Lora Yvette Alaniz

As Interviewed by Abi Peterson, March 17, 2013

Lora Yvette Alaniz: In Her Own Words

My name is Laura Yvette Alaniz. I was born in a small town called Pleasanton, Texas, south of San Antonio, on December 27th of 1967.

I started out my teaching career at a Charter school in south Tucson, Arizona after graduating from the University of Arizona. The school’s mission was to empower its students with the life skills and behaviors and attitudes necessary to become successful high school students and lifelong learners – and hopefully become contributing members to their families and their local community. So it was sort of this holistic approach; there was a lot of focus on social justice at the school.

The school itself was named after the human rights activist Caesar Chavez who started the farm workers union along with his friend Dolores Huerta. The school was founded on the principles of their mission of working towards social change in a very nonviolent way.

That was my first big event or experience of really working towards social justice because, not only was I teaching at a school where it was a big part of it, but working with youth to be empowered and feel like they have some justice in the world. I truly believe that working in South Tucson with the youth there is where my passion with youth care and education and social justice really began. I truly believe that the students I was working with there had the potential to learn, to set goals, and to succeed. I started working at the community school, and in some ways the social justice center, because there was a lot of activism happening there.

I started out in 1999, and I continued as a full-time teacher and educator there; and I continued to work there until 2004, and then after I left there I went to work for Artworks academy as a full-time teacher. There I worked in a program that emphasized nurturing artistic talents of potential high school dropouts and encouraged them to complete the graduation requirements and help them prepare them with a professional portfolio to apply for college.

After having worked at the Artworks Academy, which was a partnership with the Tucson Female Arts Council and the Tucson Unified School District, the program lost funding through the district and the Female Arts Council, so I was in the position to find another teaching job in the district – which there weren’t many – and/or do something different with my life. That’s when…

While I was working as a teacher and at Artworks and really helping students find ways to become productive community members – either going to college or doing something in the community – I thought I could do something different. I had saved a little money, and I had heard about a program called AmeriCorps. I started looking into the program and decided I would apply for one. I thought this was something I could do. The AmeriCorps program is an initiative of corporation for national and community service. It was created in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. They engage adults either after college or before college; they even have a Senior Corps program. The one that I was most interested in was the Volunteer in Service to America program, the VISTA Program. This was a very intensive program because you had to devote your entire year to service. That meant dedicating your life to service and being available 24-hours a day, on-call, should there be a natural disaster. So, it’s kind of like the domestic Peace Corps. I decided to do that, so I lived in poverty for an entire year – which was a very, very interesting experience. Part of the program is to experience what many of the community that you’re working with is experiencing, so you get to experience that firsthand. That was extremely eye-opening, so I lived in poverty for a year with the AmeriCorps VISTA Program.

The position that I accepted was with College Forward, and that is an Austin, Texas local nonprofit. College Forward’s mission is to provide college access and persistent services to economically disadvantaged students. When I was working with them, one of the other qualifying factors to be in the program was to be a first-generation college-seeking person. So the qualifications were not only to be the first person in your family to consider going to college, you also had to qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, which was really awesome, and/or meet some other great financial assistance like a person who couldn’t afford some kind of college prep courses. So it’s basically a college prep program. What they did was help you navigate the application process, testing process; there was heavy tutoring, heavy motivational programming, and this sort of college-going culture – something that many families for generations lack. It has been proven that people who have at least one college graduate, they continue to have that expectation – therefore it becomes part of the family culture and the norm of that particular generation or family to continue and follow through with it. So, just getting that one person in the door is a huge way to educate a family and a community who would otherwise not really know how to navigate the entire process. It is an extremely difficult process to understand.

My mother didn’t graduate high school. She went on to be very successful, but never went on to college. She probably could have, but she never really felt the need to. She felt like she was doing great with where she was at. She started as a pastry chef at an elementary cafeteria and worked her way up through the ranks through different training programs and just taking classes here and there. She worked her way up through the ranks, retiring as the district supervisor of the food service program. Coming up through the ranks as a pastry chef, and then making her way up to that prestigious position and then retiring from it made her an excellent role model for me. I wanted to go to college and do well for her because she never had those opportunities. That was a lot of my motivation.

