria: During my first semester at the Teacher's Resource Center (TRC) of City College of San Francisco, my English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) counterpart was facilitating a diversity presentation for ESOL teachers. I had invited some teachers and was there to support the workshop. I had no idea who the presenters were and expected it to be just your ordinary, two-hour workshop on a topic that City College of San Francisco was encouraging its staff to explore: diversity and tolerance.

Rick: I had been teaching ESOL for nearly 15 years. In the fall of 1999, I had just started talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues and had just transferred to the Mission Campus of City College of San Francisco, which served a mostly Latino neighborhood and student population. I was invited to participate in a half-day workshop organized by our professional development committee on "Diversity Issues for ESOL Teachers (and Others)" because I had recently published an article about a gay Japanese student of mine. He longed for home because he found the homophobia he experienced in his program at University of California at Berkeley to be too oppressive. I was asked to talk about LGBT issues and to provide some guidelines on how to make classrooms safe for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students.

Maria: Little did I know that that would be my first day on a journey towards coming to terms with my own issues with homophobia. I was raised in a traditional Nicaraguan Catholic home in San Francisco, a very open, liberal city. On my journey, I have had very close, deep friendships with gay men: my husband's brother, my first CCSF mentor, my Mission Dolores Church soul mate, but I could not or would not openly talk about LGBT issues with my peers. I was afraid to have honest conversations exploring my questions and admitting my own confusion.

Rick: It was a Friday afternoon, not the best time for a workshop, and it was one of those unusual days in San Francisco: it was hot, which is weather we are neither used to, nor prepared for. I remember standing up and trying to make contact with the audience, looking for support - the nodding, smiling, signs of understanding or solidarity - all of the things I had so far gotten from workshop audiences, since I was only used to "preaching to the choir." Instead, I saw looks that appeared to me like boredom, discomfort, and even anger. This crowd was obviously comprised of the "unconverted."

I spoke about my experiences in my new class at Mission Campus. It was a large class, predominantly male, which was usual for evening classes. The guys in the class, in spite of their limited English abilities, were able to make jokes about gays in English, which surprised me. I talked about how uncomfortable their joking made me feel. Then Maria spoke.

Maria: So there I was at this workshop where this very articulate, passionate, young man spoke about being sensitive to our LGBT students and how to approach different topics in the classroom. I suddenly felt an urge to respond to how his Latino students joked about gays.

Rick: I had been looking at her while I was speaking because, to be honest, I kind of thought she might be a lesbian. I could tell that she was Latina, and I thought that she understood what I was talking about. Her body language indicated interest or familiarity with the subject; she was nodding as I spoke, and I even detected hints of a smile.

Maria: I was scared to death to say anything, but I did. I wanted to share that maybe we joke and laugh when we don't know how to react. Or maybe we just don't have the strength or courage to openly admit our discomfort. I know that I was petrified to even allude that I was equally confused and that I was How can I talk about it with my own students comfortably and openly when I could not openly share with my colleagues? How could I grow?

Rick: Her response nearly floored me. She said that when students make jokes about gays, it is a reflection of their own discomfort. I don't remember my response because by that point I felt entirely defeated. I probably did make a feeble attempt to respond, but ended up leaving the workshop right after my segment and reflecting mostly on Maria's comments. I wondered whether or not she would say the same thing if I were talking about students making racist jokes, sexist remarks, or other derogatory comments in class.

Maria: I remember that I wanted to be swallowed up in a huge hole after I spoke and that my heart was pounding. As I walked back to the office, I never imagined how Rick would guide me on a journey to greater sensitivity and personal understanding.

Rick: I remember seeing Maria at Mission Campus after that, but pretending that I didn't recognize her, and hoping that she wouldn't recognize me either. We rarely crossed paths and when we did it was either in the hallway or in the frenzy of preparing for classes. I felt like she didn't understand where I was coming from and never would. I didn't know how to open up a dialogue with her about how I was feeling.

Maria: I also started to see Rick at Mission Campus. At Mission Campus, there is warmth and sharing of conversation among the teachers from the different departments. In the fall of 2000, I became a project monitor for Project VOICE, a grant that focused on incorporating learning centered strategies to encourage civic engagement. I started to look actively for teachers to work on this project. I asked some of my ESOL friends which teachers they thought would be good candidates. A name kept coming up: Rick Kappra. "He's creative, dynamic, and caring." Even though I remember vividly the awkwardness of our first meeting, I was willing to take a chance. 

Rick: After Maria invited me to join the citizenship-civics grant, we really started a back and forth sharing with one another. I learned so much from her about teaching, being compassionate, service to the community, and just enjoying life. 

Maria: We were a group of teachers with different backgrounds but with a common love for our students. We began to train together, daydream and discuss openly about what our learning communities could be like. Rick was an integral part of that community. I found him to be as driven and committed as I was. Was I ready at that point to begin to explore LGBT issues in my own life, in my own teaching? No. But that community of teachers was helping me to gradually open myself without fear of ridicule. 
In the summer of 2001, we named our work Project VOICE: Voice, Opportunity, Independence and Civic Engagement. Our community felt energized to tackle any issue in the classroom, and I felt a growing confidence that I could also begin to question my own paradigms.

Rick: After working on Project VOICE for a few months, I received an e-mail from Maria, referring to the moment that we first met. She thanked me for inspiring her to grow. Her message was an inspiration to me as well. I felt then that I had a new ally and friend.

Maria: One night as I was reading my e-mails, I had an epiphany that indeed my stance had radically changed from that fall workshop on diversity. That was when I sent Rick the e-mail in which I admitted how fearful I felt that day. It was the most liberating feeling and ever since then I have come to openly talk about LGBT issues in my class. 

Then 9/11 happened. I was in New York City for a wedding on September 8th; I was looking forward to my last day of sightseeing. On the subway, I heard bits and pieces of information that something was happening at the World Trade Center. When I finally walked up the stairs towards the streets of New York City, I realized that something was terribly wrong. Panic, fear, sorrow permeated the air. I walked away from Ground Zero to safety. I stayed in New York until the 15th, and during those days, I cried, prayed, reflected, and discovered a tremendous peace amidst incredible pain. 

Rick: September 11 was something of a milestone in our relationship. Maria was in New York on the 11th. She asked me, after she got back, if we could talk about what it meant to be a pacifist and still be hurt, upset, angry about what happened. 

Maria: When I came home, I once again struggled with my inner core values. Rick was committed to peace and because of the trust we had began to foster, I was able to come to him openly to struggle with my questions concerning justice, war, retaliation, and our country's policy. It was then that my heart became fully open to exploring my own prejudices and fears. 

Rick: There was something about asking questions in the way she did, being willing to listen, yet also being willing to express her fears, doubts, and confusion over the whole issue, that really impressed me. I was so used to meeting people who were on one side or the other of an issue and who were not willing to even listen to those who didn't agree with them. I think that was the final step in building a bridge between our experiences.

In the spring of 2002, I initiated an ESOL class specifically for LGBT students at the newly opened LGBT Community Center. I was struggling with attendance, retention, outreach and a host of other issues. In spite of the difficulties, what was emerging was a group of stories that poignantly told the world what it was like to be queer, an immigrant, and studying ESOL in mainstream classes. I decided to have a public reading of the students' work, but found that most of them were too closeted or fearful to read their own writing. I began looking for allies to read for them, and Maria was my first choice. She agreed to read a story without hesitation. 

Maria: When Rick invited me to read one of his student's writings at a reading at the LGBT community center, I felt honored. Was I scared? Did I feel out of place? I must admit, yes. But when I walked up there and read Julia's story to everyone, I felt the fear and the joy of the narrator. It was there that I discovered that we are all one in this beautiful planet and that we love, laugh, and suffer in the same ways.

Rick: I felt so proud to see her up there, reading the story of a woman who told of her excitement as she traveled from her native country to San Francisco so that she could be with the woman she loved. Julia, the student who had written the story, sat behind me with her arm around her girlfriend -both of them beaming as this beautiful story was retold by Maria.

Maria: This coming semester I plan to do a lesson that one of other project teachers developed. Azad's story is about a brave young woman who found the strength to tell her parents about her sexual orientation regardless of the backlash (see pages 24 and 25). Her courage is a model to us. She teaches us to be true to ourselves, whatever that truth may be. The lesson I have learned is that as teachers we should deal with issues that our adult students face daily. Two weeks ago, a young transgender youth named Gwen was brutally killed in our Bay Area. If it had not been for my own transformation and openness to talk about sensitive issues in class, we would not have studied, reflected, and written on hate crimes.

Rick: Being gay and struggling with my own internalized homophobia, I am very careful about whom I trust. My experience with Maria has made me realize that I am as guilty as anyone about stereotyping and making snap judgments. Had she not approached me to join Project VOICE, I never would have known how brave she was on that day that we first met. Nor would I have known how much we could learn from each other.

Maria: One summer day, I asked my students if they ever had changed their mind about something. I then shared how I had decided to participate in the Gay Pride Parade in June. I openly discussed how this was indeed something I had never in my life imagined I would do. I had never even been close to the parade. This was a turning point for me in my discussing LGBT issues openly in the classroom.

Rick: It was a great source of pride for me to walk alongside Maria in her first gay pride parade. Seeing how much she had grown in the few years that I knew her enabled me to see the potential for my own growth as well. Our allies are out there, but sometimes due to our own fear and the unfair judgments we make about people, we may misunderstand their intentions and not see them for who they really are. I now realize that Maria's comment at that workshop reflected her own questioning on these issues. Rather than trying to answer her with compassion and understanding, I responded with fear and anger. Reflecting on all of this now, I see how wrong I was. As hindsight is always 20/20, the question remains as to what I will do the next time this happens to me.

As Maria so aptly points out, teachers need to deal with, rather than gloss over, issues students face daily. It often takes a close ally or a precipitating event to enable us to do so.

About the Authors
Rick Kappra has been teaching English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) for nearly 20 years. He started as a volunteer teaching refugees and immigrants in Philadelphia. He taught for six years in Japan and briefly in Singapore and Taiwan. He is currently teaching adult ESL at City College of San Francisco, Mission Campus.

Maria Rosales-Uribe is a first generation Nicaraguan San Francisco native. She has been at the Community College of San Francisco for 24 years, where she has taught ESOL, citizenship, Spanish literacy, adult basic education, and GED. For the past three years, Rosales-Uribe has also been working at the Teacher's Resource Center as a resource instructor and as a project director for a grant funded by the Chancellor's Office California Community Colleges.