Urban Ed in Racial Justice (feat. Natalia Ortiz)
Alumni Aloud Episode 49
Natalia Ortiz is Director of Programs at the Center for Racial Justice in Education, a nonprofit based out of New York City. She earned her PhD in Urban Education at the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Natalia walks us through her process of applying to the PhD program while being a full-time public school teacher, transitioning to new work while finishing her dissertation, and managing her time between writing, work, and family.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ABBIE TURNER, HOST: I’m Abbie Turner, a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at the Graduate Center and I work in the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. I interviewed Natalia Ortiz who got her PhD in Urban Education at the Graduate Center. Today in the office we have Natalia Ortiz, who graduated from our PhD program in Urban Education. She’s going to talk about her work in a non-profit and also being a schoolteacher and choosing then to do her PhD and what her job looks like now.
So, hi Natalia!
NATALIA ORTIZ, GUEST: Hi!
TURNER: Thanks for coming in.
ORTIZ: Oh, thank you for having me.
TURNER: So why don’t you tell us where you work and what your position is there?
ORTIZ: Sure. So I work at the center for racial justice in education. We’re a nonprofit based out of New York City and I am the director of programs there.
TURNER: Great. So what kinds of things do you do as a director of programs in a non-profit?
ORTIZ: Yeah. So my particular job, one of the things… Well first of all, just so you understand the work that I do at the center for racial justice and education, which I may call CRJE just because it’s quicker. Our mission is to train and empower educators to dismantle, disrupt racism in particular in schools and their communities. And so part of my job as a director of programs is so many of the programs that we do offer as a nonprofit, are trainings or year long initiatives with schools or with the Department of Education.
And so, so much of my work is being in conversation and in relationship to particular schools, with principals, teams like racial equity teams, also engaging with different departments in the department of education or programs who are really doing a lot of racial equity work right now. So, that is part of my work. Then the other part of my work is working closely with our trainers. So we have about 30 or so New York city trainers and about 12 national trainers. And so much of the work that we do is also supporting their development. And so that looks like offering professional development opportunities for our trainers in particular as well as doing observations of their work or of their training in schools. So, that’s the other aspect of my job.
TURNER: Great. When, when did you graduate from your program?
ORTIZ: So actually I am walking this May 2020.
TURNER: Oh, that’s exciting!
ORTIZ: Yes. And I defended in June of 2019 and officially got my diploma in the mail in October.
TURNER: Great! Congratulations.
TURNER: Great. So talk to us about getting this job while you were finishing graduate school. What did that look like?
ORTIZ: Yeah, so whew. I feel like I should probably talk a little bit about the trajectory of being in the program. And so I guess I’ll just, to answer your question, I had the ECF, which I believe is the Enhanced Chancellor Fellowship, which was a five year fellowship. And clearly I did not finish writing my dissertation in five years. And so I knew that I needed to find some work to help support me and my family, which I’ll get into in a little bit. And so what I did know is that while I was writing my dissertation, I could do some part-time work because I needed the money.
And so I saw that CRJE, formally Border Crossers, was hiring trainers. And because I was a former teacher who taught high school for seven years and taught US history at that, I knew that I could definitely do some of the trainings at different schools. I can choose the scheduling, which ones I could do, which ones I couldn’t do. And so I made my way into the non-profit sector in that way, right? And from there I transitioned into being the program manager also with very strict hours just because I needed to make sure that I also had hours to write. And then from there I stayed and became the director of programs.
TURNER: So you were able to finish the dissertation?
ORTIZ: I was while working, which is huge. While working and I have two kids, which I can also talk a little bit about. But yes, I was able to. I was very… I have a great advisor and we made out a plan and I started to make sure that I was setting out days for my writing and I took those as serious as a work day. I was fortunate to have family to step in to support with the children. My partner. I think in thinking about when you’re doing this, defending or going through the PhD route, what it means to have a partner who’s going to stand by you through it is critical, and I was fortunate to definitely have one who was like, “Go write. Don’t worry about the kids.” So yeah.
