Discussing Race in the Adult Education Classroom: Matias

This is the second installment of a blog series from The Change Agent featuring adult education students sharing how talking about race in their programs has helped them navigate their lives differently. A note of thanks goes to Cynthia Peters for conducting the interview this post highlights.

by Ebony Vandross

Racist behavior can sometimes be a result of ignorance. Some people do not have a lot of experience interacting with people beyond their immediate community. Adult education can help change that.

Matias Rodriguez, a former GED student at Pima/El Rio Learning Center in Tucson, Arizona, has benefited from receiving education about race and has used the knowledge he gained to try and change the perspectives of others. He believes it’s worth having hard conversations about race because people’s perspectives can change.

“Why do you feel that that’s ok to say things like that?” he asked a friend, who regularly made racist jokes. “Have you ever been discriminated against? How would you feel if someone talked to your kid that way or your family member that way?” Matias notes that he believed this friend, who is of white and native descent, learned racist behaviors from white members of his family. 

How can we work to combat these learned behaviors? When David Diaz, an adult student and father, noticed his eight-year-old son behaving in fear around black people, he addressed it immediately. One of his strategies was to restrict the kind and quantity of television that his son watched. “My solution has been not to watch the news. My son doesn’t see violent images and I’m not listening to negative talk about the black and Hispanic races. It’s working for us!” (1)

In his article, “Why I Don’t Watch TV News“, he goes on to say, “I believe that no human being is born racist. People learn these behaviors because they are taught to us”.

Like David, Matias works to make sure his kids understand what racist behavior looks like and how it shows up in our daily lives.

But Matias’s willingness to speak up against racism is not confined to his family or community. His observations are based on the understanding of racism at cultural, political, and economic levels. “Racism is a systemic issue,” he says. “A lot of people don’t see that. It’s in our workforce, our grocery stores, our homes, our schools, so we just all need to be able to talk about it and listen to people and do everything in our power to end racism.”

As one of the few Latino employees in a supervisory position in the landscaping field, Matias describes having been on the receiving end of microaggressions and being teased as “the brown guy in charge.” For some of his white colleagues, the power structure had been turned upside down. “I didn’t say anything, but in my head, I thought ‘You have no idea what it took for me to get here!’”

Matias also credits his classroom experience with helping him learn to check his own implicit bias. When he lived in the same neighborhood with some refugees, he viewed them as people who were unwilling to work and were taking advantage of government benefits. However, while in his adult basic education classes, he learned more about their stories, and his perspective changed. “My understandings grew. I had been numb, and these classes helped wake me up.”

Photo by James Eades

Discussing race and moving on to undo the damage caused by racism is difficult. Aside from the systemic, structural, and often violent barriers in place, there are some people that do not believe that racism is an issue in their families, communities, and countries. But in our adult education classrooms and publications, we have the chance to explore race and racism, and, like Matias and David, take up the challenge to make change. Because of his experience learning about racism during his educational journey, Matias is more than willing to take up the challenge.

“This work is really hard. We’ve got to keep doing what we can to heal the wounds and just keep doing the work and just keep educating so we can fight racism.”


  1. “Why I Don’t Watch TV News” by David Diaz from Talking About Race

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *