Words of Wisdom: Shirley Romero Otero

I rode my bike down the road, following one of the original instigators of the Move Mountain’s Project, Dan Cordova. He made an effective guide, but I pedaled mightily on a borrowed bike that didn’t change gears well, keeping it in second the whole way to avoid any difficulties with the chain. His white BMX proceeded me down streets and through alleys through the town of San Luis, CO, and I marveled at the crispness of the morning air.

I had an appointment to speak to a very special person, Shirley Romero Otero, the woman who acted as the mentor and moving force behind the Move Mountains Project. 

When I entered her yard through the back gate, birds were chirruping, and she left some of her neighbors who were gathered around a fire next door to greet us. I sat with Shirley and Dan beneath a large, beautiful tree, and in the midst of the greenery and birdsong on lovely Sunday morning, I began my interview with one of the most amazing women I’ve yet to meet. Her insights illuminated some of the gaps we face as educators in disparate communities, and her wise words touched my heart and mind, bringing clarity.

(Click here to listen to the audio.)

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Lindsay: My name is Lindsay Deen with US Represented.

Shirley: My name is Shirley Romero Otero. I’m a local educator, and the local organizer for Move Mountains.

Lindsay: We’re here to talk about Move Mountains, a project that is transforming the lives of the youth in San Luis Valley. So. . . . Why did you first become involved in Move Mountains?

Shirley: Well, I’ve always been involved with youth. All of my career, obviously—as a middle school teacher, a high school teacher, an elementary teacher—so I’ve always been involved with youth. I have four daughters of my own, so I’ve always been involved in their lives, and I got involved with Move Mountains Project, Incorporated because I had a collaborative of young people that wanted to come into San Luis and work with youth and try to make this program possible. So because there was a lot of help, it was easier for me to make my decision to become involved.

Lindsay: So, how did you meet Miguel and Dan and Ike?

Shirley: Well, Miguel and Dan and Ike are three of the original individuals from the group that first came here four years ago to do some social justice poetry with a group of students that was doing some work in the community at that time. So, I met those folks, and have continued to stay in touch with them. They have evolved into their Master’s degrees, their careers, whatever, but they’ve always stayed in contact, specifically Miguel.

So for the last three years, they’ve been coming down here—Miguel’s been coming down here, spending some time, Dan has been down here, and we’ve just sat around the table and talked about what it was exactly that we wanted to do with youth, and this spring break, when they made their last trip and we solidified the curriculum, we were actually ready to put into place this two weeks—really that stretched out into a month—of a summer youth program.

And again, it’s because there was a lot of help, a lot of facilitators to be able to work with the kids, do a lot of different leadership skills, social justice poetry, learn to speak up, and just empower the kids, raise their self-esteem, and give them the courage to be able to do the program that we put together yesterday for the annual festivals that happen here in San Luis.

Lindsay: So, that’s pretty awesome. What would you say the most powerful moment you’ve experienced during this festival–or during the whole time leading up the the festival when the kids were learning—what was the most powerful moment for you?

Shirley: Well, there were several, but I think the one that will always stand out in the minds of our students and the facilitators was when we—well, part of what we incorporated into the summer youth program was the painting of a mural on the town hall wall here in San Luis. That was a big part and big attraction to get kids to become part of this program, that they were actually going to be able to create and then paint their own mural.

mural-in-progressSo the most interesting moment was when we started the mural the first day, and we had some complaints that went to City Council about the mural, that they didn’t like the mural. It was just the first day, so the only thing that was up on the wall at that point were blobs of paint. Really, the full story wasn’t told yet. We had some older folks, who in my opinion were just ignorant about what we were doing, ignorant about what art is as a whole.

There were some complaints. I got called into city hall the night—that Monday night—was told about that, so we decided that we—our Move Mountains kids, the facilitators, and the artists—would meet with City Council, and we asked them to invite the folks that were against the mural.

