“Giving Others a Voice,” with Dr. Julieta Altamirano-Crosby

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories that have universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and this is my producer Kyle. Say hi, Kyle.

Kyle Brown: Hi, Kyle.

Amanda: This episode, we spoke with Dr. Julieta Altamirano-Crosby. She works both in Washington state and Guerrero, Mexico, with bicultural students who have barriers to education, creating better pathways to opportunity for all. Have you ever felt you didn’t have a voice? Do you want to give a voice to others? Then this is the episode for you.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby has a master’s degree in communication science and a PhD in social communication. She recently added a master’s in educational leadership from Seattle Pacific University in 2018.

She was born and raised in Guerrero, Mexico, and has a long track record of collaboration and relationship-building in education and government settings, to break down discrimination, increase accessibility to education, and spread cultural awareness.

This is a fight she understands on a very personal level. She came to the U.S. with limited English and was devastated by her inability to help her daughter in school. But once she improved her English skills, she became an advocate for others without a voice. Her work is centered on the belief that a person’s identity and growth are closely tied to their understanding and appreciation of culture and language. Julieta, thanks for joining us today.

Dr. Julieta Altamirano-Crosby: Thank you. Thanks for having me here. It is an honor. Thank you.

Amanda: Well, you are a wonderful person to be around, let me just say. If you’re listening to this and you haven’t met Julieta in person, go find a time to meet her in person.

As with most people we interview around here, you book someone to come and speak because of what they’ve done, but then you find you love their story because of who they are. So I just wanted to give you that compliment here on the air. I know that you’ve always wanted to give a voice to those who don’t have a way to advocate for themselves. So let’s start with the beginning of your story. Let’s start by talking about how you started your career and the work that you were doing in Mexico.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: How I started my career … well, I was born and raised in Mexico, in Guerrero State, and I came here 10 years ago with no language skills. And for two years, while I didn’t have voice, I have to enroll myself in the Everett Community College to take ELL classes and I started in Level 3. It was painful. I finished and accomplish the ELL classes in Level 6.

But thankfully, during those times, I find out many good people around and one of those peoples told me, “Hey, you looking for a job? They are hiring right now in this agency to be an interpreter.” So, I did that, and then I started to work as an interpreter doing social and medical.

I think that we, as humans, we have to give back. And talking about when I came here with no language skills, that was a learning experience, too. And I think that made me feel more vulnerable and humble, and give me the opportunity to rethink. It’s like “Okay, if I came here with the level of education as a PhD and I don’t know how to navigate it in the school system, how to connect with the rest of the people, I wondered how the rest of parents that don’t have the level of education, how they do that. After being an interpreter, I started working with the Mukilteo School District as a parent liaison, but Horizon High School has 68% Latino students. They have one person (by then, part time) and they only speak Spanish. I didn’t have a magic power right there, but I did what I did.

“I think that we, as humans, we have to give back.”

Amanda: So you came to the United States with a PhD, but without language skills, and trying to navigate the school system and get your daughter through the school system was very painful and very difficult. And so then once you had the language skills, you decided you were going give back and help others who are in the same position. So you took a part-time job at Horizon High School, 68% Spanish speaking, and yet one part-time person that’s supposed to be helping these families navigate their way through school. I just, I just wanted to point out that statistic because I don’t even think every high school even has anyone, to help in that scenario, and how big that problem is, how big that divide is.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Well, it’s still and I remembered by then, am going to go back a little bit, when I came, the most important thing is the education of my daughter, right? And I think that every family and with teachers, we have a common sense and common goal. They have successful students, successful kids. But unfortunately, when we come in from different cultural backgrounds, some end-goals we are not able to accomplish. For example, my day by day since I arrived to this country for six months, I drove every day to my daughter’s school, open the door, and see the person who attended in the office. We look at each other with no communication and I closed the door, go back to my car, and smash the wheel and start crying and feel vulnerable, always frustrated. And the next day I did the same. Of course, after six months doing the same behavior, the person maybe one day they look at me, “Ah, the crazy Latina come in again.”

