President’s Podcast: Building Equity | Putting Ideas into Action

ACC President/CEO Dr. Richard M. Rhodes is joined by Geronimo Rodriguez, Chief Advocacy Officer for Ascension Seton, and Clarence Watson, ACC Social Work student, to discuss racial healing, transformation, and how to build equitable learning outcomes.


DR. RICHARD RHODES: In education and in higher education, we look at students and people, individuals, as broken individuals that we’ve got to repair, and that’s not it. It’s—we’ve got broken processes and barriers that get in the way of people being successful. They have the ability. You know, you remove those barriers, and they’re going to go forward just as fast as they can.
JESSICA VESS: Hello, and welcome to the President’s Podcast at ACC. I am Jessica Vess here with our President/CEO, Dr. Richard Rhodes. Hello, Dr. Rhodes.
DR. RHODES: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening.
JESSICA: Whatever time it may be that you’re listening to us, today we are really speaking about an important mission here at the college. We’re talking about equity and inclusion, and we have some remarkable guests with us today. I’d like to introduce Clarence Watson, a Social Work student here at the college, and Geronimo Rodriguez, the Chief Advocacy Officer at Seton Healthcare Family. Thank you for joining us.
GERONIMO: You’re welcome, you’re welcome.
JESSICA: Dr. Rhodes, this is something dear to you, something really important that you brought to ACC in the past year or so.
DR. RHODES: Yes, we were fortunate to capture a grant called Truth and Racial Healing, and we’ve put a lot of focus and attention on how do we reach out to the community? How do we become a better community member? When we talk about equity and inclusion—and not just talk about it, but put it into action, and so it is important to us, and we’re spending a lot effort and focus on that, and so today’s conversation is very timely. And to talk about from a student perspective, from a business and employer and a community member because Geronimo not only works for Seton, but also is a new trustee on the Board of Trustees at Austin Independent School District. And so, you know, having that perspective of a community member who’s actively engaged in a community. Having one of our students who’s currently a student with us, but who has been an active and engaged community member and a former coach who’s had some influence on kids’ lives over the years. Who has now realized that it’s his time to come back and to reengage in education and upgrade his skills. But to get the perspective, what it is that ACC is doing and what can we do better?
JESSICA: Geronimo, you do have a really deep knowledge of the community in Austin and what those needs are and where those gaps are. Talk to us a little bit about the importance of making equity and inclusion an important part of our conversation today.
GERONIMO: Sure. I’m really grateful to be here today, so thank you for inviting me. We’ve been in this community for almost 115 years. We’re going to be here for another 100 years. And we have gone back and looked at what we’re trying to do around recognizing individuals as human beings endowed with dignity and, therefore, compelled to be treated with respect as the foundation of our efforts to move from not just recognizing diversity, but institutionalizing inclusion and cultural competence in what we do. And I think it’s important for us to model the kind of behavior that we expect, and there’s a lot to unpack here. Culture’s important. I think understanding our history is important, and there’s also an individual perspective.
JESSICA: And Clarence, I really want to fold you into this conversation. What have you experienced here in the community? Where do you see those areas for improvement that need to happen? If you could just kind of share some of that with us.
CLARENCE: Thank you for having me. I just know the one thing that ACC is doing a wonderful job at giving everybody the opportunity, no matter what their background is, to be able to further their education. My focus is on children. I had—my mom was in my life when I was younger, but I never had a dad. I never had a—I had positive role models in and out of my life, but never anyone consistent. So, me being that consistent male role model in somebody’s life is really important to me. So I threw the Boys and Girls Club. I have been able to work with young men, work with young women. One of my things is, “Be the reason.” I worked with a company, and I loved the logo so much that I continue to wear the shirt because I love being the reason that that young man wants to go to school and wants to stay out for the boys and girls club. I love being the reason that this young lady, this might be the last meal she gets of the day, and we’re giving her a snack. I love that feeling. So “Be the reason” is one of the things, and just being out there and helping people. They say faith without work is dead. And if you’re here and you’re not helping somebody, you have the wrong intentions. You have the wrong— Your life is not going as it should because we are put here on Earth to help each other.
DR. RHODES: You want to help youth through social work programs and give them the type of space and environment and encouragement and follow-throughs so that they can move through life and not face some of the struggles that maybe you have faced. Can you tell us a little bit, too, about, you know — You’ve been a truck driver for a number of years, and I’m sure driving a truck gave you some opportunity to think about, you know, what you want to do and what you’re doing at the time, and — Did that kind of lend itself to you thinking about, “I’ve got to do something different. I want to do something different where I can help people.”
