We are thrilled to present the first in a series of Small Stones Interviews, a conversation with educator LaQuisha Beckum.
LaQuisha (they/them) is a community college Psychology/Child Development instructor, currently at American River College, and a Program Coordinator with the Sacramento Youth Commission. They are also the president of the Board of Directors for the nonprofit Generation Reformation. Full disclosure: LaQuisha and one of our editors, Emily, were colleagues for several years at De Anza College. We caught up with LaQuisha in April to find out what they’ve been up to since the election and how the new administration, and its policies, are impacting their students.
Small Stones: So, you are the first person we’re actually talking to–thanks so much! How did you get into education, if we can start from the very beginning?
LaQuisha Beckum: I began my career as a camp leader back in 1996. I worked my way up to assistant site director, then site director receiving certification to work with 5-9-year-olds and 10-14-year-olds. That work was with the YMCA and lasted 5 years. During this time, I was also working as a TA for a professor at SJSU. I spent one year working at a teen center after leaving the YMCA, then went into research. I didn’t start teaching college until winter 2006 at De Anza College.
SS: So what are things are like right now for you, as an educator? You’re at American River now? Teaching psychology?
LB: Yes, I’m at American River College now. Students are hanging in there. I think they feel similar to the rest of us, without them having the historical notes we have. They are feeling anxious, afraid at times, hopeful (one teen told me that he hopes this will be a phoenix phase…things crumble only to be reborn into something better). I work with youth ages fourteen to nineteen AND teach at the college. Nothing that either group has said is vastly different.
SS: What historical notes do you think are most important? Fourteen-year-olds in particular have only really known one administration…
LB: I think above everything, is understanding systems…that these things aren’t created by individuals, that it’s a group effort! We can talk about the idiocy of Drumpf all day, but it took a messed up system to even make it possible for him to reach this rank of government.
SS: I remember being afraid about what would come next if he weren’t elected, wondering what the system would spit at us the next time.
LB: Exactly…they are familiar with Obama, but they probably didn’t realize he dropped three bombs an hour on the Mid-East in 2016.
I have been quite numb since he [Trump] won.
SS: The optics were way better, but bombs are bombs.
SS: How does it affect how you teach? I’ve been your student before in professional settings, so I know you connect with students well. Is that easier? Harder? More urgent? None of the above?
LB: I didn’t even find the words to blog about what I was feeling, because I knew Drumpf would win. I just sat back and watched everyone else spiral…
As a teacher, I still bring into the learning space the same optimistic approach I always have, because I don’t feel less optimistic. I still talk with students about their responsibility to themselves to be their true self in the face of the messaging that’s horrific right now. No one can take care of their well-being better than they. So, I don’t feel an urgency or that it’s more difficult at all. Whether I’m working with the teens, or with the college students, I’m always trying to ensure they are kind to themselves in the process.
That may be odd…but, I’m a young black prince (male/female mix – tomboy) who has seen and read history. Drumpf in office doesn’t scare me anymore than any other person in that seat. I had a lot of “allies” who didn’t listen to my feelings about HRC and constantly told me how I should feel and vote. I paid attention and feel today that their whining doesn’t really affect me anymore because I don’t care. I know that’s mean, but that’s my thought/feeling.
SS: Fair. I come from a demographic that fucked it up for the rest of us…but that’s been a historical institution.
LB: Yes, that is! Another reason why I have watched the movie Get Out so many times…I have had conversations in workshops at De Anza about white women’s tears and how those “tears” can co-opt an entire group of people so that we no longer discuss what was underway…I can’t stand it. It’s manipulative, highly ridiculous, and diverting. Honest tears are okay, because the person is usually apologetic and usually isn’t trying to divert or get attention and would prefer to have the attention off of them. Those other tears are a doozy and anger me so!
SS: The culture facilitates–encourages–never growing up, and I say this as someone who cries easily, and is quite white! But to back up just a bit, who are your students? I was doing a bit of reading about American River, but didn’t get too good of a sense of the campus
LB: My students at ARC range the gamut. I have low-income students, single-parents, most of my class are students of color. I have a student who owns and rides horses! Interesting mix of folk.
SS: What are you teaching there?
LB: I’m teaching psychology applied to modern life right now and it’s been interesting!
SS: There’s a huge amount of material to cover! I can’t even imagine where I’d start—so much to think about there.
LB: Yes! Cengage didn’t grant me access to the book I thought of adopting in a timely manner, so I send them chapters from different books. It’s basically the psychology of coping given the situations we find ourselves in.
SS: So pretty much everyone needs to take your class. Do students come in even more ready due to national situation, or is this simply one more thing?
LB: Yes! I discuss coping A LOT in ALL of my classes, so this being a new class to me didn’t really affect the delivery.
I think it [the administration] is just one more thing. I don’t feel as though the national situation made them ready or more ready. Most of the students were either taking the class because it’s part of their course requirements, OR they are taking it because they truly wanted to help themselves. Sounds the same for any other class I would teach.
SS: How does it compare to De Anza College? I always liked the vibrancy of the student body/campus life there, but it wasn’t without its politics.
LB: I agree…love the students at DA! ARC, and the rest of the community college district here, is re-vamping things. Students aren’t used to being involved or having a voice, so this is all new for them. They have great resources compared to DA, but it’s also overwhelming. I get emails about SO MANY things. Not sure if the students get emails like that from the campus, but it’s a lot! They truly want the students to be successful and so far, it looks like they are consistently moving to make that happen!