So I wasn’t there that day. I was doing other things for the program. However, we brought our kids together, and we happened to have a bonfire that night, and there was probably about 75 people there. So we told the people at the bonfire about what was happening.

We asked them to attend the meeting the following day at 10 o’clock to support the kids, and we were confident that—we the facilitators—that our kids had learned enough skills to be able to put them to work, and that was to defend the mural. Because the students and the artists, before any paint went up on the mural, they met with the kids, they talked about the difference between a mural and graffiti and what message they wanted to send, so the mural was sketched out before it was put on the wall, and the kids knew exactly why everything that was going to go on the wall was going to be there.

The following day, the kids met, and of course none of the naysayers turned out, and the kids were able to convince the San Luis town council that they had to stick with their decision about letting them continue with the wall. So that was part of that moment.

The other part was when one of the naysayers showed up after everything was said and done and wanted to physically harm me because he blamed me that I was responsible for defaming the wall on City Council, and not asking his permission. It turned into a mess where the gentleman tried to physically harm me, and my students stood up to him, both physically and verbally. They learned their lesson that everything that you work for that is worth standing up for needs to be defended, so you need to speak your mind, and our kids did very well with that. So that was good. That was one of the goals we had with the program.

The other thing is that they were able to see in action that there are always going to be people who are naysayers or who are going to be against what you are doing, and most of the time, it’s out of ignorance and downright that they have no idea what’s happening, but for whatever reason, they think that they play a big part.

So anyway, our kids saw it in motion—they saw a bid of hostility towards them, and I think they were a little appalled because older people are supposed to support what young people do. [The kids] realized that there was a generational gap between the old and the young people and that there has to be more communication with the older folks because the progress isn’t going to stop, but it would sure be nice to have them on our side because they are, of course, the Elders and part of our community. So the kids learned a lesson right then and there.

Lindsay: Yeah. That’s the most powerful kind of learning you can have, is that experiential kind of learning.

Shirley: Yes. They realized that. . . . there would be people against them and that they have to sometimes defend what they’re doing, otherwise, there will be no progress. There’s always going to be somebody against what you’re doing, so I’m glad they learned it at a very young age.

Lindsay: Yes. Well, thank you for sharing that awesome series of events. That’s really amazing. I think what you’re really doing with this group of kids—it kind of is taking the regular education that they’re getting, and then using all these different methods in real life to apply it and connect it for them, and I really like how you guys have structured the entire program, how it just runs. It continually seems to bring up for these kids stuff that they get stuck by.

Shirley: Well, and that was done intentionally. And the reason for that is, I can speak to both sides of that issue because I am an educator in the classroom. In a small, rural school where we’re at, we’re no different from the big city schools that all teach to the test, and I believe strongly that’ll be done more simply because of the core standards against the country, which I am totally against, both as a parent and as an educator.

However, kids are somewhat tunnel vision in their learning, and even more tunnel vision when you come from a rural environment because of the lack of resources in your school and in your community, and more specifically technology, so kids tend to see the world through one lens, and when they leave this community and deal with the real world, whether they go 40 miles away or across the country, if they’re not equipped with those tools of what politics are, and how the resources in this country are distributed, and what it means to be a person of color and someone who speaks another language or with an accent, then you’re not going to have the tools to be able to be successful and deal with all of the mountains that are put in front of you.

So our program was intentionally named Move Mountains because no matter where you come from or who you are or what socio-economic background you come from, and if you’re poor like most people in this community—poor in material things, I should say—then you’re not going to be equipped to handle the real world.

So, yeah, they need to learn to understand this because where else would they get it?

Lindsay: Yeah. I think that’s a brilliant observation. As educators, we have to provide what’s missing to the equation, and you’ve provided for them what was missing through this summer education program. Now, what are your hopes for the program in the future, going forward? I know you had 20 participants this year, right?

Shirley: Yes.

Lindsay: So how are you hoping that that grows, and what are you hoping to see?

