Champions of Change Blog

  • A Goal We Can Agree On: Keep Guns Out of the Wrong Hands

    James Johnson

    Chief Jim Johnson is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    For law enforcement, preventing gun violence is not a political or partisan issue; it is a grave matter of public safety. We know from experience that there is an urgent need to keep guns out of dangerous handsa goal everyone should be able to support.

    I am Chief of Police for Baltimore County, Maryland, and also Chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence (“the Partnership”). We are an alliance of nine national law enforcement leadership organizations working together to reduce gun crime against our citizens and our officers. The Partnership includes:

    • Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA);
    • Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA);
    • International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA);
    • International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP);
    • Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA);
    • National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE);
    • National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE);
    • Police Executive Research Forum (PERF); and
    • Police Foundation (PF).

    Every member of the Partnership agrees that public safety is served when gun sales involve a background check. For the last 20 years, the landmark Brady Law has required nationwide background checks for gun purchases through federally licensed firearm dealers. Unquestionably, this law has been a tremendous public safety success.

    The Brady Law focuses on a specific, critical goal—preventing gun sales to those not legally permitted to possess them, including criminals and the dangerously mentally ill. Since the Brady Law was enacted in 1994, background checks have stopped more than two million prohibited persons from buying firearms.  While there is no way to quantify how many lives have been saved since the law took effect, it is obvious that more than two million guns in the wrong hands is a recipe for more than two million disasters.

    But the Brady Law applies only when a sale occurs through a federally licensed dealer, and the fact is that up to 40 percent of firearm purchases occur between private parties where no background check is required under federal law. As we in law enforcement have been warning, that is tantamount to allowing 40 percent of passengers to board an airplane without undergoing any screening. The honor system would not work at airports and does not work when it comes to buying guns.

    As public safety professionals, we see daily the devastation caused by gun crime. Across America, gun violence claims more than 30 lives each day. Law enforcement officers not only risk their own lives to protect the public, they are increasingly the targets of gun violence. Ambushes of police have risen dramatically and were the leading cause of fatal shootings of officers for two years in a row, in 2012 and 2013. This cannot continue.

    We may not be able to eliminate all gun violence, but that shouldn’t mean we do nothing.

    I am honored to receive this recognition as a White House Champion of Change. Speaking out on solutions to the problem of gun violence is something I feel compelled to do as a public safety professional. To make my community and communities across the nation safer, I have been doing all I can to better inform the public debate and share law enforcement’s expertise with the public and policymakersin my own community, in Maryland, and nationally.

    All Americans, including our youngest citizens, should be able to grow up and fulfill their roles in the great human experience. None of us can fail them. We should take the obvious and reasonable step of requiring background checks for all sales. This is not just common senselives depend on it.

    Jim Johnson is the Chief of Police for Baltimore County, MD and Chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of nine national law enforcement leadership organizations concerned about the unacceptable level of gun violence in the U.S.

  • Bridging: Two Nations and Two Languages

    Armando Chavez

    Armando Chavez is being honored as a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change.

    As the principal of Columbus Elementary School, I have the honor of serving a diverse population that merits a leader who envisions greatness and provides an opportunity in which the students’ needs are seen as a priority.

    The majority of the students who attend our school are American citizens who live across the border in Mexico. I consider myself a service provider who is here to provide any type of resource to stakeholders in the school who are in need. The Deming Public School District plays an integral part in the vision of our school. Together, we foster positive attributes to receive the results we are looking for, both academically and personally. 

    Working with a dynamic staff who is as dedicated to the students as the administration is is essential. I could not accomplish one task without the support of a faculty who understands the larger picture of being supporters of a community who in turn depend on the school for leadership. Since the school is seen as the heart of the community, we must provide services above and beyond the status quo.

    Providing services for students who are poverty stricken must be in place in order to satisfy the basic needs of our students. We work in conjunction with programs such as the Roadrunner Backpack Program, Rio Grande Education Cooperative, and our after school program collaboratively funded by the county of Luna, City of Deming, and The Deming Public School District. These resources allow me to further enhance the educational setting for all students in our school. 