The other part that I was talking about, going to College Forward and going to volunteer for them for a year was interesting for me because I was that first generation college-goer, and I could see how I wanted to help others become successful that way. So their mission was really, really interesting and important to me. I decided to spend a year, move back to Texas from Tucson, and be in Austin with College Forward, and that’s how I ended up back in Austin, Texas. So, I spent a year with College Forward in the VISTA Program, and that was about 2006.

Then, I decided I would do some job searching and, this time, I decided I wasn’t going to go back to education. I was going to go back into the nonprofit world. I was going to do something else that was helping a minority group, somehow improve their life, and somehow improve their life’s journey. I applied for a job with the Girl’s Empowerment Network, otherwise known as GENAustin. GENAustin’s mission is to support and guide girls to make wise choices as they navigate the unique pressures of girlhood. That mission just really spoke to me. I really wanted to help young girls, like myself, to navigate. I understood more than anyone what it was to navigate those pressures.

Not only was I in the minority category of being a woman, according to our binary, gender-coded society. I was also Latina, so I was navigating that unique pressure. Not only that – I was also navigating the unique pressures of being an artist. There are so many stereotypes in artists, and I was navigating that as well. So, I went to work at GENAustin.

GENAustin was sort of the agency or larger nonprofit entity, and there were different programs within that agency. One of the programs was Club GEN. That particular program was an after school program for girls in the fourth grade through eighth grade. This particular program focused on that adolescent group. They focused on what it was like to be a young girl and this journey into womanhood. Not only that, but friendships are developing, and this is a very stressful time for young girls. It is a known fact that women emotionally need a place to feel connected. Friendships and their social groups and their self-identity, all of that moves to the center of the girl’s world as she becomes a teen. Meanwhile school’s getting harder, there are these body changes, there are cultural messages, everything’s becoming really confusing. So there are girls trying to diet, trying to look like the supermodels, trying to look like the airbrushed women, trying makeup, coloring their hair, doing their nails, trying to fit into that particular box of the messages that they’re getting through media, advertisements, Hollywood – from every particular direction... from their parents, from their sisters, from their brothers, from their friends, from everybody. They turn away many times from the trusted adults to find stronger bonds with their peers, and [when] they do, they tend to move away from their adult bonds.

We try to provide a learning environment for the girls at Club GEN. This is where we surround them with positive role models that they can relate to. They don’t have to relate through connections, they can relate to them for inspiration and for guidance, so they become sort of a mentor – a second set of eyes and ears to them to help them navigate those pressures, someone they can trust and feel safe with, and someone that they can tell their secrets to and hopefully find refuge in that. That was a really great program, and I loved that program, and I was with them for about five years. I spent a lot of time working with young girls who are experiencing issues of bullying and puberty and negative self-talk, body image. So, we really focused on those different topics and helped them explore careers, boost their confidence, create financial literacy for them, help them set goals, talk about healthy eating and physical fitness, we talk about relationships, we also talk about stress management, and we did a lot of team building. It became this little family where girls could go to talk about the pressures they were having and learn from each other and, most of all, have fun.

The time I spent at GENAustin, working with the nonprofit, was wonderful. I was really privileged to be part of such a dedicated team [and], also, dedicated community partners. We worked with so many different community members and so many nonprofits, and I really appreciated everybody there. Having worked there, I came to discover that I also miss teaching. I had spent [years] training and working with people – I trained high school girls, I worked with volunteers, and I trained volunteers and helped them learn how to work with young women. I decided I wanted to go back into the classroom and not only use my skills, but also hopefully work one-on-one with young people and help them succeed [with] those pressures that they’re dealing with in the teen years. So, that brought me to where I am now – I am the new technology and digital interactive media teacher at Akins High School in the New Tech program.