The Fight to be Heard

  • October 3, 2016

When she speaks, Jamila Guerrero-Cantor can’t help but move her hands. As an advocate, activist and counselor in the Deaf community for two decades, using sign language comes naturally to Cal State East Bay’s first-ever Chancellor’s Doctoral Incentive Program (CDIP) student within the university’s Doctorate in Educational Leadership for Social Justice.

The CDIP is awarded annually to doctoral candidates who show promise in their proposed research and vested interest in competing for future tenure-track openings within the California State University system. CDIP participants can complete their degrees in any accredited doctoral program nationwide, and Guerrero-Cantor, who was also accepted at UCLA, chose Cal State East Bay.

As she explains why she left a coveted tenure-track position as a counselor for Deaf students to study at CSUEB, she places one hand perpendicular to her chest, palm down, facing the floor. Then she takes her other hand, balls it into a fist and punches up in into the flat hand several times.

“I was tapped out,” she says aloud while signing, almost as an afterthought. “I felt so frustrated, like I wanted to do so much more.”

While Guerrero-Cantor helped the Deaf population grow from 19 to 90 students in just a few years in her former role, the more students she worked with, she explains, the more she wanted to do something that could help thousands, not just handfuls, at a time. The lifelong social justice advocate began wondering if other successful programs targeted toward at-risk populations could also be applied to Deaf students — and if she could do the research to prove it.

For example, Guerrero-Cantor, who is also a mentor within The Puente Project, a program that originated at Chabot College and targets disadvantaged students by building a sense of community among them, thought a similar framework could be used as a starting point for her own studies.    

“It’s a no-brainer, it’s a recipe for success,” Guerrero-Cantor says. “You have a cohort of students, they become very bonded, [and] you connect teaching, counseling and mentoring — those three components — and no wonder [The Puente Project has] a 98 percent success rate. I would love to do that with Deaf students.”

Fortunately, her father — a professor at CSU Dominguez Hills — knew just the person for his daughter to call:  Professor Lettie Ramirez in Cal State East Bay’s Department of Teacher Education.

Ramirez, who was mentored by the founder of The Puente Project (which has since spread throughout the state and to high schools), used that as the basis for Cal State East Bay’s Gaining Access N’ Academic Success or GANAS, a variation aimed specifically at transfer students.

“I believe we can learn so much from a community of people that have been so excluded.”

Last spring, while she was still considering programs, Guerrero-Cantor met with Ramirez as well as the director of Cal State East Bay’s Ed.D. program, Associate Professor Bradley Porfilio.

“When I told them my vision, their response was ‘Oh, we can support you with that. You should come here.’ It was just this warmth and love. I saw the opportunity to do something practical while doing research with a very supportive mentor, who has experience with the exact type of model I want to try.”

“She is very passionate about working with Deaf students… which makes her a great match for Cal State East Bay and the doctoral program for its focus on social justice,” Ramirez says. “She can also help us make a difference [in how we approach Deaf students] because she knows the population.”

According to Porfilio, “Faculty members and staff of the doctorate program are very excited Jamila joined us this summer. She is a tremendous educator and cultural worker who is deeply committed to challenging institutional barriers and unjust policies. She has the potential to become an outstanding scholar-practitioner who can become a tenure-track faculty member in the CSU system.”

There was also another benefit Cal State East Bay offered Guerrero-Cantor that represented a rare opportunity: the chance to study alongside the Ed.D. program’s first Deaf student, Principal Liann Osborne at California School for the Deaf Fremont, who could add valuable insights and collaboration to her research.

“As the Ed.D. program’s first black, Deaf student [Jamila and I have] discussed what we really want to see happen out there,” Osborne says. “We really want to set up a program where we can help first-generation families, communities that don’t value education as much … and we want to support Deaf children and let them know that [higher] education is of value to them as well.”   

Though Guerrero-Cantor is the first CDIP winner to complete her studies with Cal State East Bay, her winning the funding as an Ed.D. candidate as opposed to a Ph.D. student makes her even more rare. Donna Wiley, interim associate vice president of academic programs and graduate studies explains that Guerrero-Cantor’s application had to show, very specifically, how she intended to use Cal State East Bay’s Ed.D. program to carry out research and how that could ultimately benefit the CSU.

“In reality, this funding is not typically given to Ed.D. students, who are typically working toward becoming K-12 administrators — it’s for candidates who intend to become professors. But [Jamila] had exceptional qualifications and a very clear idea of how the social justice angle of our program fit within her precise research goals,” Wiley says. “Her ultimate goal is that she really wants to come back to the CSU to participate in Deaf education. She’s an impressive student with an impressive background.”

While the framework of her research is still being defined, Guerrero-Cantor believes a model that brings more Deaf students into the fold of higher education must include counselors who are Deaf themselves and communicate in sign language, and classes designed for Deaf needs, in addition to high-quality interpreter services. And that the hearing population will benefit from these efforts as well.

“I believe we can learn so much from a community of people that have been so excluded,” she says. “The beauty and the potential of what they can teach us as a society are largely unknown because we haven’t supported a world where that has been possible. The students that I have worked with show such resilience. I’m really interested in getting Deaf students to complete higher education degrees and then come back as leaders and lead these programs.”