Challenge to Be Great: The Election of Gabriel Buelna

One of the greatest disappointments in living a long life is seeing friends who could have been great enter politics surrounded by high hopes and never achieve their potential or your hopes for them. My former student Gabriel Buelna won the recent primary election for the Los Angeles Community Colleges with over 220,000 votes. Only the mayor and countywide elected officials received more votes. Buelna received about ten times more votes than the top city council contenders.

In the past, candidates for the community college boards have viewed these seats mostly as stepping stones for well-paying government jobs such as the state assembly, state senate and city council with the election to congress for the limited few. Term limits made it impossible for most aspiring politicos to master the craft of governing. The days of the Jess Unruhs, Willie Browns, Richard Alatorres and Richard Polancos came to an end with most Chicana/o politicos spending most of their time accumulating a gaggle of lobbyists in order to build a sufficiently large funders’ base for them to tackle the next level.

This filtering process made the candidates less focused on the craft. Very few learned the issues and problems of their districts. In my more the sixty years of studying politics I found that the only city councilman in my opinion that really understood land use was Mike Hernández. Being good at anything takes time and understanding one’s district is essential especially today when developers control Los Angeles.

The challenge for Buelna will be that few of his colleagues are educators, they know very little about pedagogy. Consequently, the dropout and the transfer rates to four year universities are of concern. When I transitioned from the secondary education division (high school and junior high) to Pierce College the majority of the social science faculty came from that sector. For example, I had eight years teaching experience and had trained teachers.

Every three years of so about 300 social scientists would take history and political science exams and the top scorers would be given interviews. I wanted to go to East Los Angeles College or Valley College, but was hired at Pierce. Very few of the community college instructors had doctorates. The truth be told, doctorates at this level are not essential. After teaching history and political science for eight years you pretty much knew the field. The important thing was to know how to teach and in reality very few PhDs know how to do that.

When I had the good fortune to form the Chicana/o Studies curriculum and hire the first faculty I was frankly fortunate that there were few PhDs available. The two that were hired had PhDs but they had also been high school teachers. In retrospect the best teachers, not necessarily the most popular, were credentialed teachers. They met our needs because most of the students came from high schools that had not prepared students for college. Our mission at the time was teaching of identity (motivation) and skills.

Gabriel has it right when he says that the biggest challenge for the community colleges is to tackle the dismal transfer rate. It is true that the two year colleges are severely overcrowded and suffer from years of neglect. Although they teach most of the students in higher education, they have received the least financial support and oversight. With that said, I would urge Gabriel to consider the role of teaching. This is not a popular proposal since the teachers’ union will take the position that the teachers are already professionals and doing a good job. The unions say that they should not be blamed for the failure of students to go to four year universities. It is, however, a shortsighted view because no one is blaming them; the blame goes to those who run and fund the schools. No one objects to medical doctors having to attend seminars and take proficiency exams. That is what professionalism is about.

It is also vital that something be done about the LACCD structure. It is in bad shape administratively. It needs to be turned around and we cannot afford for it to serve as a stepping stone for Latinx political aspirants.  Gabriel is facing the greatest test of his life; however, he is capable and has the tools to succeed. But he must focus on the task ahead.  He does not want to end up like the washed-up boxer turned longshoreman, Terry Malloy, in “On the Water Front” muttering “I could have been a contender.” If he seizes the moment and makes a difference in the LACCD he could be a champion. The most tragic words when you grow old are “I could have been.”

— by Rodolfo F. Acuña

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