CLARENCE: Yeah. Just being on the road and having time to think and thinking about what’s going on in my community. For a long time, I was blinded. Well, I wasn’t blind, but I had this, like, tunnel vision. I was focused on my family, and that was it. I never really focused on myself. I never for really focused on my community. So now that the blinders are coming off—they’re not all the way off, but they’re coming off—I’m opening up, and I’m understanding what’s going on in the community, which is Austin. When I first came to ACC, there was—I was happy to be here. I was ecstatic to be here. And then I stepped back and I looked and I’d seen, “Wow, how many people actually look like me in my classes?” One, maybe two. When I looked back and I’d seen that and I started thinking about what’s keeping people from actually wanting to come and further their education. Is it because they don’t know? Is it because they don’t want to? Is it because somebody hasn’t, what, reached out to them and told them, “Hey, you have this opportunity here”? So another thing that I would love to do is, interested in doing is, is reaching out to people and letting them know that, “Hey, this is not the end. Trucking driving, you don’t have to— Trucking driving’s not the end, or a restaurant or whether—there’s also other opportunities for you to further your education. You know, you don’t have to just at this one position. There’s … The world is a … what is that? The world is an open door. You know, you can be whatever you want to be, but you have to believe in yourself. And you have to have the courage to step out, and if you don’t have the courage to step out, you’re going to stay in the same place. So just stepping out and taking that first step and just … being strong enough to say, “You know, no matter what, I’m going to continue to do this. I’m going to continue to do this. I’m going to push forward, and I’m going to keep going because me? When I first started here, I was kind of timid because first of all, I’m a black man. I’m older. And you know, I’m older than everybody in my class, so I’m looking back and it’s like, “Man, maybe I shouldn’t do this. Maybe I should just continue to drive trucks.” But as I kept going into it and kept pushing into it, now it’s like it’s a challenge that I love. And that’s why I decided to go to the University of Texas because I know it’s going to be a challenge, and I realized it myself that I love a challenge. I never thought about that when I was younger. I was kind of always kind of timid and didn’t want to, but now, you know, bring me a challenge. Anything. I’m doing things that I’ve never done before in my life. I just dislike that it took me until I was 40 years old, but I am doing things that I never thought I would be doing in my life.
DR. RHODES: Yeah. For those of you listening, if you could see the smile on Clarence’s face, you know, as he talks about that, meeting that challenge and moving forward, it’s amazing. Well, first of all, Clarence, thank you for sharing your story. It’s very inspiring. I think, for us, it’s showing the practice of inclusion. Your ability to share your story is really important, I think, in the journey that we’re on. I think the other part is, kudos to ACC. Equity to me is really about listening to stories like yours and then removing barriers, welcome you, allowing you to flourish to your best human potential, and then getting out of the way and watching what you do in this world. So I really appreciate you sharing your story—
CLARENCE: Thank you, I appreciate that.
GERONIMO: –speaking the truth— 
CLARENCE: Thank you.
GERONIMO: –about your story, because I think that’s really important to ensure we’re recognizing that, and I think that’s a really big difference between just talking about diversity and the numbers and what that means at a point, and the difference around inclusion and really recognizing a human being for who they are and everything they bring to the table. Because I think that’s important, finding those commonalities. Like Clarence and I, sharing stories about, you know, what we have in common is—
CLARENCE: Yeah, right.
GERONIMO: –driving trucks, right—
GERONIMO: –our life, and so there’s something to be said about just sharing stories and getting to know each other.
DR. RHODES: You want to share yours?
GERONIMO: My story?
CLARENCE: Yeah, yeah.
DR. RHODES: Because I didn’t know this story and this is amazing.
GERONIMO: Well, I—you know, there’s a … I guess I’m—first of all, I’m really proud to be the son of immigrants. My dad came from Mexico when he was in the 6th grade, and that’s as high he went, to elementary school. My mom went to the 11th grade. I’m the first one in my family to graduate from high school, college, go to graduate school, and then get a law degree, and throughout my life, I have tried to… Well, I guess when you’re a migrant farm worker and you’re talking about how Clarence, you had all this time to think about when you were driving, I remember in the 7th grade, first time in Washington state and I get the “privilege”—and I’m using that in quotes—“privilege” to work all day because in Washington, you were allowed to work all day if your school district provided a migrant program at night. And so I saw the school bus leaving in March of 1985, I think, or ’86. I saw it leaving with my sister and my brothers and all the other kids in the school, and I was left behind. And I was mad, and I was not happy. But my mom came and talked to me and said, “You know, we’re not having you work because we want you to work. It’s because we need you to work.” And that made me feel a certain responsibility that probably in the 7th grade, a lot of kids don’t get that kind of conversation, but I got it, and I promised myself as I was thinking that one day, I would hopefully graduate high school, go to college, and maybe someday advocate for those individuals that are left behind, that aren’t recognized in our community. And I’ve been lucky that I’ve had some parents that got engaged, removed some barriers for me to graduate from high school in top 5%. I got recruited, included, reached out to, welcomed by St. Edwards University for their College Assistance Migrant Program. I was able to make good grades, graduate cum laude, get elected student body president, and went to law school. And here I am in 2018, and last year, I was grateful to be appointed to the school district where I get to advocate and say, “You know what? We should expect every single child to graduate high school college- and career-ready, and if not, what do we need to do as a community to make sure that happens? And that’s why I think that community college’s such an important piece of that because we’re trying to—now, I fast-forward to my job, and I’m really lucky to be able to be in a position where I’m advocating to connect our local community to high-demand healthcare career jobs. And that’s how it brings it back to the community college. As a real economic engine, as a real power and influence to ensure that our local community gets connected to the jobs and can afford to live here. Can afford to buy a house, can afford to buy a car, and to pay for their kids’ education, and so to me, that’s the most important part about sharing my story. This is the full circle of making sure that we are giving back to our community. We’re ensuring that those pathways are broken and that those barriers are removed for our community.
