Organic and Traditional Bridging
Francisco Guajardo and Edyael Casaperalta on intentionality, consciousness, and creating new opportunities.
By Edyael Casaperalta
"A bridge person is someone who ‘facilitates, brokers, provokes, inspires, challenges, motivates, and/or helps heal people and contexts’."
"All this important work has been facilitated by the ‘intentionality, consciousness and purpose,’ of bridge people."
Rural , Southwest , Community / Regional Development , Democracy , Education , Immigration , Film / Video / Audio / Digital , Traditional Cultural and Spiritual , Education / Awareness Raising , Alliance / Movement / Field Building , Community Engagement , Policy / Law Change , Leadership and Skill Development
Francisco Guajardo, PhD, cofounder and executive director of the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development, is a former teacher who is now a professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg.
Edyael Del Carmen Casaperalta Velazquez, born and raised in Durango, Mexico, has participated in community development, youth leadership, college mentoring, and digital storytelling programs with Llano Grande Center since 1998. She is currently program and research associate at the Center for Rural Strategies.
LLANO GRANDE CENTER FOR RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT: Throughout its long history as an idea, a local movement, and later a nonprofit organization, Llano Grande has worked to increase educational opportunities and expectations of young people in Edcouch-Elsa, Texas, by developing effective, culturally relevant teaching methods and practices. In a predominantly Mexican American and rural community, where poverty and the lack of educational opportunities were prevalent, this new trend brought hope and higher expectations to the community. The work of Llano Grande began informally in the early ‘90s through a process to show Edcouch-Elsa High School students that not only was college an option for them, but that it was necessary, and that they could go to any college they wanted. The work progressed in 1997 with the formalization of the Llano Grande Center and the move toward redeveloping the scope of the Center’s outreach. The work of college preparation became more focused on transforming students into community-minded leaders who would be ready for higher education.
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“Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar” “Walker, there is no path, you make it as you walk” —popular saying
In response to the concept that people function as bridges, Francisco Guajardo, executive director of the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development (Llano Grande), responded.
“There is a power mechanism that allows the flow of ideas, answers, from one place to another, and that is the bridge—the bridge people. They are facilitators of making things happen. Not everyone can be a bridge person.”
Not everyone can be a bridge person? I cringed. The suggestion that some people are unable to be bridges struck me. Guajardo mentioned in one of our conversations that a bridge person is someone who “facilitates, brokers, provokes, inspires, challenges, motivates, and/or helps heal people and contexts.” I believe that everyone is able to perform these abilities in diverse ways, thus everyone is able to be a bridge. However, referencing the Gramscian* framework of traditional versus organic intellect, Guajardo reflected upon the difference between traditional and organic bridges. According to Guajardo, some people have been ‘tailored’ as bridges and are more aligned with an institutionalized understanding of bridging, while others may have ‘emerged’ as bridges thanks to the “organic reservoir of knowledge” they possess.
To make better sense of Guajardo’s words, I characterized the distinction between the traditional and the organic bridge. A traditional bridge person, I imagined, could be a member of a wealthy family renowned for their generous philanthropic initiatives. Bridging resources to disenfranchised communities could be highly valued in their lives and integrated into the family’s assets such as foundations, centers, nonprofits, and any other institution that facilitates their philanthropic vision. Thus, such individuals might be raised with bridging not only as an altruistic practice, but a social justice responsibility.
On the other hand, an organic bridge person may not have grown up in an environment where an institutionalized understanding of altruism and philanthropy is the norm. However, they may possess wisdom and localized knowledge about community resources that can be shared with the rest of the community, thus making them by default into organic bridges between community assets and community needs.
This subtle difference in the development of someone as a bridge is shaped by life experiences and informs our understanding and practice of bridging. Guajardo’s work as an educator in South Texas public schools has earned him a national recognition as a bridge person who connects low income youth with higher education opportunities. He emigrated from México at a young age and grew up in the Rio Grande Valley as the son of immigrant farmworkers. His life experiences help him intimately understand the reality of many South Texas youth—a reality plagued with despair for most traditional educators, but one abundant in resiliency and hope for Guajardo. In education, Guajardo saw opportunities not only for himself, but for many like him. These were opportunities his father, Don Angel Guajardo, pointed out to him as a child. Guajardo recounts occasions when Don Angel would stop in the street to formally introduce him to local teachers, stressing the importance of their role in the development and preservation of the community. Don Angel also shared with young Guajardo the story of Pablito, a young Mexican man who left his small rural community to attend university in the city and become a teacher, but always with the intention to return to his community and teach. Don Angel is an organic bridge. He was not ‘tailored’ in the practice of bridging educational opportunities (attending university), community assets (teachers and local success stories), and community members (his children), but he did bridge these apparently separate worlds because he possessed what Guajardo calls ‘organic knowledge’ about all of them. As Don Angel says, “el fue a la mejor universidad, la universidad de la vida” (he went to the best university, the university of life).