I’m sure there’s tons of politics here, I just haven’t seen it yet. I’m trying not to become a vested person on this campus like I was at DA because it led to too much heart-break for me…I’m taking it slowly.
SS: That’s really exciting, seeing that kind of ramp up. Is Sacramento an easier place to be a student? I felt like that was always such a big part for students in Silicon Valley—how do you exist in this space? What kind of future is in Cupertino, if you’re not in tech?
LB: I used to ask students that question in class, because in spite of the cost of living in the Bay, they still found a way to be in class…actually SHOWING UP for class.
I think Sacramento, depending on where you live, is an easier place to be a student. The cost of living is much lower, but there’s violence too! Affordability sometimes means living in certain parts of town that may not be the safest, but that’s everywhere. My understanding is that for a VERY long time, the youth have NOT been a priority for the city here. Ergo, the city spends LESS THAN 2% of its total budget on youth development, resources, or programs. Hopefully the new mayor can help change things, but there’s a lot of shaking up happening right now at the city as well—I see it through working with the Youth Commission. Nepotism is and has been rampant forever. You have people in certain positions who are there because of who they’re married to, related to, and friends with, but not necessarily the best person for the position! Sounds an awful lot like DA, and in my head, I compare the two institutions A LOT!
I think students at DA see themselves staying even if they aren’t in tech, but ultimately the only people who can survive without drowning in Silicon Valley are men in tech.
SS: Can you tell me more about the program you’re working with for the city? Two percent tells you a lot about priorities…
LB: I work with the Sacramento Youth Commission. It has been around since 1993, but it doesn’t function and never has functioned the way it ought to. I come up with plans, and am then told “don’t say that to the commissioners, don’t let them ask the council for money, oh no you can’t do that” and I’m just like LOOK, either you want me to do the things you KNEW I was about when I was interviewed or you don’t. BUT, don’t waste my damn time! It’s ridiculous. The city wants commissioners to do projects, to be the ear on the street, to be the voice of all youth, but gives them NO money…no annual budget what-so-ever! So, the commissioners have to fundraise every year for monies! It’s really terrible!
SS: And meanwhile, students stay underserved. Who are the students you’re working with there?
LB: Most of the students on the commission are privileged, but there are a couple who come from low-income backgrounds. I have been going out to high schools to talk to students about the commission, because people don’t even know it exists! That’s how bad it is.
SS: What’s your conservative goal, and what’s your they-give-you-all-the-money goal?
LB: Conservative: keep getting the commissioners fired up, start looking for grants in the Sacramento area (since we have non-profit status), and keep talking to other youth orgs, so the commission can jump on projects.
Given money, we can create our own projects, fund our scholarship giveaways, and make it bigger. Also, we could attend trainings/conferences, etc.
Right now, it’s just me having to interject in their agenda in order to hold trainings and discussions…and they want more! No one talks to them about their feelings, their place as the voice of the youth, etc. I am the first to come along and make them think!
SS: That’s awesome. Is there somewhere where we can see what they/you are up to? (Do you think any of them might be interested in talking to us? Anonymously if necessary!)
LB: I can definitely ask them. As for seeing what they’ve been up, nothing is on their site. But, here you go: https://www.cityofsacramento.org/ParksandRec/Neighborhood-Services/Programs/Sacramento-Youth-Commission.
I just started on 12/19/16 and I will most likely NOT have the job coming in July.
SS: But ARC will continue? Any job protection there?
LB: Yes…I will continue with ARC. It works out perfectly, because I’ll need to be in the Bay twice a week to run the after-school program for my non-profit beginning this fall. I let the commissioners know that I’m uncertain of whether I will continue with them because of the bumps and a new division being created for youth at the city. Too much happening!
SS: Your non-profit! How’s that going?
LB: Hoping to get grants I’ve applied to, so I don’t have to stress about where to get the project materials for the program!
SS: Yes. That landscape could change a lot too. When I think about where I think I’d be seeing impacts in where I’ve taught/worked, I think of grant availability and impact on immigrant students.
LB: Well, I’m doing well. I’m the President of the Board, have written 4 or 5 grant proposals (working on one right now), get little help from others…it’s a learning experience! I will also look into creating the literacy program up here at the elementary school down the street because their literacy rate is extremely low…like 34% or less!
SS: That’s awesome—not the literacy rates! What you’re getting done. What’s the name of your non-profit?
LB: Generation Reformation – students will learn to blog and put their voice and events out to the public through this site: https://aworldoftomorrowyouthedition.wordpress.com/.
We need funds for someone to do the org site: http://www.generationreformation.org/.
SS: Perfect. We’re hoping to get a broad spectrum perspective of what people are doing.
LB: Speaking of immigration issues, we have had conversations about undocumented students who apply to the commission. There isn’t a stipulation stating they can’t apply or be on the commission, but I’ve been told undocumented students may not be able to serve! Of course, my response is “BUT, they’re our youth and we’re a sanctuary city, so that needs to change!” Not sure who they thought I was coming to work for them, but I’m no different than when I interviewed. They’re NOT ready for me, nor ready for the change that’s needed for youth in the city.
SS: Yeah…I’ve been wondering about that too. How does sanctuary play out beyond good PR? What does it actually take to make sure that people are protected, other than not actively aiding ICE? It seems more important than before to have them serving.
LB: I couldn’t agree with you more, regarding protections AND fairness! Can’t say we represent ALL students if we don’t represent ALL students!