A Teacher of Values
Alicia Garcia-Gozbekian empowered a group of Salinas students at just the right time.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
It was a spring morning at Harden Middle School in Salinas and Alicia Garcia-Gozbekian, a fifth-year teacher at the school, heard the voice of the vice principal over the intercom.
“‘We understand there’s a lot of rumors of walkouts out there,’” Garcia-Gozbekian recalls the vice principal, Mary White, announcing to the school. “‘We know there’s a lot of fear, so please come to the library, those of you who’d like to have a discussion on the immigration issue.’”
Garcia-Gozbekian reacted immediately. Reflexively, even. She sped into White’s office and offered her services, which were quickly accepted.
Although Garcia-Gozbekian had never tackled anything quite like this since becoming a teacher, the new role fit her like a glove.
Over the next few weeks, Garcia-Gozbekian, who spent much of her early life as a farmworker activist, would collaborate with and at times lead a cadre of teachers, including Rita Moreno and Kimberly McCullick, as they facilitated a space for volunteer students to get a real-world education while in school. And they did it as thousands of other students across the state and country were walking out of school as a historic pro-immigration movement reached a crescendo nationwide.
The series of lunchtime meetings and rallies were held in the school’s library. There, students learned about the machinations of Congress, how to write letters to their elected officials, and how to organize a lasting social movement. It was also an opportunity for wide-eyed and motivated students to talk about their feelings, their beliefs and their hopes and fears about the nation’s policies towards undocumented immigrants, which were evolving quickly.
“I honestly believe these students will remember this experience and practice that they had in social responsibility for the rest of their lives,” says Garcia-Gozbekian, who stresses the important role that other staff played at the meetings. “Many of these kids were taking the immigration issue personally. They felt it was an attack on Mexicans, which is understandable, since many of them come from local farm laborer families.”
The most challenging part of the meetings with students, Garcia-Gozbekian says, was striking a balance between understanding their fears while making them understand that the immigration debate “isn’t a cultural or racial issue.”
“I know we want to believe that it is,” she says, “because we’re such a large population here. But go to San Francisco or Los Angeles and you will probably have other immigrants upset about the same issues.”
While Garcia-Gozbekian, who grew up in a small town in the Coachella Valley and picked lettuce and grapes from the age of 13, refuses to take credit for the success of the meetings, she was uniquely qualified for the task. The students developed a theme around green ribbons, which many students still wear, received responses from elected officials to their letters and even got exposure in the pages of the Weekly for their efforts.
“I’d say my second calling in life is being a social activist,” Garcia-Gozbekian says. “That’s why I went up there [to White’s office]—I knew exactly what to do. I grew up in that environment. I know firsthand how as a child it feels confusing not being able to process what these adults are doing, who is in charge, the feeling of ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’”
Just before the end of the school year last week, Garcia-Gozbekian met with students again to talk about issues of complacency permeating many students now that the immigration topic issue has died down. She discussed the idea of creating a community service club on campus to keep the dialogue going into next year.
“I truly believe these students wanted dialogue,” says Garcia-Gozbekian, reflecting on the school year that made history. “And there’s nothing more powerful than having a conversation with a young mind.”