TURNER: So strict writing deadlines and goals I’ve also heard that is crucial.
ORTIZ: It is crucial. And what I will say is that you also have to learn what kind of writer you are and what kind of researcher you are and student you are right? I think what was clear to me is that I definitely needed deadlines. I needed that accountability from my advisor in order to actually write. And so what I would do is if I knew that I was meeting with my advisor, let’s say Wednesday, a week before that Wednesday I would set a timer so to then say, you need to be submitting this to your advisor by Friday.
And so I knew. And I would even sometimes, it wasn’t even a week, I should say it was more like two weeks, but I knew that I needed to be writing in order to get that Friday, submit something in because my advisor was very much like, “If I don’t get anything three days before that Wednesday, we’re not meeting.” And so I was very much thinking about, okay, I need to write, I need to write, I need to write. And sometimes I really just needed chunks of three hours and that would be enough, especially if I was trying to do it every day for a little bit to continue it, you know?
TURNER: Nice. Yes. Good habits to get in there.
ORTIZ: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
TURNER: Okay. So then can you talk about, because a lot of our urban ed students come from teaching in schools, that could be true of a lot of the programs, I just know urban ed has a lot teachers. What factored into your decision to go for the PhD or what should people be, people who are kind of interested in more research, what would push you or what would you recommend to teachers who are thinking about it?
ORTIZ: Yeah, so for me it was very much… I was in the classroom and I loved teaching. It was, it still is one of my passions and joy. But I realized, I was sitting with myself around thinking about change, right? And thinking about impact. And so I know that I have significant impact working with my students, but then I was like, “Well, what would it look like to really think about preparing and working with teachers to be better teachers in the classroom?” And so for me, I think I started to question, what do I need in terms of my master’s or a PhD in order to be a professor to support with the preparation of teachers so that they could then do amazing work with students, right? And show up with care and love and a racial equity lens.
And so I was like, “Maybe I need to go into a PhD program.” And I also had a topic or an idea that I was very passionate about and it actually helped me in the way that I became a teacher, and then I was thinking, I don’t think there’s enough literature around the importance of theater techniques and particular theater of the oppressed and applied theater in the understanding of race and racism or any forms of oppression for that matter. And the impact that had on my approach to teaching on my pedagogy. And then what I brought to my students, cause I actually taught a class where they did their own theater and wrote their plays around issues of hate. So I was like, “Well that’s a great idea.” I was doing some research and reading and not a lot of people are writing about it.
So I was like, “Maybe this would be great to explore.” And from that moment I decided to apply and I did get accepted and that’s where my journey began, right? I think as a teacher who is really committed to education and also thinking of education as the vehicle for change because our youth are the future of tomorrow. How can you use academia in a way to support social justice frameworks and pushing for social change that is loving and accepting and affirming of all people? Then maybe that’s an idea for you, right? To explore getting a PhD.
TURNER: So it helps that you also came in with an idea to research, which is a huge part of why you might want to join a PhD program. You have that idea to pursue.
ORTIZ: Yeah. And I will never forget that. It definitely helps. I think coming in, especially in education, I remember I got some advice about, listen, if you are thinking about a PhD, when it comes to education it is important to kind of get your footing, meaning the practice, the application. What does it look like to teach, right? What does it feel like to teach? What are the difficulties? What are the struggles?
And then, because I think once you have a real understanding of what a classroom feels like Monday through Friday, eight to four, I think it really does inform your research because you have a clear understanding of what it feels like and looks like. I think it does become difficult to theoretically write about the classroom when you don’t have that application. It does help and that can change. My first year, we took our research foundations class and my professor was like, “Have fun. This is a class, think about a research design proposal that may or may not be what you end up doing.” But it was a great opportunity for everyone in that class and my cohort to really think about just, okay, this is low level, low stakes, it’s a class, it’s a project. What would you design?
