There is a constant conversation on campus about how we can market our departments to students, showing them clear career paths and making them see the importance of the work they do in their undergraduate programs. The Department of Ethnic Studies is often asked “well, what can I do after I graduate with an education in ethnic studies?”
Beyond emphasizing the importance of having an education that examines the intersections in identity, history and world systems as our country and global communities change, ethnic studies prides itself on teaching students to be critical thinkers and providing opportunities to work within communities.
Eric Ishiwata invited Krista Martinez, a Department of Ethnic Studies and art alumna who graduated in 2011, into his class to speak about what she is doing with her ethnic studies education. Krista is currently a Community Partner with The Colorado Trust for Northeastern Colorado. She has a unique story because it wasn’t just the curriculum that helped her find success in her current career, but it was the community that she found within her cohort in the department that influenced her in finding her path.
“Coming from a mixed race, low income family in rural Colorado, I feel that I was socialized and politicized at an early age because I felt like I never belonged to one world, I was always navigating these spaces in between worlds,” Krista said. “I started out wanting to major in sociology and art… art and music are a huge part of my identity.”
Krista fell into ethnic studies by chance after taking a class with Norberto Valdez, saying “he totally revolutionized my way of thinking. That was the introduction to ethnic studies and this new way of beginning to think about power and identity.”
Luckily, Krista had an exceptional cohort in the Department of Ethnic Studies, a group that challenged each other outside of the classroom to practice the theory and ideas they were learning about. Krista spoke about how she felt frustrated because “I was learning all this heavy stuff and it was like ‘how do I even apply this to the real world?’ The biggest thing that really informed my path has been [having] a community of folks who felt that same way and we chose to take the risk to try to apply some things we were learning in the classroom in our day-to-day.”
Krista was a member of the student group Fair Advocates for Cultural Truths (FACT), who would bring various political performers and artists onto campus, go on trips, participate in political action, and take the conversations from the classroom into the outside world. That community organizing work on campus taught Krista to think about “occupying community” off campus as well, and made her want to focus on what she and her peers could do to invest in the community of Fort Collins.
“It was student peers like Denise Ondaro, John Harrold, Jason Harrison, Kyle Pape, Kimberly Ford, Brent Adams, Rachel Claire and so many more that brought the ethnic studies education to life for me.” Krista continued, “we needed each other. We held each other accountable and learned the importance of communicating with compassion, because we all needed it from time to time, as we were all pushing the boundaries in so many ways. Ethnic studies provided the platform, we created the space.”
Krista’s extended group of friends founded the co-op Hammer Time Projects, “we were a tool cooperative, radical reading library, free school location, fiber-arts space and community garden.” It allowed for them to create a space where you could think alternatively, create projects cooperatively and have a discussion about how to create change in the community that they were occupying.
The idea of the space was to promote creativity, ecological health, participatory decision making, self-determination, alternative forms of exchange, and more meaningful connections with the things we use as well as with each other.
After graduating in 2011, Krista Martinez was continuing her work with the co-op and secured an AmeriCorps job to develop the volunteer program with The Family Center la Familia, which is a resource center in northern Fort Collins that mostly works with immigrants and the latino/a population. Krista was able to take her experiences and skills of organizing people and projects from Hammer Time and FACT, and couple that with lessons in communication through ethnic studies to develop a robust volunteer program.
“With volunteering, people don’t stay in a place unless they have some sort of buy in,” she said. “So you are fostering this ownership and connection to why it is important [to them], in this way, it supports families but is still connected to people’s passions.”
Grant writing is one of the most important skills that Krista developed informally through her education and extra activities at CSU. “I would write proposals to CSU to get money to bring [political speakers and performers to campus]. Writing grants is what has helped me into the positions that I have held. Being able to use the language and way of thinking that I acquired in ethnic studies really supported my ability to write.”
After a couple of years at la Familia, Krista was looking for another challenge that strengthened her skills further. She saw a position at The Colorado Trust open up that would work with communities that were most effected by inequities and disparities in rural Colorado, and co-developing a funding plan. Krista knew this job would be very competitive, so she felt that the biggest edge she could have was “being real, how my identity fits within this work. [I had to think] beyond the formal credentials piece.”
The Colorado Trust is a philanthropic foundation that has a vision that all Coloradoans have fair and equal opportunities to lead healthy, productive lives regardless of race, ethnicity, income or where they live. Krista defines her role as a community partner:
“I serve as a catalyst and trusted convener for community-based participatory grant making with communities, neighborhoods and residents across 10 different counties in Colorado. My role is to utilize knowledge and experience of community organizing and facilitation to support resident-led, resident-driven activities, and eventually, a resident developed funding strategy that addresses their self-determined priorities.
“We operate from the philosophy that the community members are the experts in their own lives. This means we need to have the courage to listen to their truths and support them in their own process, as well as bring the leadership skill set necessary to hold those sometimes-conflicting truths simultaneously and weave unlikely cohorts/allies together through drawing the connections”
Krista has some advice for students who are looking towards a future in community work. She suggests getting involved in your campus community and finding a cohort of peers that hold you accountable and are willing to help each other learn how to navigate different challenges, like community and event organizing. “When you need to write a proposal or a grant, use the skills you are learning in the classroom and dare yourself to give it a try. Keep your mentors present in your work. In many moments in my life, I have Norberto Valdez on one shoulder, Eric Ishiwata on the other, and I’m standing on a foundation made of the Gloria Anzaldúa’s and Audre Lorde’s who have shaped who I am today.”
Krista finished by saying, “you have to put yourself out there, try to write a grant for a project you care about or do something that intimidates you. If your biggest fear is your fear of failure, you will never do something impactful.”