DR. RHODES: You know, that’s an important message right there, is removing the barriers, because too often in education and in higher education, we look at students and people, individuals, as broken individuals that we’ve got to repair, and that’s not it. It’s—we’ve got broken processes and barriers that get in the way of people being successful. They have the ability, and all we have to do is make sure that we look at the systems and that we look at the processes and pathways, and clear it away because once you do that, people like Clarence, you know, who have that desire, who have that drive, who have that big smile on their face and the hope in their eyes—
DR. RHODES: You know, you remove those barriers, and they’re going to go forward just as fast as they can. And I love the desire that Clarence has is in social work. It’s to give back. And so it’s to remove barriers for those behind you, and so you may be turning 44, but you’re still a young person. You have a lot to give back. And so—that’s what, you know, really equity and inclusion is. It’s that barrier removal and looking at how do we serve the community?

[murmurs of agreement]

JESSICA: You’re going to start seeing a lot more movement in this direction with ACC being recognized as a Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Campus Center, one of ten named across the nation just last year. So that, it really puts the onus on the college and one that we were seeking to take on, to start those conversations that takes a lot of courage, and it puts people sometimes in an uncomfortable zone, but something that makes a big difference in the end. The drive to pursue opportunities like that, why is that so important to the college?
DR. RHODES: Yeah, and before I do that, I just want to give kudos once again. Stephanie Hawley—Dr. Stephanie Hawley—has done an amazing job in the application for us to be recognized as one of those centers in Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation. We’re the only community college in the nation to be selected. We’re the only higher education institution in the state of Texas to be selected as one of those ten. And the others are, you know, no-name institutions like Duke University or The Citadel or the University of Maryland.
JESSICA: The little guys.
DR. RHODES: So, you know, I’m really proud of the work that Dr. Hawley has done in the application and in—I probably shouldn’t say this since it’s being recorded, but we heard that it was the best application that was submitted. And that says something about the passion and the desire to make a difference. That we have individuals who work at the college who are invested in the community and who see the needs, who have that passion, who have that desire, and want to see transformation take place. And so that’s the key there, is people with the dream to make a difference in Central Texas.
JESSICA: And with a lot of support around the community going into that, it was something that required not just the dedication of the college, but the dedication of the community with the letters of support that came from so many.
DR. RHODES: Yes. You know, I lost track of the numbers of letters of support that we had from everybody in the community, and it just—you know, it’s a resounding, “Yes, we’re here to do it. We’re here to make a difference, and we’re going to change. We’re going to transform this whole community.” And a lot of people have stepped up to the plate and meet on a regular basis. You know, these are non-paid advisory positions and commitments from people in the community to step up and say, “Let us help. Let us look at what are the metrics that’re going to show over a period of time that we are truly making a difference?”
JESSICA: And beyond the numbers that those sorts of conversations and analyses start to show, it’s the faces, and that’s really why hearing from, you know, you, Clarence, and Geronimo, your story as well, really makes it recognizable. Clarence, you spent decades in a job that provided for you, but you said that it also provided you an opportunity to constantly examine your own life and where you want it to go. You know, describe for us, who haven’t been in the position you found yourself in, what that felt like. What did you feel when you were going through the jobs and you kept trying to find an opportunity to advance?
