Students Launch Campaign to
Restore Affirmative Action in California
The prohibition on affirmative action has
had devastating consequences on diversity
Interview with Andrea Guerrero
San Diego, California
At the time of this interview, Andrea Guerrero was co-chair of Students for Educational Opportunity and co-author of the Equal Educational Opportunity Initiative. This California initiative, if passed by voters, would have restored affirmative action to education in California. The following interview took place in San Diego, February 24, 1998, three weeks after the start of a campaign to raise the one million signatures necessary to put the initiative on the November ballot.
In Motion Magazine: What is this new initiative?
Andrea Guerrero: The Equal Educational Opportunity Initiative (EEOI) is an initiative that would make affirmative action permissible in education, and would preserve and promote important education programs from kindergarten through graduate school that increase access and opportunity for all Californians.
The initiative is only one sentence long and reads, "In order to provide equal opportunity, promote diversity, and combat discrimination in public education, the state may consider the economic background, race, sex, ethnicity, and national origin of qualified individuals."
In Motion Magazine: You wrote the initiative?
Andrea Guerrero: I wrote it with one other student, Adam Murray, who is the other co-chair / co-author.Stepping Up and Speaking Out
In Motion Magazine: Why did you decide to write it?
Andrea Guerrero: We wanted to address the historic inequity of access and opportunity in public education. With the repeal of affirmative action, the problem of inequity has worsened. Hard-working and talented students are unfairly being denied access to public education.
At the universities, the prohibition on affirmative action has had devastating consequences on diversity. At the UC Berkeley law school, where I am a student, the diversity which I and other students have come to expect in my classes, has virtually disappeared. The first-year class at the law school has only one African-American, no Native-American, no Filipino and only fourteen Latino students in a class of almost three hundred. This scenario is replicated at other schools such as the UC San Diego and UC Irvine medical schools which have no African-Americans in the first-year classes.
At the community colleges, the prohibition on affirmative action threatens to dismantle programs which for example, provide counseling, financial assistance, and support services for single mothers who are affected by economic, social, and language disadvantages.
At the elementary and secondary schools, the prohibition on affirmative action threatens to dismantle programs which for example, seek to increase the number of students going to college from segments of the population who are under-represented in higher education. Such programs provide children with the readiness, motivation and technical skills they need to advance to higher education.
Without affirmative action, we are very concerned that access to education will be limited to certain segments of our society. Our initiative reverses the trend towards a segregated education system and ensures that public education is accessible to all.
We have chosen the initiative process to bring about change because the courts and the legislature have proven to be unsympathetic to the educational access crisis. To place our initiative, which is a constitutional initiative that amends the state constitution, on the ballot, we must gather approximately 800,000 valid signatures from registered California voters.
In Motion Magazine: What do you see as the relationship between 209 and 187 (another initiative passed recently in California which denies public education and other services to immigrants). Or is there a relationship?
Andrea Guerrero: 209, 187 and 227 (an initiative on the June ballot which would eliminate bilingual education in the state and make teachers personally liable for instructing a student in a language other than English) are all exclusionary policies which deny educational access to students who are without resources and without political standing in our society. That's not fair. That's not wise. That's not good for California. If California is to prosper in the next century, our schools must educate all of our children, and our graduates must reflect the diversity of our many communities.
In Motion Magazine: Why do you think education is a focus of these exclusionary policies?
Andrea Guerrero: I think students are the most vulnerable members of our society. Those who would deny access and opportunity, those who would reserve opportunity for a narrow segment of the population are perhaps strategically denying opportunity to students because students have very little voice in our system. Because our interests are not represented in the political system, students are bypassing the politicians and are using direct democracy to advocate for ourselves, our younger brothers and sisters, and our children.
In Motion Magazine: When you look at the history of the civil rights movement, how do you see the struggle over affirmative action fitting into that?