Amanda: Right? Oh no, she’s back.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Yeah. Then I started to acknowledge. I mean this is a different world. Right? And, then taking classes at Everett Community College, I met different people there. Then I start to identify that, unfortunately those families, they don’t have the level of education. And then I started to like acknowledge, wow, I mean if I’m not able to communicate…  Everybody wants to advocate for their kids, but they don’t have the language skills. They don’t have the education, they don’t have the self-esteem, they don’t have the security themselves. And you can add everything that you want to.

And, of course, you feel worthless, small, and you don’t want to go to the school because you feel worthless. It’s not because you don’t want to connect and you don’t care about the education of your kids. It’s because it’s not that welcoming of an environment or something. Right?

Amanda: I have two of my own kids; one’s about to be a senior in high school and one’s a student here at SPU. And I know how frustrating it is when your child is struggling or when you’re struggling with this situation, and you can’t seem to find a way through, and I think every parent has gone through that.

And yet I speak English and like you said, and I have an education,  and I know I can go to people and ask for help. How unbelievably frustrating. And like you said, how vulnerable it is when all you want to do is help your child, and you don’t know what else to do.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: And till now I think they, I failed because I wasn’t able to know 100% what the students need in order to go to college. For example, I realize about all these things, the FAFSA, all the tests they do, if I would have known by then in middle school when my daughter was in, the middle school, in the beginning, if I would have known what I know now, I would go to the counselor and say, “Hey, let’s do a plan for my daughter, and I want to create a pathway.” Right? Because now I know that the key person that has more connection with the families is the counselor. So I think that I fail because I wouldn’t do better for my daughter and was unable to find a mentor or something for her to do the tests.

Amanda: It’s so hard when you don’t know what you don’t know. I remember once you told me that simply translating doesn’t always help either. You had mentioned to me about a parent-teacher conference, and how when you translated the word conference, you thought of it as like a work conference where you go in a class in a big room and you sit and you learn from someone in the front, and you thought, “Well, I’m not going to understand them anyway. I’m not going to go to that.” Instead of what a parent teacher conferences is, which is a one-on-one with your child’s teacher.

And it just boggles my mind when you, realize how deep the divide is, and how often those even who are trying to help don’t even realize, you know, where those gaps are, which is how you ended up at SPU. Right? Because just making sure I have all the details right. So you were doing research for the Archdiocese of Seattle and for the Mukilteo School District and several others doing work to again, help bridge this gap and help prove what’s actually going to be helpful in the daily lives of families. And then you came across a professor from SPU.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Yes. Working with the Archdiocese of Seattle as a director of Latino enrollment of the 74 Catholic schools was an amazing experience. I learned a lot. Number one, know 100% this system and different system between private sector and public sector and build relationships across the state, across with leaders, you know, and know every single one.

So when I was working for the Archdiocese of Seattle, I have the fortune to know and meet Dr. John Thoburn. He is amazing. He is my mentor, and he invited me to talk during his classes. He’s an expert in family engagement … that’s what he teach. And I talk with all these teachers that want to be principals. And after that, he contacted me and invited me to be in a corporate center in the WERA, which is Washington Education Resource Association, that’s once a year and I was really like–no words like, that invitation.

Really. You invite me to be in a corporate center. I mean, I was … unbelievable so it was, for me, and I said, “Well, I want to make sure it only to share with you that I’m no longer working as a director of the Latino enrollment.” In Mexico, when you have no huge title, you are nobody. Right? Like I want to make sure that he acknowledged this. And he said, “Yes, that’s fine.” So in 2016, that was the first time that I was at the corporate center with him. And then we did again in the 2017 and 2018, and then 2016, he asked me what was my idea or goal to being accomplish. I said, “I don’t know” and then he said, “Well, I’m no advertise the SPU, but I want to share with you about the administrator certification program and also the master’s in educational leadership.” So was I really down to do that.

Amanda: Well, we’re very thankful you joined our community. So now you’re serving as the president and founder of your WAGRO Foundation. So I want to talk about that. But then I also want to talk about the Snohomish County Commission for Human Rights and a number of the other boards and committees that you now sit on. So before we get to the boards, let’s talk about your WAGRO  and the work that they’re doing.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Okay, well WAGRO Foundation, it started in 2012, and I never tried to come in this country to start a nonprofit or to be named to a lot of committees. It was like circumstantial how they appears because when I started to acknowledge all the difficulties that our community passed through, I started to get insights and have focus groups and I started to go outside the schools. Back then, I didn’t even know about the rules and I broke those. I didn’t know everything has to be good policies and go on regulations and talk to the principal to talk with the students. Right? Or the families.