Shirley: Well, first of all, I’m hoping to see the community back up the kids. Every facet of the community, from the senior citizens to the leaders in the community, the county government, the school district, the town council, and then just anyone else who believes in kids. So I’m hoping, first of all, that our own local community will get behind the kids and support them and put money where their mouth is to double the amount of kids that we have and be able to pay them and be able to pay them more than we paid them this year. We gave them a $100 stipend per week.

One of the goals of the program is to create employment for the youth over the summer because there is no employment for youth, and that creates some of the problems that we are trying to deal with with Move Mountains. So I’m hoping that they’ll get behind that. I’m also hoping that throughout the winter, throughout the school year, because one of the facilitators is going to remain in the community and be one of the teachers, that together we will be able to do something with the kids after school.

We are already a nonprofit organization, which helps us with funding. We hope to apply for grants and be able to fund some of the activities that we hope to do. Those activities will be created as we go because it’s a new program and we just finished them. So we will start with the school year and work to double the amount of participants and really focus more locally on what the activities would be.

Like genealogy, the history of the Land Grant, and what it means to be an Heir. Some of the local knowledge that is held within our Elders that we can pass that down to the kids in the form of workshops, field trips, or lectures, or whatever means, whatever works. It would be nice to see this program expand the bigger picture to see the program expand to other rural communities.

I think this program could be replicated anywhere in the country, anywhere that it’s needed, and you could just make the changes that you need for your local community. It’s not anything that is new or that requires a PhD to do. I think it just takes dedicated adults who will listen to the kids, and they will create their own program, and we help them facilitate and implement what the kids want. So it takes time and dedication and patience and funding, of course. And those are the four things that seem to be missing in any program because if they were around, we wouldn’t be discussing this issue, I guess.

Lindsay: Yeah. We sure wouldn’t because our schools would be taking care of what they actually need to be taking care of. The fact that you brought up testing is very interesting to me. I was lucky enough that I only had to take maybe four tests throughout my entire education, you know, the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills), the ACT, and the SAT. Those are the only tests I ever took, and none of them [except ITBS] were mandated when I was in school.

I was lucky, but my brother and my sister didn’t have that same experience of education because they were both CSAP kids. And seeing a difference in them when they got to high school compared to me when I got to high school. . . . Well, there were some things I was prepared for, and some things I was not. So how do you think these changes in education have truly affected curriculum, and what do you see in the institutional education’s future if this trend continues?

Shirley: Well, I think, first of all, speaking as a parent, I think parents need to understand that everybody puts too much emphasis in the testing assessments that the state—and now, with the core standards implemented—those testing and assessment tools that are going to be used—educators and school boards and politicians put too much emphasis in that.

And of course, that’s because it’s political and because somebody is making money with these tests. That’s the real reality. So, as a parent and as an educator, I look at my four daughters. Out of my four daughters, four of them are good test-takers. The other ones aren’t. What I tell parents is, “What you really need to pay attention to, what you really need to be aware of is what your student does on a day-to-day basis. Can your child do the very basics? Can they read, and write, and comprehend what they’re reading and they’re writing?” Those are very basic tools that have not changed and won’t change, in my opinion. “Is your student at grade-level with math?”

If parent’s pay attention to that and work closely with teachers and hold educators accountable to that, principals and superintendents and school boards, then how your child is on a daily basis is more important than what your child does on a one-day window with these test assessments. Anything could go wrong. Kids are nervous, kids are sick—it’s like one of my students said: “I have to go to jump start and start two weeks early because I didn’t take the test seriously and just wrote smiley faces.” So some kids won’t take the test like this particular student.

I think there’s too much emphasis put on that, and that dictates how teachers teach in the classroom because there really is no time for that, tied with the way they’re going to evaluate teachers now, if kids are successful on those tests—I’m glad I got out of teaching when I did because it’s so unfair on so many facets.