And I actually ended up designing what I ended up doing, which is fun and not everyone did, but I do think it might be a good idea for folks who are interested in pursuing a PhD to sit with maybe two to three ideas because you’re going to have to sit with this for a long time. So you also want to just make sure that you’re… At one point you end up kind of getting sick of it because you’re doing it so long, but you want to start off being passionate about it or you want to start off thinking it’s important for the field, you know?
TURNER: At least get you through the proposal.
ORTIZ: Absolutely. Absolutely.
TURNER: So now you mentioned, which makes a lot of sense, you mentioned wanting to have an impact by training more teachers and seen as getting into academia, maybe becoming a professor of teacher education. It would be a great way to, to further your impact. So how did your career goals change? Or did they? Because you’re, in a non-profit now, which does similar work.
ORTIZ: Yeah. Yeah. So the non-profit that I’m in actually, we do do a lot of teacher education and we do our teacher education around race and racism, which is actually what in my research I did find, right? Is that there isn’t enough work, there isn’t enough understanding around conversations of race or racism or diversity for that matter in teacher preparation. And so when teachers go into the classroom, oftentimes there’s a little bit of like a, “Whoa, what did I sign up for?” Right? A lot of—
TURNER: The realities of the classroom.
ORTIZ: Right. There’s definitely educational foundation, classroom management, curriculum design, backwards planning. All of these things which are important in terms of the day-to-day practice of being a teacher. But then there’s a human component and then there’s just world, I guess, understanding. I would even say social studies, right? Understanding people, cultures, community, and then systems of oppression that impact how your classroom shows up, regardless of whether you want it to or not. It will. Right? So lik poverty, housing issues, race, racism, class. All of those things are bleeding into your classroom, and so if you don’t have grounding on those things you’re going to be learning while teaching. And so I do see that my job in particular is providing some education and things that perhaps some teacher education programs aren’t able to, right? Although, there are some amazing teacher-ed programs that are doing some amazing work around equity that we can all learn from.
So I am still passionate about being a professor in teacher education. I think for me what makes it challenging and tricky, which I’m sure for many people who are New York based, I was born and raised in the city. I have a family so I am probably not going to move for a job.
TURNER: Not very flexible on where you can go.
ORTIZ: Yes. I am… And so I think job options in the Tri-state area is challenging, especially around teacher. Very competitive teacher education. So I think for me it’s also waiting around and seeing if something opens up. I think I’m also very much more grounded in the clinical teacher-ed programs versus the research based. Right, so there’s definitely research institutions, teaching institutions and my focus is more around the teaching, the pedagogy, the supporting of the teachers, supervision. Those are the things. Not to say that I’m not interested in writing or research, but I’m definitely more interested in the clinical and the practice. And so waiting around to see what opens up and then apply. But I’m also very content with where I am. It’s still very much connected to the work that I care about and it’s still working with teachers and schools. And so its not far off.
TURNER: It seems like you landed in a place that’s doing exactly what you had hoped [crosstalk 00:15:38].
ORTIZ: Yes, yes.
TURNER: That’s nice. I wonder if you have some professional advice about, applying to jobs and graduate school or what’s it like? Cause you actually said you have what sounds like a reasonable amount of control over your hours, but we’ve also heard that non-profit hours can get kind of out of… kind of crazy working for a nonprofit. So how do you maintain that schedule or what advice can you give to people who are interested in nonprofit work but have to restrict their schedule like you’ve mentioned?
ORTIZ: Yeah. I think, so first of all, I think in professional any just advice, whenever you are a graduate student and you are looking for jobs and you want to be mindful of what you’re able to do and not do. And of course that might rule out some nonprofit jobs, but I do think that when you’re up for negotiation and talking to, sometimes it’s not a money negotiation but it’s a time negotiation. And so, what would it look like for them to have you on board with a completed dissertation? Would actually benefit the organization because you could support with research and so on. And so you also want to sell yourself in that, I’m very committed to this non-profit org. I believe in the mission and I also have to finish my PhD because with a PhD, this organization… Just explain how this would be a beneficial for the org. And then what can you provide in terms of hours?
