An Open Letter to the Educational Nonprofit Executive Director Who Interviewed Me – Janice Sapigao
Dear Educational Nonprofit Executive Director,
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to interview me last month. I enjoyed my 40-minute phone conversation with you as it confirmed that I should truly be genuine about my work with youth in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am, and continue to be, passionate about working with high school youth, closing the “achievement gap” and facilitating their journey to higher education, as I said. I think that college is an opportunity that – unfortunately, and to the detriment of our country’s future – too many of our youth don’t get a chance to earn, as I thought but didn’t say. Many won’t step foot on a college campus at all in their lifetimes, though some may attempt to do so years after high school, beyond your target population, and I’m afraid that I will have to be the one to tell you that the work you and your trusted board of businesspeople with no background in education do for low-income students of color won’t actually level the playing field, as you said it would.
You asked me to tell you about myself and where I am from. I told you that I was a first-generation college student. I said that I am the first in my family to receive my master’s degree (though I’d like you to know that my brother’s is soon coming). I told you that I had experience programming events and organizing women’s forums as a student-organizer. To me, “first-generation” means “my parents didn’t have this opportunity” and a “master’s degree” means “I have apprenticed and researched and worked really hard in school” whereas “programming women’s forums” is “creating a space for us women” and “student-organizer” means “activist.” This work in and outside of the classroom – this desire to work with students – comes from the need for change. This is what I didn’t have enough time to tell you before you cut me off and asked another question: I am from this need. I am from this change.
We are in the Silicon Valley – where images of tech wealth and gambled public health of working-class people duel. Millions of dollars spent on fingertip applications and lightweight gadgets flow into the pockets of many adolescent CEOs. Youth of color from working-class neighborhoods participate in this market as it is full of promise and success for them and a booming business for you. In the Silicon Valley, I learned at an early age how to use the Internet, computers, and word processing programs for homework assignments under the guise that technology could enhance and equalize education for all. It is here where I now see access to technology as a frequent, accelerating problem, where a lack of tech and media literacy not only widens the gap, but also creates the gap. I am not as convinced as you are that technology will play a major factor in undoing educational disparity.
I think I should have asked you some questions about your qualifications. I wondered, do you tell students you work with about why their families may not be able to provide them with the resources that you, your colleagues and your companies have? Do you explain how the achievement gap works like a band-aid, one that decreases success?
Or about how fractions of CEOs’ salaries could create numerous scholarships? Or what about how students’ houses are overshadowed by companies and resident hotels, denied sunlight and upward mobility? Have you, or anyone on your board of directors, ever taught in an urban classroom for at least an academic year? Like, really taught? With students whose days are long and don’t end once the last bell rings? Have you ever lesson planned over sleeping or eating? Have you ever dared to? No? Do you see how this could positively impact your understanding of students’ experiences in school? What can you we all do to empathize with our young? We need to look deeply into others’ lives and our habits in order to reach a kind of clarity, or resolve, that is focused on a process and not an end result. We need to do what we have come to expect our systems and smart phones to do for us. We need to connect with each other on a humane level of respect and intimacy.
It was my own college experience that allowed me to begin questioning the structures ushering me through. It is my self-designated responsibility to write to incite answers.
You asked me to tell you what it was like to be underrepresented. I think you asked me because you already knew what you were going to hear. I did not get to tell you about how being underrepresented isn’t a label or an interview anecdote, but a lived experience. One that low-income students of color bear and use to characterize the often unutterable contradictions of the opportunities we are given versus the realities that may take them away. I didn’t tell you about my indifference because I thought that I did not want to seem rude and upset you, the interviewer. I didn’t tell you because I thought I wanted the job. But after thinking more and more, I realized that you were the rude one. Asking me what it’s like to be underrepresented means asking me to tell you how I got to have what wasn’t intended for me. You reminded me that people like me are not supposed to be here. Is this how you approach your youths’ underrepresentation and identities? Our identities are not fixed. Our experiences are not fixed. Furthermore, the education gap is not, and will not be, with insensitive approaches, fixed.
And I apologize for not sending you the obligatory ‘thank you’ e-mail in due time, but please let this letter suffice as my official resignation from the application process and as my critique for your future hiring practices.
After mulling over the interview in my mind for the past four weeks, I realized that I needed to let you know that I am tired of succumbing to people like you. I am a good person. I have worked in the non-profit industry for some time now and I know that often times, “non-profit” work is synonymous with “pro-bono” work. I know there are plenty of millionaires in the San Francisco Bay Area that have a thriving tech or electronic company and an educational non-profit organization on the side. I have interned and worked for people like you. I may continue to work for people like you for a bit longer while I settle into my life, but I simply think that you might be the problem.
This might be why: when you asked me if I enjoyed college as though you were my benefactor, I attempted subversion and I explained that I enjoyed the community I worked hard to build with my campus’s LGBT, Cross-Cultural and Women’s Centers in response, I tried my best to stress the idea that college is an experience for intense change and that I learned in and outside of the classroom. The truth is, college was hard for me. And not set up for a lot of students to thrive in, especially if they are educated away from home and when the problems and baggage of home never stay there.
Then, when you asked me for my grade point average – something I found to be polarizing and conniving to our subject matter – I knew something was wrong.
But I’ve mentally replayed this particular segment of our conversation the most: I told you that I thrived best in a small office environment and then I asked you about your organization’s office culture, to which you replied, “Oh! It’s fabulous. We have floor-to-ceiling windows and a great view of the bay!”
No. I didn’t ask about the office’s floorplan.
I wanted to know if you would check in with me about my progress. I wanted to know if we would collaborate often on projects. If there would be students hanging around the office. If you preferred a certain kind of support as my potential supervisor. I wanted to know what it would be like to work, not kick back while I was at work.
If your approach to your employees is at all similar to how you treat or engage students and their education, then I am frightened for our futures. I am only a little upset that you neither listened to nor answered my question. I am more disgusted that you can afford luxury in the tone of your voice than I can in the reality of my everyday.
Then you asked me if I would continue my writing career on the side. To which I shamefully replied, “yes.” Because I wanted the position to pay the bills while I wrote after work to save my life. Because I know this is what I and many other closeted or working writers have to do to educate and serve our communities. Because the position with your non-profit would take up most of my time but would truly be the passion on the side.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t take up work half-assedly. I cannot work for you and I cannot falsely align my beliefs to your mission statement when I think you are not making significant changes to education from your office with the great view. I wish you personal and professional success with your non-profit and hope that you will continue to follow the work that transformative teachers and students are doing to close the achievement gap, from the ground up. I hope you will, one day, passionately help level the playing field.
Janice Sapigao is a Pinay poet, writer and educator born and raised in San Jose, CA. She earned her MFA in Critical Studies/Writing from CalArts. She co-founded an open mic in Los Angeles called the Sunday Jump. She currently lives in the Bay Area and teaches at Skyline College and San Jose City College. She is a reviewer for The Volta Blog. Please visit her website at janicewrites.com.