I believe that you’ve got to hold teachers accountable, absolutely, but you also have to provide them with the tools through staff development and other ways and means to stay up with what’s happening. However, the missing piece in this circle is: you hold the student accountable, you hold the teacher, you hold the school, but you can’t hold the parent accountable. There’s no mandate law to hold the parent accountable.

So I’ve always believed and I’ve always said, and my motto as a parent and as a teacher is that the greatest determinant of student success is parental involvement. So how do you mandate involvement? How do you make parents make time for their kids? How do you make parents make sure that homework is done and that they’re fed and that they go to bed early, and that there’s a space for them to study? How do you mandate that?

You can’t. And until that gap is closed, then you’re always going to have students who fall through the cracks because, as a teacher, I can do whatever I can with that particular student who I know is not getting the help at home. However, what that parent says and what that parent models is going to be more powerful than anything that I as a teacher or as a community organizer or as just an adult that cares about that kid, that impact’s not going to be the same. So you always have to keep that in mind, and too many school districts and state boards across the country pay lip service to parental involvement, but no resources to parental involvement.

And I say that because I come from a strong background of parental involvement. A lot of my career was academics, but it was coupled with parental involvement, and that’s why our program worked. In the program that I created with others for a district of 20,000 students, we were able to turn the dropout rate of Latino students, we were able to lower that rate and increase the graduation rate because the local college that worked there that was in the community in Grand Junction saw that the program worked at the high school, and they wanted to do the same thing at the college level.

So they duplicated that program. We were able to send students, get them to graduate at grade level, send them to the college, have someone who was going to monitor those students. The majority of those students were first generation to graduate high school, first generation to go to college, so that program made sure that those students [succeeded and] followed them because research dictates and research indicates that if you do that, then a student will be successful and go on to graduate.

There’s so many things that can be done, but the bottom line is they don’t want to do it. “They”—those in charge—whether it’s federal government, the state government, the local government, the local school district, or whoever holds the purse strings—don’t want to do it. And until that’s done, then we won’t have equity in education for all. So the big link here is parental involvement.

Lindsay: Yeah, but measuring parental involvement? I understand why maybe the government, especially in Colorado, doesn’t want to get involved in that pickle. That is something that is hard to monitor. I think that. . . just the impact of culture and changing the conversation in people’s minds about education is where we have to start.

Shirley: Well, you gotta look at economics. Parental involvement goes with economics. I don’t think that I have ever come across a parent that says, irregardless of skin color or socio-economic status, that says, “I do not want my kid to become educated and have a better life than I do.”

Lindsay: Uh-huh.

Shirley: It’s rare, and maybe it happens, but it’s been very rare in my career of 30 years in education, and some. However, it’s about economics. I had a teacher sitting in my back yard three weeks ago saying, “Oh, but Shirley, there are people in the lower Rio Grande Valley and in Texas that don’t want their kids to go to school ”cause they want to send them to work.” I understand that. Absolutely. It’s a choice. This kid will bring in other income to just make ends meet. That’s why I say it goes back to economics.

So, if you want parental involvement, it’s easy to monitor parental involvement—that is not an issue, and I’ll talk about that. However, it’s about economics. Until this country pays a decent minimum wage that everyone can earn a living, and provides skills as to whether it’s manual labor or white collar work or blue collar workers. Some parents have to work two and three jobs and don’t have the time to monitor their kids at home. Most households are single parents, whether they’re moms or dads, and they don’t have the skills or the time to do that.

So you assess your parents where the skills are, you send them to the right resources, and you have all these people and all these agencies that are trying to attach these issues work together, but communication breaks down and it doesn’t happen.

Monitoring parental involvement is very easy. One of the elementary schools I worked in, one of my first jobs, was—our parental involvement went from about 70% to 400%. We had parents wanting to do everything, and we couldn’t find enough things to do. And the success with that was that not all the parents were at the school. Some parents could do things at home.