Like “I would love…” Or you come up with some possibilities, right? A propose… Like, “I need my Fridays because those are my writing days. Could we do a four day week? What is possible?” Right? Or if you need to leave by three because you’re going to write from four to eight during the week. So thinking about time as a possible negotiating factor when applying to nonprofit positions, and you’re still trying to finish your dissertation.
TURNER: It’s a great idea to try to sell yourself so that it’s realistic for you to finish as well.
TURNER: Yeah. Great.
ORTIZ: And some people, it depends also on the relationships you have with the EDs or whoevers, they might say “Sorry. No.” And then you keep on moving and, and maybe find a place that will have you, you know?
TURNER: Yeah. So you started the program with one kid, ended a program with two kids. How about managing family and time with your work and your school?
ORTIZ: Yeah. So I came into the program with a six month old child in urban ed. I will say I think the program, depending on the program here at the grad center, our program is very accommodating, loving, supportive of families. I had professors who literally were like, “Listen, if you need to bring the baby to class, please do.” And I did. My colleagues in the cohort would watch Amaya while I was in a meeting for an hour, I don’t know, working on a project or something. So I literally brought my children in with me. I think the Graduate Center also offers a wonderful child development center on the third floor for once your child is two and I took complete advantage of that program. It’s subsidized. They’re amazing. I trusted them wholeheartedly with both of my children.
So I really have to give it to the Graduate Center and my program in particular, because I think without the support here, I’m not sure how much… It might have taken me longer. It took me seven years, which is still pretty good with two kids, you know?
TURNER: It is.
ORTIZ: So I think in terms of managing time, what I will say, and I know this sounds… A lot of my friends they’re like, “How’d you do it?” Well, I’ll say that having a child forces you to be very strict with your time because you know you have limited time, and so you don’t actually have a lot of time to procrastinate. I can’t choose to watch or binge watch on Netflix because Amaya’s napping now and she’s going to bed by seven. So I literally would plan so much of my reading and my work around her nap times or weekends. And so that’s one thing.
The other thing, a good friend slash mentor who went through a PhD program, I think was here for 10 or 11 years, I’m not sure. But the one advice he gave me that I was like, “All right, I’m going to take this serious”, was to not have any incompletes. He basically was like, look, you have a kid, now you have two, time is going to feel crunched. If it means… So I think you need to also release perfection. And I think some of us come into… We’re scholars, we’re writers, we’re researchers, we want the best paper and we want to make sure that we’re getting our point across, and if the professor says 15 pages, that’s what you turn in. Or more, but not less. And I needed to release those things. I needed to release perfection. I needed to ask for help if and when I needed it.
I would ask a professor if I needed an extension because all these three papers are all due on the same week. And I would say, “Hey, can I have my paper for this class due on this week?” And a lot of my professors, because I asked them with time, we’re very flexible and understanding and would give me the help that I needed. So, that’s one thing. And I never got an incomplete. I mean, there were times where I tried not to stay up all night because when you have an infant it really will wreck you. But there were times where I did have to stay up late to finish a paper, and sometimes it wasn’t 15 pages, it was 13 pages. And I would be okay with submitting that, right? I did know that if my professor needed me to rewrite it or add more or that they would ask me and then I would… They would give me a grade for now and then I would submit. And I’d actually never had to do that, but I knew that, that would be an option if…
So those are things, and I never got an incomplete and I’m very, very happy about that. So those are some things that I think is important to keep in mind when you… Definitely helps, especially when you have children, right? And you’re balancing family, you’re balancing work, and you’re balancing school.
ORTIZ: I do, I will say, I do think, and I said this before, understanding who you are as a learner and a scholar and being clear about what you need is important. Some of my peers did not need those deadlines and were very self-disciplined in writing and just emailing the professor whenever they have something to share. I’m not that person.
TURNER: Some of us avoid our advisors.