Andrea Guerrero: In many ways it's the same struggle in that we have not yet "overcome." Our struggle is the continuation of the struggle that started in the sixties but it's being fought with new language, new blood, and new tools. Our generation is stepping up and speaking out about the importance of diversity in education and we are doing it with the means of the 1990s: we are using the Internet and email. This is the first year that the initiative process has gone online, not just our initiative but others as well and we are not quite sure how this will impact the process. For the first time, you can download a petition from a web site or you can email a petition as an attached file, then sign it and mail it in. Through the Internet, you can access information quickly, disseminate information quickly, and create networks. That's a phenomenal change since the '60s.The '90s: Using the Internet
In Motion Magazine: What percentage of your work is happening on the Internet?
Andrea Guerrero: A great deal of our work is happening over the Internet. In particular, our network of students was built and continues to exist over the Internet. Prior to the initiative, students were connected across campuses through their organizational affiliations, personal relationships, or interest areas. So when we decided to launch an initiative campaign last November, we weren't too many steps away from organizing an entire state of students just based on the ability to network into campuses across pre-existing relationships. The Internet gives us the power to instantaneously connect with, for example, all the MEChAs across the state, or all of the law schools. You can reach virtually every student on email.
In Motion Magazine: Has it been effective?
Andrea Guerrero: It's been very effective in terms of building our network. We started as a small group of students at UC Berkeley law school and quickly expanded to well over a thousand students in a matter of a month. We now have 2,500 students involved at over 30 campuses in the signature drive. We could not have done that if we did not have access to email.
In Motion Magazine: Has it been effective in getting signatures?
Andrea Guerrero: It's a little too early to tell, but we have disseminated the petition through email as an attached file to thousands of folks.
In Motion Magazine: What are some of the organizations, groups, and individuals involved in the campaign?
Andrea Guerrero: Students for Educational Opportunity is a coalition of a number of organizations and individuals, mostly students, but it also includes community members. The organizations involved at the campuses include the MEChAs, the Black Student Unions, the Asian Pacific Student Union groups, the Ballet Folklorico dancers at Sacramento, every conceivable group. What's interesting about this campaign is that there are a lot of folks coming forward that are not leaders of organizations. They are individuals who are frustrated. We are seeing a lot of fresh faces and young blood. A lot of freshmen and sophomores. A lot of folks who have never taken a leadership role before. Never headed an organization. Never organized. Never were involved in politics or campaigns. This issue is politicizing them and motivating them to lead. And that's really exciting to us.
In Motion Magazine: Have they come forward in person or over the Internet?
Andrea Guerrero: Both, actually.
In Motion Magazine: It would seem that the Internet gives a person a chance to be an equal.
Andrea Guerrero: I have to say that the first wave of contacts was over email. We sent out an email before Christmas and who knows how far it reached. I'm guessing it reached well over 2,000, maybe as many as 10,000 people. We were getting emails from across the country. People interested in volunteering. The ones in California we followed up with and those folks have largely become our new leaders in different parts of California.Texas Manages the Hopwood Decision
In Motion Magazine: How does your campaign fit in with affirmative action debate and activity around the country? Do you talk to people in Texas, for example, about this issue?
Andrea Guerrero: The move to prohibit affirmative action is happening here, in Texas and across the United States. We've been working with the Texas organizers for a while now, just serendipitously. I'm from Texas and knew some of the folks organizing out there and had a couple of opportunities to work with them. We are in cahoots and they've been very supportive of us. The solidarity that we're building is phenomenal. It's happening across the country.
We had a rally in January in San Francisco, mostly focused around the law schools. We had Texas, New Mexico, New York, and other states come here to support us in our efforts.
Texas is in a different position than we are because they are suffering from a court decision in the 5th Circuit. They don't have the opportunity to launch an initiative campaign to override the court decision. What they have to do is manage their situation. We don't have to tolerate our situation because we can override 209 with another constitutional initiative.