    Our area has difficulty communicating with families across the border. In some cases parents are not able to cross, but the child crosses to receive an appropriate education. Making families feel comfortable knowing their children are safe allows me to further build on the relationships needed to fully assist with our students’ progress. Initiating Skype conferences between both the parents and the school has helped us bridge the gap of communication. When parents need to discuss issues with teachers, a local business has volunteered their facilities to ensure this process can continue seamlessly.

    It is with great humility that I share my endeavors on the path of receiving this honor. My teams at the school and district level have given me the opportunity to enhance the school and touch the lives of our children. So many dedicated individuals allow me to soar; thus reaching new levels of achievement and triumph.  Students are the focus; growing and learning will lead them to be productive members of any community in which they choose to live. 

    Armando Chavez serves as principal of Columbus Elementary School (Deming Public Schools) in Columbus, NM. The school serves a population in which 99% of the students enter as monolingual Spanish language students. Most of this unique group of students were born in the United States and live across the border in Mexico. During his tenure as the leader of the school, he has emphasized the importance of education.   

  • A Life Reinvigorated: A Sense of Purpose in Teaching Immigrants

    Xavier Muñoz

    Xavier Muñoz is being honored as a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change.

    I am honored to be selected as a White House Champion of Change on a day that celebrates Cesar Chavez, whose life of service continues to inspire people to pursue empowerment.

    I impact the community through AmeriCorps, the flagship program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. As one of several AmeriCorps members with the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia (LCNV), I teach classes of adult immigrants to use English as a tool for directing their own American journey. I also make it easier for volunteer instructors and class aides to provide quality instruction by taking care of administrative duties and providing sensitivity training on what beginning learners may experience in the classroom.

    But I didn’t get into AmeriCorps service to give back to the community. The choice to become a full-time volunteer was a self-involved endeavor much like my time in undergrad. I pursued courses of study based primarily on what I was previously good at and what had a clearer career path. But early academic progress spiraled into incomplete assignments not submitted and anxiety-driven withdrawals from class participation that nearly brought me to a standstill. After petitioning to avoid academic suspension, I graduated through transfer credit a year later than expected.

    “Should” and “ought to” dragged me forward for the following year and a half. There was no heart to follow until I found myself spending two evenings a week helping a Jamaican man to read. I would come home ablaze with reflections on how I could make the next day even better. Encouraged by this budding interest, I joined LCNV to further learn how to teach adults. 

    Most of the 1500+ LCNV learners a year are immigrants. Some are high-skilled workers; many have no more than a few years of education. Some have been in the U.S. for years; some, only for days. I’m awed by their courage. I think to my father, who came to this country as a child in a three-generation Colombian family. And I think to my mother, who came to this country knowing only my father. Because of how hard my parents have worked for respect and for better lives for my brother and me, I see in my students how important education is for them and their families.

    In one of my classes, I have students from the Central African Republic, China, Iran, Mexico, Somalia, and Vietnam. I feel empowered by teaching when they say how very happy they are after we get library cards and practice finding books, when they look to each other rather than to me for support in class (thereby proving that English is an international languagenot just mine but theirs, too). That I can share in their success is what propels me forward. AmeriCorps service really has given purpose and direction to my future. And it is for these adults that I will pursue a graduate degree in teaching.

    So I hope that this Champion of Change recognition brings to the national consciousness the potential that radiates in the lives of adults with low levels of literacy and English proficiency and that this recognition calls to action those who recognize the needs of adult education and the broader impact it has on our families and communities.

    Xavier Munoz is currently serving a second year as an AmeriCorps member with the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, a non-profit community-based literacy organization that specializes in providing low-level ESOL and literacy instruction to adults so as to them to participate more fully and confidently in their communities.

  • Community Service Honors Those Who Have Come Before Us, and Helps to Prepare the Path for Those Who Will Come After Us

    Luis Urrieta

    Luis Urrieta is being honored as a Cesar E. Chavez Champion of Change.

    Service to communities is not a choice for some, but an indispensable part of the fabric of daily life. When there are communities that we are committed to, then service and advocacy makes sense.

    To me, service means contributing to a larger mission for social justice and educational equity. Service adds to a larger collective struggle to work toward fulfilling the promises and ideals of this great nation.