“…when I started to acknowledge all the difficulties that our community passed through, I started to get insights and have focus groups and I started to go outside the schools.”

So anyway, we develop programs according with the needs. And then my husband and I, we started WAGRO, which is Washington-Guerrero. We put that name because I live in Washington and I’m from Guerrero state, and we are focused on education 100%. Education, for me, is everything.

It’s not only about the schools, it is what to learn every day because when we come in from different countries, I mean even though that you drive, you have to go and take classes to get your license, so that you can educate yourself, and if you are going to enroll your child in the school you have to know what is PTA, PTO, and all the acronyms. They, nobody explained it to you.

And so, yes, educate yourself every day. In science, we are focused in growing self-esteem with the kids, summer camps through NASA and NSP through University of Washington since last year, and this year we accomplished three summer camps. So overall, what we do is connect with our roots and don’t lose our identity and language and adapt ourselves.

But WAGRO is amazing. We work on partnerships with different organizations across the state, the country, and Mexico. In Mexico, we are focused on kids with disabilities.

And we have amazing volunteers. We travel over there like every three months for three years to try to blend in the education, especially education system, of the United States with Mexico. So want the schools over there and see what can they open the doors for us, in order to be able to learn together.

And we work with the community, bring awareness, and we did a lot of community events, and expose those students [with disabilities] to different events, cultural events, musical events because Mexico, in the words of the experts there, they said Mexico is behind around like 20 years and the system over there, you don’t see many kids outside. So it’s the stigma is still right. If you have a child with disability, you keep in your home. In that particular school that we started, they were only 55 kids.

They are only 55 kids, and all across that area to have that but is, and that is school particular, they hold kids from 0 years old to 21 years old. So if they are blind or whatever disability, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, they are there together, so it’s a learning process and I was in shock and impact, but we developed appropriate programs, and I think for the teachers, they live here, and they were in different school districts that they weigh in as they’re learning about the culture, and they understand how sensitive topic it is, and being building empathy for the parents because before I had a lot that “Hey, the Latinos, they don’t care about education” as yes we do, but unfortunately there is no just the better appropriate family engagement plan.

Julieta Altamirano Crosby campaigning for city council

Amanda: But you are working on that?

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Day by day.

Amanda: You’ve won, and WAGRO has won some great awards. Spirit 105.3 gave you an award, and I know the county did, as well, and now you get to sit on a number of boards like the Snohomish County Commission for Human Rights.

Like you said, going sort of upstream to where the policy gets made. But the reason that I want to bring that up is because I think of my own self and so many of us, when you go through your most difficult time of life, you know, coming where you had a career, and a PhD, and kind of had the world by a string.

And then you come to the United States and go through such a hard time, and coming out the other side, I think so many people would have wanted to just put that behind them instead of continuously putting yourself in a place where you were still the only person who looks like you in the room and sort of fighting to be heard. And that there’s so much strength in that in continuing to put yourself in that position.

And so I just want to know for myself as a woman, as a mom, as an advocate, where does that fire come from? How do you keep putting yourself in that position to advocate for others?

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Well, my family, a family is my center, is my heart, and my soul, and my parents, they did a wonderful job with myself and with my brothers and always they developed values with us. They teach us, and they developed our self-esteem and security ourselves. So have right to an education. So I think that if I didn’t have a solid foundation and family with values, I wouldn’t be in a fire here, honestly.

And, then my husband always, he helped me go through because I remember when I was working as an interpreter, day before they, I go to school, even though I had the GPS, I was nervous. And so he dropped me one day before and said, “Hey, this is the school that you’re going to go tomorrow.” So a lot of patience, but believe me, don’t take me wrong, when I came here for six months, I was packing and unpacking, I was angry with everybody.

