Students of color in UConn’s Neag School of Education are fortunate that their predecessors established an organization called Leadership in Diversity.
Almost five years ago, students formed the group to build a support system for future teachers of color at the university. It’s a mentoring program intended to give students the tools and networks that will enable them to succeed in their careers as educators.
The organization recently held its third annual conference on the Storrs campus, and two Alma Exley Scholars were presenters. Justis Lopez (whom we honored in 2015) and Orlando Valentin Jr. (2016) shared their experience and insights at the meeting. Attending, in addition to UConn students, were high school students, students from other universities, teachers, administrators and Neag faculty members.
Valentin, in his second year as a fourth grade teacher at Pulaski School in Meriden, led an interactive workshop on the topic strategies for community building. He talked about the importance of fostering positive relationships across various communities in order to be an effective educator and, more important, a caring human. He sought to give the future teachers the resources and strategies that will enable them to build rapport across various communities from the classroom to the school, families and the community.
“Fostering positive relationships across numerous communities can have a lasting impact on students for generations to come,” he said, “and can break vicious cycles set in place by various institutions.”
Lopez returned to UConn from the Bronx, where he is teaching social studies at Urban Assembly School of Applied Math and Science. His topic was “shifting the systematic paradigm through the open mic movement in education.”
Lopez is a pioneer in the open mic movement. Once a week, during a free period, students gather in Lopez’s classroom to express themselves at a microphone by telling stories, reciting poems, rapping, or singing songs. In the event at UConn, he led the students in participating in a mock open-mic program. Joining Lopez were several students from Manchester High School, where he introduced the program in his first two years of teaching before moving to the Bronx.
Afterwards, he drove to Eastern Connecticut State University, where he introduced more future teachers to the open mic concept.
Valentin said he wanted to support the program because it had been so helpful to him as an undergraduate. He was one of the group’s first members when it was formed in 20xx. An especially helpful activity, he said, was the Mentor Dinner that he attended while working on his master’s degree. At the dinner, he was matched with Tyrone Richardson, principal of Betances STEM School in Hartford. “I’m grateful that the program gave me the opportunity to spend quality time with an outstanding educator,” he said. “Leadership in Diversity continues to provide a strong foundation for future teachers of color.”