A little lesson in political empowerment
Filipinos in the U.S. who crave “political empowerment” may not know exactly what it means or how it affects them. In 1994, two years after I was elected to the San Francisco Community College Board (the first Filipino elected to public office in San Francisco), I was confronted with an issue that illustrates just exactly how it works.
As background, all 85 community college districts in California are governed by an elected 7-member Board. The San Francisco Community College Board oversees the City College of San Francisco, which provides up to 110,000 students in ten campuses throughout the city with classes offering associate degrees, English as a Second Language (ESL), career and technical education, as well as lifelong learning courses.
Filipinos 10 percent of CCSF students
In 1994, there were 3,850 Filipino students enrolled at the main Ocean campus of City College, coincidentally the same as the total number of African American students on campus, about 10 perecent of the student population.
To serve the needs of this large population, a Philippine Studies program was created in 1970 to offer more than a dozen courses (six per semester) on Philippine History, Philippine Society & Culture, the Filipino Family, Philippine Literature, Conversational Tagalog and other courses.
On January 14, 1991, the Philippine Studies Department hired Dr. Edwin Almirol as its department chair to teach three courses and run the department, developing other courses that could be offered in the future. Dr. Almirol was a highly regarded Ethnic Studies professor at the University of California at Davis who wrote “Rights and Obligations in Filipino American Families” and other books focusing on the Filipino community.
With Almirol in charge, the Philippine Studies program was well on its way to sustained growth. Unfortunately, less than two years later, Dr. Almirol died quite unexpectedly. Because of a five percent cutback in state funding for City College, a hiring freeze was imposed on all faculty positions that had become vacant due to death or retirement. So Almirol could not be replaced with another instructor, which effectively eliminated half of the Philippine Studies courses offered.
Only 7 full time slots
A year later, the Chancellor of City College announced that the state had restored seven fulltime positions back to City College, so we were hopeful that Philippine Studies would receive one of those slots. The problem is that there were 31 other full-time vacancies to fill in the various departments, so Philippine Studies would have to compete with the traditional Math, English, Science, History departments as well as with the untraditional Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT), La Raza and Black studies departments that also needed to fill their vacancies.
Several Board meetings were scheduled to hear public testimony about which seven vacancies would be filled. To prepare for the meeting where the Philippine Studies vacancy would be discussed, we contacted all the influential Fil-Am community leaders to speak, including then Philippine News publisher Alex Esclamado and California Fil- Am Democratic Caucus founder Alice Bulos.
I would normally have been among those speaking and advocating for the Filipino community, but I was then in the unaccustomed position of being among those who would decide the issue.
At the assigned date and time, our community speakers lined up at the podium and began to speak one after another about the injustice of denying Philippine Studies the full time position it sorely needed if it was to continue to stay afloat. The speakers presented the history of Filipinos in America as an oppressed community brought in as farm laborers to serve the needs of Hawaiian sugar planters and mainland growers in the 1920s, as stewards in the U.S. Navy in the ‘40s and ‘50s, some who were part of the more than 200,000 Philippine Commonwealth soldiers conscripted into the US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) in WW II, and as professionals who entered the U.S. workforce after the liberalization of U.S. immigration laws in 1965.
“We need to have our stories told so that the young generation of Filipinos will know our history and take pride in our culture and grow up with a positive image of being Filipinos,” Alex Esclamado said.
Kundiman approach to empowerment
The speakers emphasized the damage that would be done to Philippine Studies at City College and to Philippine Studies programs around the U.S. where the pioneering City College program is the model.
As they spoke, I began to hear the strains of Kundiman music in my head. “Kundiman,” which is short for “kung hindi man” (if it is not to be), is the native Philippine music of unrequited love, of a love that is pure and chaste but is spurned. It was as if we were already preparing to be rejected.
I imagined in my head the pleas of centuries of tenant farmers in the Philippines tilling the land with their carabaos, planting rice and harvesting the rice yields all year long only to give more than 90 percent of their produce to the obscenely rich landlords who own the land by inheritance and who rent it to them.
“Please, Senor Hacendero, please allow us to keep a few more bags of rice so that we can feed our families,” they would beg on their hands and knees. “We’ve worked so hard for you, sir, we deserve to be given a break. Please sir.”
The same plea was raised by aging Filipino farmworkers in Delano in the 1960s who were asking to be paid equally with the “bracero” Mexican workers. It was also the cry of elderly Manong residents of the International Hotel in the 1970s, who were being evicted from their low cost hotel rooms to make way for Redevelopment.
A ‘win-win’ approach
I would have found nothing unusual about our kundiman way of expressing our “requests” to the people in power to please give us a break, because that was the way we have always done it. For centuries.
I have heard this same type of plaintive cry whenever Filipinos ask for justice for Filipino WW II veterans who fought the Japanese invaders under the U.S. flag but were denied promised U.S. citizenship and U.S. veterans benefits when their services were no longer needed after the war.
Except that I was also at the Board sessions of the other groups seeking to be awarded one of the coveted full time posts. I saw the stark difference in approach.
For example, when representatives of the LGBT community appeared before our Board, they brought blown-up posters that illustrated the large number of students enrolled in their programs.
“As you know, commissioners,” an LGBT leader would explain, “the more students you have enrolled in your classes, the higher your Full Time Equivalency (FTE) and the greater your funding allocation from the state.”
“We want to partner with you, to see you grow your enrolment and your state funding,” was their pitch that made Board members nod their heads.
I was impressed. They were not on their knees begging for handouts. They were pushing for a “win-win” approach. They win, we win.
I was envious. This was how we should also have presented our case to the Board.
In the end, both Philippine Studies and LGBT Studies each got one of the seven full time slots. We got ours because I was on the Board and part of the wheeling and dealing that takes place regularly in all the institutions that make political decisions affecting all of us. I was on the Board because the Filipino community worked for my election to a post I served in for 18 years.
We, thereafter, hired Dr. Leo Paz for that full time position, and he grew the Philippine Studies program at City College until he retired last year.
That’s what “political empowerment” means.
(Rodel Rodis served as Board president for three terms and was chair of the California Community College Trustees Association. Send comments to [email protected] or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).
Like us on Facebook
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.