Aguirre models civic engagement

By many measures, Richard Aguirre is a model of American success. He won awards as one of the fastest milers in the country as a high school track star. He became an accomplished journalist, supervising a staff of 35 as a senior editor at the Salem Statesman Journal in Oregon. He served as director of public relations at Goshen College for nearly a decade and now holds the title of community impact coordinator.

But he is deeply aware of how his own story intertwines with that of his family, complicating the telling. He strongly believes that his family story mirrors the immigrant story of many Mexican-American families.

He is a third-generation American on his father’s side, second-generation on his mother’s side. His paternal grandmother came to the U.S. looking for a better life, although she also lived through the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution.

“My maternal grandmother came to the U.S. to escape poverty and an abusive and often drunk husband, who regularly beat her,” Aguirre said.

Both his parents left school before the eighth grade and eventually took blue-collar jobs, his dad as a carpenter, his mom as a factory worker.

“Our family knew what it was like to live paycheck-to-paycheck, to accept charity from others and to accept government assistance when my Dad couldn’t find work,” he said. “My parents wanted something better for their seven kids, so they moved the family from Texas to California and they insisted we do the best we could in school.”

When he was growing up, his family suffered from bias and sometimes discrimination. He still remembers his parents being denied jobs or promotions because they were Mexican-American.

“It didn’t matter that my dad proudly served in the U.S. Navy during World War II or that they were often better qualified than the whites that got the jobs or promotions,” he said. “We were sometimes denied the use of bathrooms when we traveled because we were Latinos. I remember being called a ‘dirty Mexican.’ ”

Like many current students at Goshen College, Aguirre is a member of the first-generation cohort as the first in his family to attend college. He graduated from California State University in Fresno with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Still, he said, he never forgot where he came from. So civil rights, education, immigration, assimilation and the pursuit of the American Dream have always been part of his life. He studied and wrote about these subjects as a student and later as a journalist.

He worked for 26 years as a reporter or editor for daily newspapers in California, Texas and Oregon. He covered many subjects, including minority affairs, civil rights and politics, local and state government, planning and development, police and the courts, religion and breaking news.

Aguirre said he wanted to make a positive difference by covering the news as fairly as possible. That meant telling both (or more) sides of a story, something that he said he doesn’t see as often anymore. He wanted to call attention to the lives of people who rarely made it into the newspapers where he worked, like Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native-American.

Now at a different stage in his career, which includes serving as community impact coordinator for the college, he is a member of the City of Goshen Board of Zoning Appeals; a member of the Goshen Mayor’s Latino Advisory Committee; and the former chairman of the City of Goshen Community Relations Commission. He is a board member of the Center for Healing & Hope; the founder and director of the Elkhart County Helping Our People Everywhere (HOPE) Network which assists immigrants. In 2017, he founded and co-directed the Coalition Against the Elkhart County Immigration Detention Center, a grassroots organization with 3,500 members. The proposal for a detention center in Elkhart County was withdrawn.

In his opinion, activism at Goshen College, including political engagement, springs from the Christ-centered core values in which students, faculty and staff seek to become passionate learners, compassionate peacemakers, servant leaders and global citizens.

“Because of a deep commitment to those core values and the teachings of Jesus Christ, many members of the Goshen College community are committed to embracing diversity and pursuing social justice and peacemaking,” Aguirre said. “That’s why GC people are active in politics and social causes.”

However, he said that Goshen College doesn’t force anyone to be engaged in social activism and politics and welcomes a wide variety of viewpoints, including on partisan politics. People are free to believe what they want as long as they respect the views of others and believe in the mission of Goshen College, he said.

“There are many ways to get involved in social justice advocacy and politics at Goshen College and in the community,” he said. “The college welcomes but doesn’t require this involvement. At times, the college will provide direct support to students.”

However, he said, there seems to be a lower level of engagement these days than in the past, citing a number of reasons.

The first reason Aguirre pointed to is that Goshen College is now a far more diverse community than ever before. There’s a higher level of racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation and political diversity. The college has enrolled and hired more people who aren’t Mennonite and who grew up in more conservative communities. That has affected the level of engagement.

Aguirre also believes that today’s highly partisan and negatively charged atmosphere has turned off a substantial number of students and employees.

“If you speak out boldly and state a controversial position publicly, you are likely to face criticism, often quite severe,” he said. “Some people are afraid they will be treated harshly if they take strong political positions, so they’re reluctant to get heavily involved.”

Political fatigue and high levels of stress are other factors, he said. He thinks that people have withdrawn from advocacy and politics because they lost faith in the electoral system and government.

“I also believe some people (especially people of color and women) are experiencing post-traumatic stress because they have suffered significant defeats on many issues,” Aguirre said.

While there may be less activism, Aguirre stated that there are still many members of the Goshen College community doing what they can to improve not only this country but also the world.

He believes we should approach this midterm election and every election with a sense of enthusiasm and gratitude because they provide opportunities to make our views known and determine our future. Aguirre said that the future will be determined by those who vote so people should remain engaged and not lose faith to have decisions made by default.

“We can and should disagree, perhaps even intensely, on important issues, but we should always maintain our civility and try to see the good in our political opponents,” he said. “They also are children of God.”

Aguirre has been trying to raise voter registration and voting among students. He drafted and circulated an all-student email encouraging people to register to vote. In the days before the election, he’ll continue to promote the conversation about civic engagement.

On Wednesday, he was scheduled to participate in a town hall discussion about election issues at the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart. The political discussion was to be broadcast live in the United Kingdom on Channel 4 News, the UK’s leading nightly news show.

Tomás da Fonseca
Tomás da Fonseca
Written by Tomás da Fonseca

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