Opening the door to opportunity

As an instructor and student member of the UW’s Race & Equity Initiative steering committee, Ph.D. candidate Gonzalo Guzman is tackling injustice from K–12 to college.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to do equity work, but we have to. We shouldn’t wait for someone to give us the opportunity to create change — we have to make our own opportunities because this is the work that needs to be done.

Be a world of good

When Gonzalo Guzman was a young boy in Wapato, Washington, scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians of color would stand proudly at the front of his classroom and proclaim to the students that they, too, could have a future as a chemist or a coder.

It was encouraging, says Guzman, but in some ways, limiting.

“Higher education was pretty much only promoted as a STEM endeavor,” he says. “I never had a historian or a sociologist — or anyone from the humanities who was of color — come to my school and say ‘Hey, you can do this.’”

For Guzman, there was a divide; a prescribed path for him based on the color of his skin.

So when he came to the UW as an engineering major and realized STEM wasn’t the only pipeline for him, he knew he had to make sure that young students of color everywhere knew they could be whatever they wanted to be, too. He worked toward his bachelors in history and Latin American studies at the UW, and, inspired by his teachers and the McNair Program, went on to earn a masters of education in social and cultural foundations. Now, he’s working toward his Ph.D. in the same field, focusing on equity and opportunity in schools.


As a student member of the Race & Equity Initiative Steering Committee, he listens to the concerns on campus when it comes to making the UW a more diverse and equitable place. As an instructor, he’s partnering with the Pipeline Project to address those concerns far before college-aged years through a mixed-enrollment seminar called “Race, Racism & Child Development.”

Issues of racism and equity are happening all around us, and the University is making a commitment and saying these issues are important. That alone opens up a platform for students, faculty and staff to enter that space and speak up. As part of the Race & Equity Initiative Steering Committee, I want to make sure the UW sets an example.

The course was inspired by Guzman’s wife and fellow alum, Danielle, through the detracking efforts she and her co-teacher spearheaded at Leschi Elementary School in Seattle’s Central District. Detracking happens when students are intentionally placed into mixed-ability classrooms, as opposed to classrooms based on academic standing or ability — a move that’s typically reserved for secondary education.

Leschi housed two classroom tracks: contemporary and Montessori. “Contemporary was where you had all the special education students, all the bilingual students, most of the immigrant students, and the free and reduced lunch students — and most of these students were of color, particularly black and Latino,” says Guzman. “Montessori was the opposite. It was a contrasting mirror of affluent students, mostly white. You’d walk down the hallway and one classroom would be students of color, and the other would be white. Even the curriculum was different.”

The divide was glaringly obvious, and the segregation, though unintentional, was a problem that needed to be addressed immediately. So Danielle — who taught contemporary — and a Montessori teacher, did something about it: they integrated their classrooms as part of a pilot program.

“It worked,” says Guzman. A year later, the entire school adopted the model. The curricula were integrated, the students were integrated, and as a result, both contemporary and Montessori had lost their once-segregated identities — but that didn’t necessarily mean the culture had completely changed. That’s when Guzman came in. “There needed to be a true cultural integration, where teachers and community members were all working together to make sure this school is actually changing and evolving in deeper ways,” he says.

And so the UW’s “Race, Racism & Child Development” seminar was born. In Guzman’s course, co-taught by Danielle, practitioners from Leschi — from teachers to social workers to leadership — pair with undergraduates to talk honestly about the real issues at hand. And the movement’s only growing, from PTA-hosted forums in the Central District to expanded seminar offerings on campus and at Leschi.

“We’re building off the equity work the community was doing, but we’re also building off my expertise in racial work and education from a larger historical level,” says Guzman. “For me, progress in education looks like teachers at Leschi utilizing the work they do with us in practice at the UW — actually changing the curriculum and implementing activities and assignments where issues of the students’ race is coming through as opposed to just talking about it.”