    I first learned about César Chávez and his struggle in 1990 when a group of fellow Chicano students dumped a large bowl of grapes that were being served to us in the dorm cafeteria in the trash. This action was part of a symbolic protest in solidarity with Chávez and the United Farm Workers. At the time, I was an entering freshman in college and Chávez, along with my parents and extended family became an inspiration to me for a life of service. I realized that my work in life would revolve around giving back to Latina/o communities, especially immigrant communities, and raising awareness about Latina/o issues with a wider audience.

    My professional, academic, and community service work in education has been dedicated to raising awareness and valuing Latina/o immigrant family and community knowledge. I have focused much of my energies on the importance of nourishing and supporting strong ethnic and linguistic identities in Latina/o children and youth, while promoting and creating the conditions for high academic achievement. My service has been primarily centered on mentoring, teaching, and cultivating leadership in Latina/o children and youth.

    As a former bilingual middle school teacher in Los Angeles I was dedicated to working with immigrant and first generation students. Through critical pedagogy and extensive family and community involvement, many of my students became very personally and academically successful, and were able to navigate the higher education system despite their undocumented status. This was not due to me, but to larger collaborative efforts between the students, teachers, family, and community that I was then a part of. Collectively we subsequently published some of the undocumented student testimonios to help raise educators’ awareness about their status and to disrupt the negative perceptions of undocumented youth.

    For the past ten years, my work with teachers as a teacher educator has also focused on engaging in conversations and dialogue about Latino/a students, both our long and recent history in the U.S., the issues we face, including our diversity as a community, and the assets we bring. With undergraduate students I instill and encourage a need for service learning projects, volunteering, tutoring, mentoring, and engagement with Latina/o families and communities.

    I have done this by creating opportunities for local Latina/o community involvement including work with community centers, non-profits, churches, and through workshops, internships, and exchange programs abroad in Mexico and Guatemala, with strong service learning components. My goal is to instill in young adults the motivation not only to achieve professionally, but to also align those professional goals and commitments to communities, especially communities in need.

    For the last two years, along with university student volunteers/interns, I have also coordinated a collaborative after school program, Cultura en Acción—Culture in Action, for upper elementary school students. This program creates a space for Latina/o ethnic and cultural awareness by centering family and community knowledge while promoting high academic achievement and 21st century skills and technology. This program enjoys success due to the level of engagement and commitment of university student volunteers, interns, and the children in the program and their families.

    The legacy of community service honors those who came before us, and it is not a lone endeavor, but a collective project of hope, love, and cooperation. The legacy of service also helps prepare the way for those who will come after. Service, to me, remains fundamental to the mission of social justice and the public good.        

    Luis Urrieta, Jr., is Associate Professor and Program Director for the Cultural Studies in Education Program (The University of Texas—Austin), and Coordinator of the Cultura en Acción—Culture in Action after school program in Austin, TX. 

  • Inspired by Change. Transformed Through Service.

    Germain Castellanos

    Germain Castellanos is being honored as a Cesar E. Chavez Champion of Change.

    The work of Cesar Chavez has given me an example of an American who has dedicated his life to service. I feel that the spirit of service has been cultivated in me much like it was in Cesar Chavez.  To serve is to seek the prosperity and well-being of your community before your own.

    Growing up amidst gang-related violence and drugs, I had a front-row view of poverty in the U.S. As a youth hanging out with the wrong crowd, I found myself on the wrong side of the law, but at the age of 21 had cleaned up my actI was a part-time college student with a full-time manufacturing job and had a 1-year-old daughter. I understood that, along with the bad choices that I had made as a youth, poverty was the common denominator in my case and those of other youth with my background across the U.S.

    I wanted to start a program that could help connect at-risk youth with the resources that they need. I discovered the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) and became a YCC AmeriCorps member. I worked as a Youth Developer during my time with YCC, conducting life skills workshops, providing case management services, and leading conservation projects. It was a time of great personal growth and transformation. My time as an AmeriCorps member at YCC resulted in me being granted the 2004 Corpsmember of the Year Award.

    In June 2008, I set out to do what I had envisioned four years earlier: create my own program to assist at-risk youth. I designed the program curriculum, applied for and received grants, and established the SHINE Educational Leadership Program at Waukegan High Schoolthe same school that I had been kicked out of when I was a teenager.