CLARENCE: I’ve always—every job that I had, I did really well. I put my all into it, and I never stayed at the same position. But at the same time, I always knew that I would never get that position that I really wanted. So just that feeling of just… knowing that I had to work even harder than other people to… just to know that I would never get that position was a hard thing. And just sitting back and thinking about all the—because whenever a training would come up, I was there. I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn, I wanted to be the best, but I always knew that I would never get that position that I wanted, so that’s what really drove me. One of the driving reasons why I decided to come back to school because I just… I’ve always wanted to do great things, and I always knew I was put here to do great things, but in that field, I could just feel that, you know, that was the end for me. That was the end. I would make good money. I would be able to take care of my family, which I did, my kids. But I would never be able to be comfortable enough to… retire and… retire and feel good about myself, feel that I did something good for somebody else. You know, pouring concrete, you know, I did that, and I liked the job, but at the day, at the end of my life, I wanted to be able to say that I helped somebody, that I helped steer somebody in the right direction. You know, you get that feeling inside you to where… I really, really, really want to do something. I really, really want to do great things. And it’s not even about the money. It just… knowing that I helped somebody. Whether I’m making $10 an hour or $15 an hour, I helped somebody. I helped this kid who… at home wasn’t being treated the way they deserved to be treated. Or this kid that was being bullied at school or didn’t have the finances to do this or just wanted to talk to somebody. You know, just wanted to sit down and just talk to somebody. Laugh. Maybe they don’t even get a chance to laugh at home, you know? So that’s what I wanted to be.
DR. RHODES: You know, Geronimo, earlier we talked about mentors. The goal and beyond of mentorship. You want to talk just a little bit about what that means because that’s a part of the key to, you know, racial healing, transformation, and really changing the community is active engagement of individuals on affecting other individuals.
GERONIMO: Well, I think there’s a couple of things about the mentoring piece, but before I talk about it, I just want to recognize. I think Clarence is speaking about a lot of values that we all believe in: hard work, opportunity, doing something bigger than ourselves. I think that is a part of this discussion that we shouldn’t lose sight. And I think for ACC, I see it in your practice of being student-centered. When I look at healthcare, I see it as person-centered, as patient-centered, family-centered approaches. To making sure that we are removing barriers so that individuals like Clarence can reach their full potential of what they want to. I think we shouldn’t lose sight of that. And it goes with mentoring. I think mentoring is a great thing where people who like each other are supportive of each other. I would advocate that we also need to be sponsors of individuals. Removing barriers, providing resources, picking up the phone and putting them in positions in our community where they’re getting engaged. Because I think engagement is another piece to all this. There is a thick thread in our democracy around engagement, whether it be parental engagement—parents advocating for their kids, around schools and opportunities that they get—civil engagement from our business leaders around making sure that we have a local community, a local economy that is thriving, that is being beneficial of our community. But also, at the end of the day, sponsorship is really about leadership. Clarence talked about his story and about how it was not about him. It was about others, his children. I think as leaders, we have to also recognize that leadership is so important because it is not about us. It is about individuals like Clarence and making sure that they get supported. Students in our community, our local community members, getting connected to some of these jobs so they can afford to live here. So to me, there’s mentoring, which I think is a really important aspect of supporting individuals, but I think the other level is sponsorship. Leadership. Engaging, removing barriers, listening instead of just hearing. And so I think those are real keys to making sure that diversity and inclusion are really—and research shows they are key drivers to innovation. And in this city, one of the things I’ve learned—in this region—is that we believe in innovation, and I really believe that diversity, inclusion, and equity are the big drivers of innovation as we try to think different, change processes, tweak things, get out of the way on certain things, remove barriers. All of it is so key, and that relationship in mentoring is where it starts. Then it’s about sponsorships. Then it’s about leading in our community. And I think it’s really important to make sure that we are self-aware about some of these things that we have, and I think that’s what I really love about the work that you all are doing about truth and reconciliation, is that it really is turning the mirrors on ourselves as individuals in our community. Let’s learn about history of where we’ve been, recognize where we are in the present, and then envision a future where it will be just and it will be about opportunities for all of us.
DR. RHODES: Boy, if that’s not a good wrap—


DR. RHODES: –I don’t know what is.


JESSICA: And that is what’s the focus here at ACC and across the community here in Central Texas. Clarence, I want to thank you so much for your time, for joining us, and sharing your amazing story. We, of course, wish you all the best. You’re going to be an amazing social worker, influencing many lives, and we wish you the best moving forward in that.
CLARENCE: Thank you.
JESSICA: Geronimo, thank you as well for joining us.
GERONIMO: Happy to be here.
JESSICA: And President Dr. Richard Rhodes.
DR. RHODES: All right.
JESSICA: Any last words from you?
DR. RHODES: I just want to also say thank you to both of you for taking time to have this conversation with us because these conversations mean a lot. And people will hear them. Future students will hear your words. People from the business community hear your words. And, you know, that’s what it is. It’s—you know, Jessica mentioned it earlier. Often times, we in education like to talk a lot about metrics and a lot about the data, but as you mentioned, there are faces behind every one of those data points, like Clarence, like Geronimo, that make a difference, and it’s hearing the voices of those individuals that make that data then come alive and meaningful. And so I want to thank you for taking the time to make this meaningful conversation for our listeners. 
CLARENCE: Thank you.
GERONIMO: Thank you.
JESSICA: This has been the President’s Podcast at ACC. Thank you for joining us.