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Civil Union

By Ajay Singh, Photos by Lisa Wyatt

Published Apr 1, 2009 10:00 AM

UCLA's Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derecho Civiles is directed by a married couple looking to erase inequalities in American society.



Some 20 years ago, when Gary Orfield was a professor of political science and education at the University of Chicago, he traveled to Sacramento to testify before a legislative body. After the exercise was over, Orfield realized he was running late for his flight back home and began looking frantically for a cab.

As luck — and fate — would have it, a female academic acquaintance offered to drive him to the airport. "Gary, I've never missed a plane in my life," she shouted. "Get in my car!"

Orfield recalls reaching the airport "terrifyingly early." And although he jokingly dismisses the suggestion that it was a "life-transforming experience," the ride did set in motion a series of encounters he would have with the speed-racing driver who would become his partner in scholarship and in marriage, Patricia Gándara '69, Ph.D. '79.

In subsequent years, their paths crossed when Gándara was a visiting scholar at Harvard's Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, co-founded by Orfield in 1996. They married in 2006 and a year later, the duo moved with the project to UCLA. It has been housed at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies since 2007.

Although there's no dearth of scholarly couples in academia, it's unusual to see a husband-wife team that leads a notable institution with the kind of missionary zeal that Orfield and Gándara bring to their job. They often marvel at how similar their cultural tastes and values are — despite their different backgrounds. As Orfield puts it: "When you think about it, a Chicana from Los Angeles and a Norwegian American from Minneapolis would have a very different culture." Yet the duo shares a deep intellectual — and cultural — affinity. They have devoted the better part of their lives — and almost all their activist scholarship — to one of the most important social causes of our time: narrowing America's racial and educational inequalities.

Orfield first got involved in heady political issues in the 1960s, as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, where he successfully led a campaign to oppose an increase in student fees. He also plunged into the civil rights movement, whose forceful images are still fresh in his mind. During a 1978 visit to Los Angeles, he was struck by the plight of the city's large Latino underclass. "I realized that a huge demographic and cultural transformation in American society was under way, and I didn't understand it," he recalls.

So in the summer of 1980, Orfield lived in Cuernavaca, determined to learn Spanish in the Mexican city where the renowned Austrian philosopher, priest and social critic Ivan Illich once lived. "I figured you can't really understand the United States without understanding its interaction with Mexico," he explained one recent afternoon in his and Gándara's cozy, book-lined condo in Westwood.

That insight came naturally for Gándara, who has firsthand experience of what it's like to grow up Latino in America. Coming from a Mexican family in Long Beach, she saw her brother drop out of high school because his English skills were weak, a family challenge that had a lasting impact on the young academic. "He had a very good education in Mexico, but when he came here it was totally discounted," she recalls. "He was viewed as just a Mexican." Later, Gándara joined the César Chávez movement and was one of its many activists who were jailed for their work.

Since then, she has built a career as a renowned scholar and researcher on educational equity and access for low-income and ethnic minority students, language policy, and the education of Mexican-origin youth. In addition to her scholarship, the multitalented Gándara has served as a bilingual school psychologist, director of education research for the California Assembly, and a social scientist at the RAND Corporation.

She has just completed a study (with Russell Rumberger) titled "Resource Needs for California's English Learners," as part of the statewide adequacy project funded by four major foundations. She is the author of numerous articles and several books, including the recently released The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies, co-authored with the University of Washington's Frances Contreras from Harvard University Press.

Gándara and Orfield are now collaborating on several new research grants, including an initiative funded by the Ford Foundation and called "Breaking the Chain of Failure: Moving from Weak High Schools to Strong Community Colleges for Students of Color." Another major effort, funded by the Eleanor Foundation of Chicago, is titled, "The Future Rests on Working Moms: Unequal Opportunity and Policies to Help Them Realize Their Dreams for Their Children."

But the two esteemed scholars are also teamed up in the classroom itself, co-teaching an undergraduate course titled, "Equal Rights and Unequal Education: The American Dilemma."

Because Gándara is trained in psychology and Orfield in political science, they bring different perspectives to the course, thereby minimizing the possibility of fractious debate. And even though they speak in turns, there is no shortage of competition between them.

"I have to fight for my space," says Gándara.

"Oh," counters Orfield. "Likewise!"