The Bilingual Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Below I share some preliminary notes on a chapter I am working on for my book project examining the ways that the institutionalization and professionalization of bilingual education in the post-Civil Rights era served to maintain racial hierarchies. One dimension that I will be exploring is the role of federal and philanthropic funds in supporting this process of political incorporation. You can get more information on the issues described below in a report based on my research at the Rockefeller Archive Center that explores the role of the Ford Foundation in moderating Latinx community demands for bilingual education in ways that maintained the white supremacist and capitalist status quo.

In July of 1969 the Board of the recently created Southwest Council of La Raza (SWCLR) had a meeting about whether to change their priorities. In their one year of operation they had primarily supported local grassroots struggles focused on improving the lives of Mexican Americans with one of their primary focuses being to support struggles for bilingual education. Yet, supporting these grassroot political struggles had often put them into conflict with the Ford Foundation, who was their primary funder. The Foundation was pressuring the SWCLR to move away from supporting grassroots political struggles. The meeting was tense and became heated as board members debated whether to comply with the Foundations request or risk losing their funding with the Board reluctantly agreeing to the request leading radical members of the Board to resign. Their resignation alongside a $1.3 million-dollar grant from the Ford Foundation led the organization to rebrand itself as a professional advocacy organization known as the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) far removed from its grassroots origins.

The pressure put on the SWCLR by the Ford Foundation connects to the broader role that philanthropic organizations played in moving racialized communities away from militancy and toward professionalized forms of advocacy within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. In the case of the Latinx community, the Ford Foundation supported these efforts through funding the creation of professional organizations, supporting the creation of ethnic studies programs and supporting bilingual education and other educational innovations that promised to improve educational outcomes for Latinx students.

The biggest Foundation support for bilingual education was in the American Southwest with the bulk of this funding being funneled through the Southwest Council of La Raza (SWCLR).  SWCLR’s decentralized model provided space for radical activists to gain leadership roles within the organization and use the funding available to support militant political action against the white establishment. These political actions led the Foundation to be accused of funding militant extremists. Most contentious was the SWCLR’s decision to subcontract funds to the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). MAYO’s primary focus for community organizing work was challenging what they believed to be the educational genocide occurring within San Antonio area public schools with a major priority being abolishment English-Only school policies and advocating for bilingual education. MAYO’s confrontational tactics were condemned by mainstream white and Mexican American politicians, most notably Congressman Henry González who openly condemned MAYO on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The Foundation found itself increasingly under pressure and, in turn, placed pressure on the SWCLR to reign in MAYO and other radical elements connected to the organization. One way that it sought to do this was through imposing stricter rules on SWCLR that mandated the organization to divert its efforts away from community organizing and advocacy toward the development of “hard programs” with measurable objectives that would be pre-approved by the Foundation. As SWCLR began to adopt this new “hard program” approach it also sought to expand its efforts beyond the American Southwest by becoming a national organization focused on advocating for Mexican Americans across the country. This led the organization leaders to change the name to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and gradually shift its focus toward serving as a professional liaison to federal government agencies and corporations primarily through the release of public statements on pending legislation and through a focus on business projects within Latinx communities. As it relates to bilingual education, a great deal of NCLR’s efforts focused on compiling research related to best practices along with federal policy analysis intended to inform and persuade lawmakers on issues related to bilingual education.

 In short, while having experienced a few road bumps on the way, the Ford Foundation achieved its overall objective in serving as a moderating force in the American Southwest. It did this by first providing funds to Mexican American leaders who were seen as more moderate to fund the SWCLR. When these leaders used funds to support controversial grassroots political action, the Foundation used its funding as leverage to change the direction of the SWCLR and its subsidiaries away from supporting grassroots community organizing toward supporting professional advocacy work focused on technical expertise. In the case of bilingual education, this led to a movement away from local community-led work focused on dismantling the racist structures and practices of schools as part of broader efforts to dismantle the white power structure toward a focus on sharing professional expertise about the value of bilingual education with a particular focus on federal level policy. More radical elements of the Mexican American movement found other avenues for entering into local community work primarily through electoral politics. Neither of these tactics were particularly successful with most of the most prominent Mexican American activists absorbed into the Democratic Party by the 1980s just as bilingual education began to be systematically dismantled with the rise of the Ronald Regan presidency.

This points to a catch-22 that confronted many Latinx activists working to promote bilingual education within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. On the one hand, financial support provided necessary resources that could be used to mobilize communities in support of bilingual education and other policies that will have a meaningful impact on their lives. On the other hand, accepting this financial support came with certain strings attached that pushed activists to compromise in ways that they felt were politically necessary if not necessarily philosophically aligned with their true vision of bilingual education. Reliance on federal and philanthropic funds led advocacy work focused on bilingual education to become divorced from grassroots political struggles through its professionalization. The result was the emergence of a cadre of primarily Latinx professionals charged with advocating for and implementing bilingual education programs. The ascendancy of this new professional class occurred alongside the ascendency of neoliberalism as the structuring logic of the global political and economic order and, in turn, the structuring logic of educational reform in the United States. The bilingual revolution had become neoliberalized.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s