In Texas, they are managing their situation by implementing a "Ten Percent Plan" under which students in the top ten percent of each high school are automatically accepted into all of the public universities. State Senator Hughes has introduced a similar measure in California called the "Twelve Percent Plan," that would work in a similar manner to equalize opportunity. This would be a good step but what is important to keep in mind about this plan is that even if it is implemented in California it would only affect admissions for high school students applying into the universities. It would not address admissions for the large number of community college students applying into the universities. Nor would it address graduate school admissions. And of course it would be limited to admissions and would not preserve the tutoring, counseling, outreach, and support programs so important to equalizing opportunity for students in kindergarten through graduate school.The significance of the Houston vote
In Motion Magazine: What do you think was the significance of the recent vote in the city of Houston in which the people of Houston voted to keep affirmative action policies in place?
Andrea Guerrero: I think the Houston vote taught us two things. One, that if our political, community and business leaders take an active stance on something they can affect the vote. In Houston, the mayor, major corporations, and community leaders all stood together and advocated for affirmative action. We didn't see that here when 209 passed.
The Houston vote also taught us that if you use the words "affirmative action," if you are clear about what the initiative does, then the people will judge whether inequities still exist in this country and whether we need affirmative action to promote equal opportunity and ensure diversity in our public institutions.
We had these lessons in mind when we drafted our language and wrote a one-sentence initiative. Our language is clear, honest, and direct. There is no trickery, no tomfoolery, like 209. A lot of people voted for 209 because they either didn't understand what the initiative was about or they underestimated its impact. That we know from the exit polls. We want people to understand exactly what is at stake in this vote: the future of our education, the future of our children, the future of California.209 is pushing students down and out
In Motion Magazine: What is the current situation in California colleges?
Andrea Guerrero: Last year the prohibition on affirmative action only effected the graduate schools which is why you hear so much about the plummeting diversity at law schools and medical schools.
This year the prohibition on affirmative action will be in effect for the undergraduate schools. We're all waiting to see what the impact is going to be. UC Berkeley and UCLA are projecting a 50 to 70% drop in the number of Latino, Native-American, African-American and some Southeast Asian-American students. That's a tremendous drop and it will absolutely impact where students are displaced to in the California system. Students will be pushed downward. Students who might otherwise have gotten into the University of California, will be pushed down into the Cal State system. Those that otherwise might have gotten into the Cal State system will be pushed into the community college system. Others will be displaced completely and won't at attending schools at all this year.
We are jeopardizing the future of this state by segregating our public education institutions. We are pushing hard-working and talented students, our best and brightest out of our public education institutions and into private universities which few can afford or into universities outside of the state. To worsen the matter, students seeking more hospitable and diverse learning environments are choosing to apply and enroll elsewhere, where they feel valued and welcome. It will be several years before we see the full impact of recent exclusionary measures, but maybe we won't have to if the initiative qualifies and passes.
In Motion Magazine: When do you need the signatures by?
Andrea Guerrero: In order to qualify for the November ballot we must gather approximately 800,000 valid signatures by April 17."Take back the state"
In Motion Magazine: What has been the response to the campaign?
Andrea Guerrero: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We've already been endorsed by the state NAACP, the National Lawyer's Guild, the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, Reverend Jesse Jackson, the UAW (United Auto Workers) in Northern California and a number of local labor unions. Endorsements aside, we have spent most of our time gathering signatures and few have declined to sign. Our greatest challenge is in finding enough people to sign and help gather signatures between now and April 17.
Our message to those reading this interview: if you believe in equal opportunity, if you value justice, if you want to live in a world of inclusion and not exclusion, then get involved. There is no alternative to bring back affirmative action. This is not going to happen in the legislature. This is not going to happen in the courts. This is not going to happen by wishing it would happen. This battle is not being fought anywhere else in California. This is going to happen on the streets and over the Internet. This is going to happen by the sweat of our brow and the strength of our will.
This is a unique opportunity to make a difference. If everyone reading this interview downloads a petition, signs and helps gather 100 signatures for justice, then we will take back this state. Start an email chain with a petition attached as a file and encourage everyone you know to help us qualify for the ballot. If you are not a California voter, then support this effort by sending a donation.
Published in In Motion Magazine March 9, 1998.
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