ORTIZ: Right. Some of us avoid our advisors because they’re like, “Hey, so when are you going to get me something?” And it’s like, “You know what? I actually need to meet with you every three weeks because it forces me to have to do the work.” Right? So I think being honest with who you are and what you need is important. I think the other piece is, so much of grad school does feel like a lonely journey at times because it’s you and you’re isolating. It’s you and your project. But what does it look like to find a group of peers who are in the same process to create a writing group? Right? Which I was part of too.
TURNER: We have one now here at the writing center. They start that accountability [inaudible 00:23:09]. But the writing center is fairly new.
ORTIZ: Got it.
TURNER: Yeah, we do that here now.
ORTIZ: That is wonderful. Yeah, that is… Especially if you know you need that. Right? And sometimes you know, some advisors are better than others in terms of supporting you in the process. And so if you know that you would like a more hands-on approach, how can you find those spaces? Because they’re definitely here, you know?
TURNER: Yeah. So really reflecting on what kind of worker you are to get it done and get what you need. Great. So what can you tell us about your current field in your program? What kind of job opportunities are you seeing available to other PhDs coming into the workplace? Or master’s degree, I should say. We have a decent amount of master’s graduates as well.
ORTIZ: Master’s students, for sure.
TURNER: What does it look like in your field?
ORTIZ: Yeah. So I think there’s a lot of education equity work happening. I think there’s a lot of, I would even say educational, teacher coaching spaces, non-profit.
ORTIZ: Yeah, consulting.
TURNER: What if you’re interested in working with teachers, but you’re not in urban ed?
ORTIZ: Yeah. Yeah. I think if you’re not urban ed and you’re interested in working with teachers… Oh, so I’m thinking about… I would say consultation definitely is a thing and I know that the DOE, the Department of Education right now is definitely looking for people to come on in and support and coach and be in school buildings around supporting teachers or professional development or learning, whether it’s literacy, whether it’s STEM, whether it’s social studies education. Now I will say though that the Department of Education does have very strict processes and so you want to research those and you want to make sure that you’re qualifying for those, right? I do have a teacher certification and so it’s easier for me to access doing consultation, although you would still have to do an application process and there’s might even be some additional tests around leadership and consultation that you have to look into. But yeah, I think there’s definitely ways for you to work with teachers.
TURNER: You’ve mentioned before when we were talking, your dissertation work was with people who work with teachers.
ORTIZ: Yeah, so there’s also grassroots organizations. These are areas and spaces where I would say they’re unpaid spaces, but they open up possibilities. So the New York Collective of Radical Educators is a grassroots organization that supports teachers across the city. And one of the things they do yearly is called the Inquiry to Action Groups, and those Inquiry to Action Groups are for teachers across New York to study a topic and then think about implementation and action based projects. So there’s been one called interrupting Islamophobia. So what does it mean to do that in your classroom and what action does that look like? What is an action project or implementation around that topic? There’s been one on making my classroom anti-racist. There’s been one on teach DREAM and supporting undocumented immigrants and families, students in their building, in the schools and providing a resource guide for parents translated in three languages. So I think they’re, again, it’s not a paid opportunity, but being in those spaces opens up possibilities and potential jobs that you don’t even have in mind.
TURNER: It adds to your own experiences on how you’re communicating your research and working with non-academic people. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.
ORTIZ: Yeah, for sure. Yeah.
TURNER: Great. Okay. Okay, so if that’s everything Natalia, I want to thank you for coming in. Thank you for sharing your story and giving us all that advice and it’s been really nice talking to you.
ORTIZ: Thank you. Bye.
TURNER: Thanks again to Natalia for coming in and telling us about her experiences. The Graduate Center’s office of Career Planning & Professional Development can help you figure out how best to get into the type of work you want to do. Make an appointment to speak with one of our career advisors at cuny.is/careerplan. You can find a list of our upcoming events there and also follow us on Twitter @CareerPlanGC. Thanks for listening.