Whether it was taking the kindergarten teacher’s work and cutting out all the things that needed to be cut out or whatever, you met parents at the level where they were at. And then you provided some parent education. Many of our parents, through a statewide parent coalition, which I was a part of for 16 years, many of those parents came in just wanting to learn some techniques, like “How do I discipline my kids? How do I talk to the teacher?” Very basic parental involvement skills.

[Many of these parents] ended up becoming paraprofessionals, went on to become teachers in the classroom, and are not administrators, but it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. There’s got to be a focus to that. And once the parent is involved, then everything with the student increases. Academic success, attitude, discipline issues go down because there’s that communication between the school and the parent. There’s a ton of ways, and no one needs to reinvent the wheel. It’s all there. However, nobody’s focusing on the issue.

Lindsay: Wow. So it all really comes down to communication in our systems?

Shirley: Yes. And let me take that back. There are some good groups doing some good things. That’s very important. But until it’s spread across every school and every culture, then we’re not through yet. The other important thing is that it’s important to have a parent liaison between your school and your community, and that parent liaison needs to reflect the culture that’s within that school.

I was successful. At this point, I think I could work across cultures. However, I was hired particularly at the beginning to work with Latino families. I was a mother, I lived in the community, I understood the culture, and my kids were successful, and what worked for my children would work for the rest of the kids because we were part of the same culture, so it’s a process. It’s just a process.

Lindsay: That’s really brilliant. I love how you just laid that out and really illuminated the issue. Thank you very much.

Shirley: You bet.

Lindsay: So, I guess to tie back in everything that you’ve talked about in the interview, how would you say that Move Mountains is a manifestation of all that we’ve discussed in this interview?

Shirley: Students need to understand how politics work. Students need to understand—everybody, young people—that life is all about politics. Everything is political, whether it’s at the local level to the federal level. Everything is political. And if you don’t understand the political system and how it works, then they’re always going to be in the dark and never be able to create change.

So Move Mountains is about politicizing the kids through a bunch of different means. The social poetry is great because it’s not just the political side, it’s domestic violence, it’s oppression, it’s the lack of good food and good health. Move Mountains is about telling the kids, “What do you need in your life to be successful spiritually, politically, educationally, socially, and health-wise?” Because there’s so much that’s coming at these young people, and its about what facet do I want to learn.

So, I think if kids understand that everything is political, and if they can understand how politics is infused in any one of these things that I just mentioned and how it does affect them directly, that it really does affect them directly, and they can either sit on one side and do nothing or sit on the other side and do something, or they can stay in the middle and just get led like a bunch of sheep.

So it’s about building character into these kids and saying, “You know, your voice is important. Your vote is important. And if you don’t like what you see, then you need to raise your voice and create the change.” And it’s about how they can influence not only politicians, but how to get other people to do what needs to be done to create the change. It’s real simple. How to empower kids—that’s what this whole program is about.

Lindsay: Brilliant. Well, thank you for sharing, thank you for creating the beautiful space that you guys did this awesome weekend, and this is Lindsay Deen, signing off, over and out.

Shirley: Thank you.

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FireworksAs I ended the interview, I recalled the previous day, which had seen the beginning and end of the Fiesta de Santa Ana y Santiago, a festival celebrating the area patron saints. During the day, I’d watched the kids from Move Mountains perform, expressing themselves to their community through poetry, song, dance, and other art forms. The night had begun with a bike ride as well.

I rode the borrowed bike through the streets, then, carrying a bag full of burritos for the teachers and others who were helping with the finale of the festival and some fireworks. The wind was in my face before we slowed, nearing the park, and suddenly the sky was ablaze with a fantastic fireworks display. I kept riding, looking for the teachers to whom I’d come to deliver food, and I marveled at the turnout. Thousands of families gathered, made merry, and celebrated being a community together.

I thought about community, and realized that I’d found something in this place to which I would always wish to return.