August 19, 2016, was a very hard day. I said goodbye to the most difficult, yet most fulfilling period of my life.
Dating back to 2008, I had the pleasure to serve the communities of Watts and South Central Los Angeles at two of the most notoriously under-resourced schools in the nation. I worked shoulder to shoulder with classroom educators and administrators who, every day, fought battles on behalf of the best interests of their students. I had been part of the first line of defense against the injustices, bigotry and lack of resources our students were subjected to. I formed deep, deep bonds with people that cannot be replicated. But on that day last year, I left the trenches and promised to work my heart off to bring our battle to expand educational opportunities.
One year into my journey at The Broad Center, there has not been a day when I don’t think about my kids and the communities that give me my purpose. Access to a quality education was my way out of poverty. As an undocumented child, my future always felt uncertain, to say the least. In their efforts to keep me safe, my parents enrolled me in schools located in neighborhoods with higher tax brackets than ours, because neighborhoods with money also were neighborhoods with higher-quality schools. I benefited from advantages and resources that were not meant for me, but they helped me push my way to a college degree.
I thought the schools I attended as a student were the norm. Then, I went to work at Locke and Jordan high schools. Beyond the violent circumstances they faced in their neighborhoods, our kids were subjected to conditions in school that would have caused outrage in any other neighborhood in the district. Where is it acceptable for a school to completely run out of toilet paper? How about running water? Or classrooms that were rarely cleaned or maintained, meaning the students, teachers and dead rodents in dollar-store traps were left without consistent air conditioning in the summer? The greatest heartbreak of it all was that the kids seemed unfazed, as if they expected this. As if this was all anyone should offer to them.
Despite fighting for the barest of resources, my colleagues and I worked each day to instill a sense of pride in our kids. We believed in them. We didn’t lower any bars, because those young people have far more grit and endurance than any of us ever will, and we knew, with support, they could do anything. In 2013, our efforts paid off: Our students had made the biggest one-year gains in the entire state. That same school — without all the resources, but with so much heart — achieved this.
The day the results were announced, one of my students said, “Now people will know that good things can come out of Watts.” That broke my heart. But that day was also one of the proudest of my life. Despite every battle I fought to get my kids what they needed, the students I served did more for my soul than I ever could have done for them.
Whenever I think something is impossible to do, I remember that day. I think of the kids that made the impossible happen, and I keep going. They deserve the choice to make a great life for themselves and their communities.
I do this work here at The Broad Center because it is my responsibility to use the privilege I have now to keep fighting the good fight — now, by supporting others in that fight, too — to make sure every student graduates high school with a future full of choices.
Maria Razo is The Broad Center’s operations manager for Partner Strategy.