I was ready to fight with everybody because there’s like how you feel with anger inside, too. So, and then I acknowledged, and in Mexico we have one phrase, they say “renovarse o morir” it’s like renew yourself or die. I mean significance. If I renew as stated decision, they, okay, I live here and I have to go through, I have to let myself, I have to speak English, because otherwise I won’t be able to advocate for myself, or advocate for my daughter, communicate with everybody, and maybe perhaps get a better job, or something like that. And that as a means, okay, I stay what I am and I bring my child every day, and I don’t get involved in anything, and I decided renew myself.

“…in Mexico we have one phrase, they say ‘renovarse o morir,’ it’s like ‘renew yourself or die.'”

And many parents, they don’t have that courage, to do it, because they feel worthless and they don’t have that fire inside, or maybe they have it, but they don’t feel it strong, or they think that they don’t have the voice here, or they think they are nobody here.

So I think I have a solid foundation. That is what help me to go through with all this. And I was thinking always about my daughter and I always, want to be an example for her. And if I crossed the border and left all my family there and friends, and you are cut with your roots with everything, well at least make this stress worth it. And is what I maintain myself every day, you know, I mean, it’s like, no, I don’t want to be a loser, although I fail many times, but I learned.

And so, I remember my dad, and my mom, they are perfect examples for me, because my dad finished only the third year of elementary school and my mom finished the middle school. In fact, even though my dad finished that level, the elementary, he knocked doors and he doesn’t care either people answered or no, I mean, it’s like, okay, you knock doors. And if they say no, I mean, you don’t have anything, right? So if they say yes, it’s a win. So my mom did the same. So I think that is what made me do who I am right now.

Amanda: And I know you’re, you’re taking on another huge challenge as we speak. You’re running for Lynnwood City  Council, which is such a huge leap of faith and step out of your comfort zone. I don’t know about you. It’s such a huge step out of my comfort zone. We wish you well in all of your endeavors coming up here.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Thank you. It is a politics for me. That’s universal language, and then coming here and working and I know they have to be involved in a lot of committees and being part of that if we want to make difference, because I work in the level with the community and enjoyed that.

But your voice is there only and if you want to change the policies and all laws and different things to advocate, you have to sit down in that chair with the rest of the people in the cabinet level. And in many committees, I’m the only Latina and I learned a lot and well, talking about politics, I never thought to come in and run for city council. So there’s joy, learning experience. And I have a lot of friends that support me and my family, too.

But if you asked me that like 10 years ago, “Hey, what do you want to do?” I say, “Ah, neither of my dreams …”

Amanda: Happened. Is that right? God always has surprises for us?

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: God has a plan for everybody. And that’s the reason I put in God’s hands every single thing, because I didn’t plan.

Amanda: Well, let’s end with the same question I like to ask everyone. Obviously you, there’s something about you that is different because you’ve achieved a lot of things and been through a lot of things differently than the rest of us. So, from your experience, what is one thing that if everybody in Seattle got up tomorrow and did this one thing different, it would make Seattle a better place?

“God has a plan for everybody.”

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Consistency. And don’t hesitate to knock doors because sometimes they go, ‘Oh, what about if they say no?’ Well, how would they say obstinada? I say the word in Spanish.

Amanda: Stubborn.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Stubborn, yeah that’s just who I am. I never thought that was going to be a positive thing, but it is. And I learned that from my husband, not taking no for answer. I never put pressure on anybody. But just, I email everybody, and I think that is successful and always thinking about it, the what I talked to the community or the families, always I say the word you pass through the most difficult times, which is you cross the border. So that was a more horrible, difficult time. And you are here. So have the courage, to go and talk to people, find resources until they bring you an interpreter or something.

But we have to do that and we have to acknowledge that the worst scenario that happened is what you know. I mean, be present. At least the principals or whatever they’re going to see, Oh, this person again. So of course they care about it and be present.

Amanda: All right, so we’re going to think of your story. We’re going to renew ourselves and we’re going to be stubborn because we want to be more like you. Thank you for being with us and sharing your story today.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Thank you so much in, you know, in my journey, I can say that SPU honestly, changed my life. I find amazing people, a lot of support. Till now, that I’m not a student SPU anymore, but I bothered Dr. John every time. And Dr Prenevost and everybody, if I have questions, but everybody, they are very nice. And the environment here at SPU is amazing. Yes.

Amanda: Mm-hm, thank you so much.

Dr. Altamirano-Crosby: Thank you.

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