    The SHINE Program is a workforce development program that helps low-income high school seniors transition into college and supports them in a career plan. Well over 90% of the students are first generation college-bound students. In addition to the in-school SHINE program, I have facilitated a partnership with Walgreens to provide pharmacy technician training and job placement for recent high school graduates. Every day I am proud to be connecting at-risk youth with resources. It is an honor to call this “my job”.

    My transition from being a recipient of services to a provider of services for at-risk youth also earned me the Illinois Governor’s Journey Award in 2008. Running two youth workforce development programs and serving nearly 200 current and former program participants is just the tip of the iceberg; my work is not done. My community is over 30% foreign born and well over 55% of the households speak another language besides English at home. The community that I serve in is like many cities across the is an immigrant community. Whether their decedents came from Lithuania, Sweden, Germany, or Armenia generations ago or more recently from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Colombia or Belize, the stories of my community members are all similar.

    Immigrants come here for an opportunity to fulfill the promise of the American dream, to prosper and provide for their families in a way that was not possible in their home country. Knowing that my parents made sacrifices to get to the U.S. in search of a better life for their family motivates me to give back every day. In the words of Cesar Chavez, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community.” We are all destined to serve. 

    Germain Castellanos is Program Director for the SHINE Educational Leadership Program, a Workforce Development program serving over 300 at-risk youth at Waukegan High School since 2008 where the student population is over 70% Latino.

  • To Serve and to Learn: What We Gain from Giving Back

    Khin Mai Aung

    Khin Mai Aung is being honored as a Cesar E. Chavez Champion of Change.

    I began my legal career in the San Francisco Bay Area during the “dot com boom” of the late 1990s, in the litigation department of a large law firm. It was a good firm and I worked on intellectually stimulating cases, but I wanted a more tangible connection to my work, and with my clients and community. I decided to take my career in a radically different path, and transitioned into a nonprofit public interest job that paid about 1/3 of my former salary.

    At my new organization, I provided legal advice to indigent senior citizens at clinics throughout San Francisco. At first, the bulk of my cases involved welfare reform. Soon, rising rents led to a wave of eviction defense matters. It was rewarding to provide representation to individuals who wouldn’t otherwise have access to legal assistance, and learn from their diverse life experiences. I was in my 20s at the time, and many clients were old enough to be my grandparents. Some were immigrants and refugees from far flung places who left their homes to pursue opportunity or flee persecution. Others were native-born Americans who were relocated into internment camps as children during World War II. They all had interesting stories to tell.

    Eleven years ago, I moved to New York City to launch the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s (AALDEF) Educational Equity Program. My work now encompasses a myriad of issues in kindergarten through 12th grade and higher education, representing and advocating for students, parents, and teachers in matters like obtaining programmatic access for English Language Learners, combatting anti-immigrant and anti-Asian harassment, and promoting school integration and diversity.  My clients are different now – teenagers and adults – but I still learn from their experiences. I am grateful for the opportunity to partner with immigrant Chinese students to battle bias-based harassment, and with teachers who risk their jobs to report problems at their schools.

    One of my most memorable cases involved representing a group of veteran teachers in Lowell, Massachusetts who were fired for failing a faulty mandatory English proficiency test. My clients, who hailed from Cambodia, Laos, and Puerto Rico, spoke fluent but accented English. The school district perceived them as deficient on account of their accents and national origin. Our work uncovered critical flaws in the fluency test and testing conditions, and my clients were ultimately reinstated with full back pay and benefits. 

    In the course of proving our case, I learned a lot about service and community from that group of teachers.  Witness after witness came forward to testify that far from being deficient, my clients were assets to their schools. One was a volunteer sports coach, and another helped out with delinquent youth. All were exemplary role models for their students, most of whom came from working class immigrant and refugee families. 

    My life would never have intersected with any of these individuals had I remained in private practice. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet them, and honored to have served and learned from them. 

    Khin Mai Aung is the Director of the Educational Equity Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), where she advocates for the rights of Asian American and Pacific Islander students, parents and teachers. In particular, she focuses on concerns faced by immigrant students, English Language Learners, and students from lower income communities.