Bruce's Blog


Getting There One Person at a Time

March 23rd, 2015

by BettyBeth Johns, Community Development Manager, UCOM

(BettyBeth is one of UCOM's new champions in our journey with Partners for a Racism Free Community. I welcome her as a guest blogger to recount one of her first experiences in her new role. --Bruce)

Dr. Paul Hernandez is a 'product' of some pretty significant and still prevalent barriers to success in our country.  He grew up in the gangs of East LA; his single mother was an immigrant with little education and no English skills; his public school had few resources (he dropped out after 7th grade); he was familiar with guns and drugs and the police; and he was homeless for most of his childhood and adolescence. Dr. Hernandez spoke recently at Grand Rapids Community College.

Beating the Odds

"Beating the odds" is an understatement.  Dr. Hernandez makes clear that there is no "magic bullet" or "no one reason" that he rose from the depths of those disadvantages to become a PhD professor, author, and community organizer.  He had the love of his mother....one encouraging teacher...a suspicion that he was 'book' smart... and each step he took toward advancing his personal story provided a collection of strangers, neighbors, mentors, and resources he found in the library and online. Eventually he understood that his best resource was himself. And that personal enlightenment gave him the motivation to fuel a professional journey that has taken him across the country to build a body of research that is currently contributing to some significant work in sociology and community culture building.

A "moral obligation" to give back

The crux of his story is to GIVE BACK.  It is not only his vocation, but his stated “moral obligation” to help others see the potential of a racism free society.

Don't talk to Dr. Hernandez about politics.  He will remind you that he is a sociologist, not a politician.  He will explain that politics fail us over and over again, but communities who invest in each other, one person at a time, build lasting and sustainable results.  He will say over and over that LITTLE VICTORIES ARE BIG VICTORIES.  He will use humor and slang and a gripping personal story to convey the message that we aren’t where we need to be, but we can get there.

Here are few 'takeaway' gems from his talk at GRCC...

  • "Look in the mirror.  Really look into your own eyes and DON'T BELIEVE THE LIES."  The lies that you are not capable.  The lies that you don't belong.  The lies that you will never succeed.  The lies that you are 'less'.  DON'T BELIEVE THE LIES.
  • "Little victories ARE big victories." Pass a test, learn a new skill, get a job that helps pay your bills, feed a neighbor, finish a fundraiser, secure a grant, celebrate a graduation.  It ALL matters.
  • "ALL voices need to be at the table."  The marginalized and the powerful, the teacher and the student, the served and the server.  To get at the core of the dysfunction and find a way to equity, ALL voices must participate together in the conversation.
  • "No one can do it for you." As a community, helping people ignite their personal assets is valuable, but real success lies in the individual who is willing to do the work and make the commitment to reach their full potential. Self-empowerment is not a concept; it should be the goal of all the work we are doing.
  • “Paying your dues is part of the journey.” Dr. Hernandez has no ‘home’ because the streets of East LA do not welcome him there as they once did.  He chooses his public speaking wardrobe carefully because he is ‘tatted’ from the neck down with gang-related artwork.  You give up some things to attain other things.  And that may be why some stay put.

Progress is everything

Dr. Hernandez speaks eloquently of the reality that, in his lifetime, he will never be "equal" at the table of POWER and JUSTICE. He will also tell you that progress is not only enough for him, it's everything. Continual improvement and a commitment to bringing voices to the conversation will guide the masses, and, eventually, shape the policies and politicians. As a community, each step we take to dissolve exclusion and create opportunity for all is advancement toward a truly inclusive and healthy society.


#1 Kim Sanwald said:

How encouraging it is to hear about Dr Hernandez and his moral obligation of "giving back"! If we would all heed the call, how much could be done in this area. Sometimes even small steps in each of our communities is indeed forward motion. Self-understanding and empowerment are powerful lessons.

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