“Women of color are going to save this democracy”

A Faculty Spotlight on Lisa García Bedolla

Lisa García Bedolla is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at UC Berkeley. Since its inception, ninety-eight years ago, García Bedolla is the first woman to direct the IGS. Through intersectional approaches, she examines the causes of political and economic inequalities in the United States, considering differences across ethnorace, gender, class, geography, and sexuality. She has published four books and dozens of research articles, earning five national book awards. García Bedolla has also consulted for presidential campaigns and statewide ballot efforts and partnered with over a dozen community organizations working to empower low-income communities of color. Below is an edited version of an interview CRG conducted with García Bedolla. This interview was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of FaultLines.

Center for Race and Gender: You began your education at Berkeley and have returned. Would you tell us about that journey?

Lisa García Bedolla: My parents are Cuban refugees; they came to the United States in 1961. Because my parents were refugees they had to leave everything behind, and so they were very clear with all of us that what is in your head no one can take. Education is the key to being your best self and surviving, regardless of what life throws at you. I was raised with that strong sense that in society you have this obligation to care for the weakest, that the social safety net matters, that you have to work to make society a better place, and that the intellectual can push society to be its best self. I came to Berkeley and fell in love; it was the only place I wanted to go. Beyond a profound sense of gratitude for having access to this kind of education (tuition was $1200 when I came here), for being able to come to a place like this and have access to these minds and people, I feel like this place opened up a world of possibility to me that would never have been possible anywhere else. I’m very grateful for that; Berkeley is always the model to me of what higher education should be. I think it’s the combination of the public mission and the Bay Area; it has always been sort of an edgy place where trends start, a continual disruption that happens here and feeds into the campus. As a child of Cuban refugees, whose family is here because a president decided to be generous, I never would have imagined being a professor. This is why the executive Muslim ban is so infuriating; I’m here because of executive action, and the thought that we’re slamming shut those opportunities for people just kills me, and makes me appreciate how random that generosity is. For twelve years now, I’ve been working with community organizations, trying to use the tools of social science to help them in their organizing work. I think that comes back to the Latin American intellectual idea that the resources and ideas created on campus should be used in service to community. I feel very lucky to have come to a place that honors that part of my work and my desire to make sure that intellectual production is informed by and values knowledge from community.

CRG: Would you talk a bit about your work on voter enfranchisement?

LGB: In 2005, the Irvine Foundation had a call for what was called the California Votes Initiative; it was a unique funding effort at the time in that it simultaneously called for an evaluation component. That project was about establishing a baseline because there was a new field of experimentation in voter mobilization work. We were the first set of researchers to focus on voters of color and to think seriously about differences across African American, Latinx, Asian American, foreign born, U.S. born, and so on. Since then, I’ve continued doing this work. What we need to do is transform the degree to which people feel ownership of the political process at every level. The movement in the field has been toward what’s called “integrative voter engagement,” which other people call “relational organizing.”

What I’ve hypothesized in my work is that if you’re from a community of color, you are embedded within history, so your perception of your positionality, your social position in politics, is very much a product of both that history and how you’ve been socialized, as a result of that history, into understanding your sense of power in the system and the degree to which the system is even open to you. If you’re trying to move somebody who has a very rational sense of their own power to think differently, that requires a cognitive shift. It’s deeper than a two minute conversation on the doorstep. You actually need to know what they care about. But if we believe that relationship building is the case, we need to be able to demonstrate that empirically and that’s the challenge. Part of the mechanism is the effect these relationships have on networks; networks serve two purposes: as connections across people but also conduits of information. So, for example, Latino turnout in 2014 was 20% of eligible voters. If you add in the ineligible, that’s maybe 10% of the actual population. And so that means 80% of Latinos are not talking about the election. At that basic level, what organizing does is politicize those networks. It thickens connective tissue across people but then also provides content, and hopefully the networks can amplify and extend, and that’s what matters. In our current society, we need more connections across people.

CRG: It seems that a lot of those connections also depend on who the researchers are. Access to these communities becomes slim because of trust issues with people in academia and institutions in general, for good reasons.

LGB: For a good reason! What I’ve learned is that there’s more work than I am able to do and more things that I could be doing. IGS just got a planning grant from Ford and the OSF (Open Society Foundations) to pilot an institute whose purpose would be to train more academics on how to do more practitioner-based work but in a way that centers inequality epistemologically. If addressing inequality is the goal, then how does that influence the kinds of methodologies we use and how we employ them? Helping practitioners and funders know more about how research is done, so the funders can know and want to be involved, and educating more people about the strengths and weaknesses to every approach is the goal. We’ll be doing a pilot of this institute in the summer of 2019; we’re taking this year to do the conceptual work. IGS is the administrative home, at least for the planning period; the full project will probably be a multi-campus one. Taeku Lee from Political Science and Law and Hahrie Han at Santa Barbara are my co-PIs. We’re calling it the Center for the Study of Democracy and Organizing and welcome others who may be interested. This isn’t about being the messiah. This is about producing knowledge that is informed, that values what we learn in the academy equally to what is happening on the ground.

CRG: In Ethnic Studies we might call it participatory action research?

LGB: That’s not the same; that requires you to be a participant but doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re taught humility toward the other participants. It’s all about humility because humility leaves you open to surprise; it leaves you open to being wrong. It makes you be a more active listener, and that’s not how we train graduate students. We train arrogance, not humility. Smartness is about performing arrogance. It really is a complete reorientation of your positionality and sense of truth.

CRG: How do you see gender intersecting with your work?

LGB: Women of color are going to save this democracy. If you look at the leadership of the various organizations that I work with, the leaders who are best able to articulate policy and proposals in a way that builds coalition and brings people together are women of color, and I think it’s because they are women of color. That positionality gives them a lens through which to understand the world that is, in fact, what is going to save us. That’s why intersectionality is so important. They bring both a way of engaging with other people and a way of doing organizing through daily life, which isn’t even seen as organizing. They are creating that connective tissue that makes social change and transformation possible.

By Maria Faini, Postdoctoral Fellow, CRG