It is precisely this knowledge that Don Angel bequeathed to Guajardo (much as a wealthy family leaves a monetary inheritance to their heirs) that informed Guajardo’s understanding of bridging worlds. The disparities in college access for Latino youth that Guajardo experienced firsthand during his undergraduate career at the University of Texas at Austin further encouraged him to return to his small rural community of Elsa, Texas, with the intention to teach. Although a college degree is considered a ticket out of small rural areas with few economic opportunities, Don Angel’s words, local teachers who served as role models, and Pablito’s story resounded strongly in Guajardo’s conscience.
“It is intentionality, purpose, and consciousness,” that sets bridge people apart, said Guajardo. “It is about how one can be effective about bringing people together, and creating new opportunities.”
And it is easy to see how with such clarity of purpose in life, Guajardo made the intentional decision to return to Edcouch-Elsa High School, his alma mater, to bridge the world of higher education with his community. What better way to do this work than to begin by asking students in one of his English classes about their college plans? While some students planned to attend the local university or community college, very few dared to venture outside of South Texas. Delia Perez was amongst the few students planning to attend U.T. Austin. Yet Guajardo challenged everyone in class: “What about the Ivy League universities in the East Coast? Brown? Harvard? Yale? Columbia? MIT?”
Guajardo’s question was loaded with opportunities, and the students eagerly decided to organize the first East Coast Ivy League Trip. While Guajardo raised small donations from alumni/ae, Delia and other students wrote grant proposals, held garage sales, organized car washes, and operated a daily breakfast bar where they sold tacos, fruit, pan dulce, and juice—edibles donated and prepared by their parents. The school district supplied funds to cover gas for a 12-passenger van that a group of ten students, Guajardo, and his wife, drove northeast during the spring break of 1992.
The college trip Delia and her peers organized was the first in what is now an annual trip the local school district has institutionalized. Since then, more than 60 students have gone and graduated from Ivy League colleges, many more have attended equally renowned institutions of higher education across the country and abroad, and the local high school has created a Peer Advisory Center to help local students with the college application process. As a result of that trip, Delia attended Yale University and, with the same intention as Guajardo, returned to Edcouch-Elsa to teach.
According to Guajardo, “because of the organic reservoir of knowledge that we have, we can nurture others into becoming bridges.” However, in order for others to emerge as bridges, we need to create “conditions of intentionality, tolerance about difference, and creativity.” Both Guajardo and Delia intentionally returned to their community with the purpose to share the knowledge they had acquired, and to imagine and create new opportunities. Guajardo says that creativity plays an important role because the practice of bridging is a lot “about the imagination—about using diverse approaches, about having courage and venturing into the unknown.”
Most important, they understood this work cannot be accomplished without rooting it in community. From its conception, the work of the Llano Grande Center has focused on the personal and collective stories of the community and its members. In fact, Llano Grande began as an oral history project that would document the history of Edcouch-Elsa via the stories of our elders. Young community members, often the grandchildren of the interviewees, were in charge of documenting the oral histories. The oral history method has transitioned into digital storytelling, with youth creating videos documenting community stories.
Now youth-led programs at the Llano Grande Center involve the creation of digital media, intergenerational work, and higher education opportunities. For example, last year the local school district requested the help of Llano Grande youth with the creation of an informational video about a bond loan the district wanted to pursue, but first needed the approval of the local community. Llano Grande youth produced a video that informed community members of the process and the responsibility of bond loans. The community voted in favor of the bond, and the district was able to obtain more than $21 million towards the improvement of local schools.
Further bridging politics and community members, Llano Grande youth organize an annual Candidates Forum. Open to the public, the forum invites local political hopefuls to answer questions from the community. 2008 will be its fourth year. Llano Grande youth were also the driving force behind a grant the City of Elsa received to renovate the local Mario Leal Park. Youth met with city officials to discuss the use of the funds and held workshops with the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, to imagine the new design for the park.
Beyond bridging worlds through projects, Llano Grande has incorporated digital storytelling into the classroom. All students in Edcouch-Elsa High School can enroll in one of two Social Research Methods classes taught by Llano Grande staff. The classes focus on learning about and documenting local history via student-produced personal digital stories. Currently, students are learning about environmental issues by researching the history of the Red Barn Chemical Plant in Elsa, and the adverse health effects on residents near the site where it once operated.
All this important work has been facilitated by the “intentionality, consciousness, and purpose” of bridge people and the “condition of creativity.” Guajardo, Delia, and the folks at Llano Grande approach their work with the intention to create positive change in our community, and from a middle point between organic and traditional bridging. As Guajardo says, “because we live in the margins, yet we have been part of the institution, the work of Llano Grande carves its own place in the middle.”
Those of us who have been part of the work of the Llano Grande Center do not focus on the development of one single bridge (or a single bridge person) with one single direction. Instead, we nourish many bridges headed in diverse directions, but always with return paths. The bridges we construct begin with ourselves, with our community. We use our community as the main resource, and it is here that we find the resiliency to take on opportunities and, by the same token, to further the opportunities we bridge to the community. Currently, the entire Llano Grande staff are Edcouch-Elsa High School graduates who went away for college and graduate school and chose to return. This is the result of the two-way bridges that each of us has built, which, regardless of distance or direction, have always brought us back to our community.
*Antonio Gramsci, 1891-1937, Italian writer, politician, and political theorist.
Original CAN/API publication: April 2008