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Stories from Sacramento

Affirmative Action Means Equal Opportunity

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

University of California, Los Angeles students rally against threatened cuts to affirmative action. Unity photo by Michael Lichter.
University of California, Los Angeles students rally against threatened cuts to affirmative action. Unity photo by Michael Lichter.
What would it have been like for you and your family without affirmative action?

J.Felix De La Toree, state policy analyst; Lisa M.Franco, law student; Carl Pinkston, accountant; Karen Massie, television reporter; Steven Ybarra, lawyer-- all give impassioned, unqualified answers. Thanks to the Sacramento News & Review, here are five short stories of real people whose lives were touched and enhanced by affirmative action, and whose poor, under-represented communities are served-in small ways by expanded opportunity.

J. Felix De La Toree
J.Felix De La Toree works for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He is a state policy analyst.

Without a doubt, if it weren't for affirmative action and access to higher education it provided me, I would today be working as a laborer in a lumber mill in Northern California.

High school did not prepare me for college. I graduated from a high school system that seemed to believe I was predestined to toil alongside my father in the lumber mill that employed half the town's residents. During my four years of high school, I never met with a career counselor to discuss attending college. Nor did my friends who, like me, were Latino. I left high school for the U.S. Air Force with the belief that college was for others, not a place for Latinos. Four years later, after leaving the Air Force, I went to college. With the help of my veterans benefits I was able to
afford a fast-rising college tuition. However, it was affirmative action that provided me with the access into college.

I feel no shame in being a benefactor of affirmative action. While it may have been affirmative action that helped me get into school, it was I who took the tests, read the books and wrote the papers. Affirmative action only got me into college; I got myself through it.

Lisa M. Franco
Lisa M. Franco is a law student at University of California, Davis King Hall of the School of Law. She is a legal intern with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Affirmative action has affected my life tremendously. Without it, I would be laboring in a small northern town at two different jobs while receiving minimum wages and wondering if I would ever have enough money to put my kids through college.

Despite the influence of poverty, racism and social constraints, I have entered an education system in which people of color have been denied access for generations. I have seen a tendency for people of color in the law to return to their communities and provide legal services to people who would not otherwise receive them. Affirmative action held the door open for me. But I am scared (after the U.C. Regents repealed affirmative action) at the thought of people of color not having access to higher education. Who else will come to our communities, teach us our rights and fight for us when we have been wronged?

Carl Pinkston
Carl Pinkston runs his own accounting business, and he is a 40-year-old accountant for a Sacramento legal transcription firm.

My mother was a single mom raising five kids on AFDC and working part-time jobs. My world was one of living in a depressed community of color, where the military and crime were the only possible employment opportunities. Most of my relatives were laborers or maids for rich families. The notion of becoming a doctor, lawyer or an accountant was not in the realm of my thinking.

If Governor Wilson's executive order banning affirmative action had been issued in the 1970s, the student employment program for people of color and women at the State Water Resources Department would not exist.

I was hired under the student affirmative action program to work in the economic department compiling statistical information. I was the only Black person in the central district office in the '70s. But it was at this agency where I learned that one can be an economist, geologist, engineer. manager,
and yes, an accountant. Those experiences and knowledge provided an opportunity for me to pursue a career as an accountant.

My fear today is that my daughter will be robbed of an opportunity to excel in life.

Karen Massie
Karen Massie is a general assignment reporter at KXTV, Channel 10.

I don't think I would be working in the news business today if it weren't for affirmative action. I got my first job at a radio station in Dayton, Ohio because another Black woman left. The woman I replaced had been the only Black person on the air, and then I was the only Black person on the air.

Had it not been for affirmative action and the feminist movement in the late '60s. Most woman in broadcast would be secretaries or nothing. When they finally let women in, you did weather or feature stories. People didn't think of women - let alone Black women - could give them the news.

It's still not equitable. Women don't get equal pay. And in broadcast, once a woman reaches the age of 40 you're not going to find her behind the anchor desk. We're still fighting a battle in all the newsrooms across America. Women and minorities are usually not the ones in charge, and we have to be in charge to be able to hire people who look like us.

All we're asking for is opportunity. Once we get there, we have to prove ourselves, just like anybody else.

Steven Ybarra
Steven Ybarra graduated from Hastings College of Law and was the first Native Californian of Mexican descent to hold the post of deputy secretary. He is a civil rights practitioner and teacher.

My father, a railroad foreman. Always said he wanted a laywer in the family. But there was a problem: since I had worked all throughout my college career to support my wife and children. My grades were not the best.

But fortunately for me, and others like me, affirmative action programs were in place. I was selected to join four other Mexican American students as the first affirmative action class of Hastings College of Law, the oldest U.C. law schooI. After graduation I joined the Jerry Brown ad- ministration and held the post of deputy secretary. I retired to teach at the community college level. Now I privately tutor students with learning disabilities and live in the Sacramento Valley.

Beneficiaries of affirmative action don't enter college or graduate school with silver spoons in their suitcases. They study the books, take all the tests, do the work, and their humble communities are eventually served by the results. Affirmative action simply means equal opportunity.

Paul Rockwell, formerly assistant professor of philosophy at Midwestern University, is a writer and children's librarian in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 8, 1997.