Dr. Verónica Nelly Vélez is an Assistant Professor and the Founding Director of the Education and Social Justice Minor at Western Washington University (WWU). Before joining WWU, Verónica worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and the Director of Public Programming at the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley. Her research interests include Critical Race Theory and Latina/o Critical Theory in Education, the politics of parent engagement in educational reform, particularly for Latina/o (im)migrant families, participatory action and community-based models of research, and the use of GIS technologies to further a critical race research agenda on the study of space and educational (in)opportunity. Verónica presents workshops nationally on how to employ GIS critically in educational research and visual literacy projects seeking social and spatial justice. In addition to her scholarly work, Verónica serves as a consultant for several grassroots and non-profit organizations throughout California, building upon her work as a community organizer for over 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in Education from UCLA with a specialization in race and ethnic studies, under the mentorship of Dr. Daniel Solorzano. Verónica is the proud daughter of a Mexican (im)migrant mother and a Panamanian (Im)migrant father, whose journey to provide her and her sister with a quality education fundamentally inspires Verónica’s work for social justice.
When my graduate school advisor encouraged me to take a course in geographic information systems (GIS), I happily obliged. Although unclear at the time how GIS’ ability to analyze and display data on a map would assist my work as an educational researcher on issues of equity and opportunity, or as a grassroots organizer focused on political advocacy in Latina/o immigrant communities, the thought of building a new, and unexpected, skill set was enough to motivate me to enroll. Surrounded by my graduate school peers in urban planning, geography, and public policy, I was awe-struck by the high-tech visual spectacle of GIS maps and the possibilities for creatively applying its analytical tools. My peers’ professional interests in using GIS for neighborhood revitalization projects and city planning provided me opportunities to consider GIS as an effective visual tool for communicating data to diverse groups of stakeholders. Not only did GIS make data accessible through maps, it made it easier for targeted audiences to connect with the maps by displaying data in a relative context and in a familiar format, given the accessibility and use of maps in everyday life. GIS thus made possible, at least in theory, the inclusion of voices in key decision-making (e.g., policy or otherwise) that had previously been absent. Yet despite my growing appreciation of GIS as an innovative data visualization and communication tool, I still questioned how its strengths would translate into practice—my work in education.
Fast-forward several months to a planning meeting of a group of Latina immigrant mothers in Los Angeles County. Originating from Mexico and Central America, the mothers had come together organically to raise concerns about their children’s schools and mobilize community-based reform. Over the course of ten years, they had inserted themselves in school decision-making by joining school site councils and district-level task forces, among other things. School board elections were around the corner and the mothers were organizing a community forum to bring together elected officials, candidates, and community members to address concerns of educational opportunity and access for the school-aged population living in a particular neighborhood within their school district, comprised mainly of Latina/o and African-American families. For years as an ally to their efforts, I witnessed the mothers rebuffed at school board meetings when they highlighted the relationship between race, space, and educational opportunity. At these meetings, they courageously shared example after example of how their own children were denied access to gatekeeper programs and courses (e.g., gifted and talented education programs, courses required for college), if such were even offered in their children’s schools. Their pleas were written off as anecdotal and unsubstantiated by district officials. The mothers knew about my “mapping” class and approached me with an idea: Can maps help us show that race and ethnicity continue to impact the opportunities our children receive in schools? Given their experiences, the mothers saw potential in GIS. Despite their own critiques of how data were used at district-level meetings to silence the everyday conditions and practices that marginalized their children, they believed that GIS, with its convincing displays of information, could be re-imagined for legitimatizing their narratives and centering their voices in school decision-making. Read more