In the early ’70s, after completing his bachelor’s degree, Professor of Sociology and Chicano/a Studies José Calderón caught a bus from Colorado to Delano, California, with only $57 in his pocket. Most impressed by the strategies of César Chávez, he traveled to “Forty Acres” and the night he finally arrived Chávez was speaking and said something that truly affected the rest of Calderón’s life. “That night Chávez talked about how you only have one life to live,” Calderón recalled. “And that the highest level of living is using your life in service to others. He said ‘I assure you that if you use your life in service to others you will have really lived—compared to the average person you will have lived a thousand years.’”
So began Calderón’s long trek toward finding a way to combine the role of activist with that of teacher and researcher, his goal being to develop courses and research methods that would make his students feel as inspired to service as he was upon meeting Chávez. “If we are serious about creating a diverse and engaged democracy, we have to begin where we have the most influence,” Calderón said. “Our classrooms can be examples of top-down bureaucratic decision-making or they can be spaces where the students are free to share their perspectives, to question the literature, and to use research methodologies that are applied in the community.”
Calderón’s classroom pedagogy strives to connect the classroom with participatory experience—academic theories with on-the-ground reality. In his Restructuring Communities course, students participate in a service-learning collaborative with the Pomona Day-Labor Center. For instance, one semester students and day laborers investigated why countries throughout the world benefit from cheap immigrant labor but refuse these individuals basic human rights; students relied on class readings and library research, and the workers on their analyses from Spanish-language newspapers and their lived experiences. “Because of their experiences, my students came to understand that the academy and the community of Pomona were not bifurcated but interrelated,” Calderón said.
In fact, it was Calderón’s class, alongside Fabian Núñez ’97, that was instrumental in establishing the Center when the City of Pomona passed an ordinance in 1997 that prohibited “the solicitation of or for work on any street or highway, public area, or non-residential parking area.” Ultimately, students used the evidence they gathered as part of their research to show local government that permanent residents were also among those who solicited work on the street, as well as to help draft grant proposals that continue to fund the Center.
“In working with immigrants, students carry out service but they also attend weekly meetings with the workers,” Calderón observed. “It is in these meetings that dialogue occurs and where the issues that workers are concerned about come to the forefront. It is here where action research is used in finding solutions to these problems. . . . It is here where the immigrant and student participants join together in common actions to raise their voices and to ensure that their voices are heard.”
Similarly, in his Rural and Urban Social Movements course, students join together in common action as they study the United Farm Workers (UFW) in depth. Students spend the first half of the semester studying social movement theories and the historical foundations of farm workers’ unions in the United States. During spring break the class travels to the central headquarters of the UFW in La Paz to carry out service projects and observe firsthand how the union works.
“It’s all about reciprocity—in exchange for the goodwill and knowledge shared by the UFW members, students contribute their own unique set of skills and insights,” Calderón pointed out. “The Pitzer students’ presence and actions is perceived as a gift by the UFW community. In return, every student who has ever gone to La Paz as part of their spring break, always leaves with the gift of a life-changing experience.”