Interview with Oscar Dubon–Vice Chancellor of Equity & Inclusion at UC Berkeley
This inverview was conducted by Valentina Cabrera, one of our fellows.
Oscar Dubon has been part of the UC Berkeley faculty for the last 20 years as a Cal alum. When he first entered the engineering department, he was one of the only Latinx students, and now he is the Vice Chancellor of Equity & Inclusion at UC Berkeley
Latinxs & Environment (L&E): Good morning! So let’s get right to it. How did you hear about the Latinos and the Environment at UC Berkeley?
Oscar: I have been involved with the Latinx community, at the faculty level, and I have known Lupe Gallegos Diaz for a while. She told me about the Latinos and the Environment Initiative that she was working on with Federico, and it really resonated with me because we had done some work to cultivate a really diverse and inclusive college of engineering and integrate social justice into engineering. We developed new courses for the curriculum, and one of the courses that was developed is a lecture called Engineering, the Environment and Society, which is basically and environmental and social justice course from standpoint of engineering with the intention to engage historically underrepresented students in issues around power, privilege, race in environmental issues and engineering decision that have an impact on society. When Federico and Lupe mentioned it, I just thought it was a very natural fit. It is also an important way to bring spaces together across campus–community engagement, engineering, public policy, government, community organizations… bringing all these courses together to really create an interdisciplinary approach to these issues. I thought it was a real natural connection. And as a Latinx, I thought this was a really important cause.
L&E: This really resonates with me too! As a Latina, I don’t really see a lot of other latinos in my environmental studies classes, despite the fact that this is impacting a lot of our families both in California and also in our Latin-american home countries so much.
Oscar: And you know, our college of engineering has among the most Latinx students.
L&E: Wow, I did not know that, that’s wonderful.
Oscar: That is another reason why this felt like a really natural fit, bringing professional development, community engagement, environmental education, etc. together.
L&E: You have been a part of UC Berkeley for a long time. What are some of the changes that you have seen with the Latino community on campus since you joined faculty in 2000?
Oscar: Well just in my own space I have seen a huge change. So I first came here in 1989 as a doctoral student in the College of Engineering for Material Sciences Engineering, and I was here over 6 years earlier as a graduate student, and over that time I may have met one or two African American or Latinx PhD students in engineering, so didn’t have that community. I met many graduates in the social sciences and humanities in latinx grad students but I didn’t have that much engagement with my latinx identity in my own field. Now it’s very different. Nows there’s a thriving graduate group of latinos graduate students in Science and Engineering and I go to banquets where there could be 40 students in STEM with latinx backgrounds. That is very inspirational and uplifting. That makes me feel that there is progress–it is always slow, but that is part of the nature of how a lot of people stick around at university. I have been a faculty member for 20 years and so when you look at the cycle of people coming in and leaving and creating opportunities for diversity to happen, sometimes you can’t be looking at things with a period of two years, you have to be looking at things that are in the 10 year range to make sure you are taking steps that bear fruit over the course of a decade because those are the types of cycles that the faculty level is dealing with. I also know in engineering, I have been very pleased that we have had progress around being more inclusive of increasing diversity in the college. I think that his is important for the initiative right now, because we will have engineers who are really interested in the environment who will want to engage in the types of questions that this initiative is really seeking to address and create solutions for. So I see a lot of progress in that space, with Latinx students population increasing naturally over the course of the last few decades. Initiatives like this, Latinxs and the Environment, can catalyze even more progress.
L&E: What lead to the success?
Oscar: I think a number of reasons, one is there needs to be a concerted effort to effect change from the diversity standpoint, you can’t just let it happen because then all of the obstacles that exist for that to happen would just perpetuate a lack of diversity. So we have to look at what are the structures that are impeding that and what are the actions and practices that we can take to change that. These are difficult things, and we take action with that. It also takes support from the academic leadership, dean, chairs, faculty. And all of this came from a moment of crisis there that really lead us to be more proactive and not just wait for things to happen but take action. Unquestionably, over 50% of California high school graduates are latinx, and this is only going to grow. There will be change. The question is how fast and how are we addressing what is impeding the natural evolution of how the demographics are going to change. And if we don’t do that then we will continue having challenges.
L&E: Latinos are increasingly taking the lead on environmental issues in California. What importance does this have for the future development of California and Central America?
Oscar: Well, that’s a very interesting question, its very broad I’ll say that internationally, I think there are challenges that might be too big for this Initiative to address because you are looking at a socio-political landscape that is fraught with many challenges. If you look at central america, each country has its own set of challenges. For example, Nicaragua right now, which is where my parents’ home country, is having a horrible situation where our students are voicing their concerns both the lack of opportunity and political situation and they are being shot to death. So when we think about not having fundamental societal structures that allow people to make decisions without consequences, and you have corrupt government structures that have been in play for decades since dictators were elected. So the you start to think, well what can I do around the environment? It’s hard to focus on the environment if you are having to focus on life or death issues. So that is a really hard piece. It’s important for us to not lose sight of the environmental impacts we are seeing because they will impact all of us over time, but i think that society needs to be ready to have long term goals and commitments and stability for those goals to be fulfilled. I think any latin american country very sadly and tragically is still working on that. Here in california it’s very different, if we are also looking at the south west, the latinx community needs to have not just a voice but a significant voice at every table including decisions around sustainable cities, labor, governance, environment, and all of these issues that impact our ability to make sound environmental decisions and implement sound environmental policies. And California is a leader in that, as one of the largest economies in the world not just in the US, as a state that is among the most progressive in all type of environmental policies that support an increasingly diverse society and eventually our society is moving in that direction. So we are really the test bed of all the changes that need to happen, not just in the environment but in all sorts of different areas. When we make a decisions, others listen and look to us, so this is an opportunity to understand that when we make decisions, we need to understand it in the context of scientifically, financially or fiscally, and also what makes sense in the very communities that we are engaging and trying to serve. And we are not doing that in California right now. We have a responsibility to become good stewards of the environment our economic infrastructure and all these other things.
L&E: Being a role model for many of the Latinos in our community, what advice do you have for new Latino students starting at UC Berkeley or at other UC’s?
Oscar: Well, it’s hard for me to see myself as a role model because I just try to do the best I can in whatever position I am in. I love what i do, and I am very fortunate to be passionate about the work that I do. The more passionate you are, the more successful you will be in expressing it and finding ways to support and sustain that passion through your work or career. Here at UC Berkeley, different parts of the campus reflect aspects of the Latinx community, that is something that has important meaning for diversity and inclusion on campus. How do the people in leadership reflect who we are? This takes a lot of work, coming back to the way that structures and practices limit the diversity seen on campus. As a parent of a new Cal student, I think about the types of engagement my brown daughter will have on campus. It’s all about finding community, across different identities. For example, I find fulfillment in my latinx community across different departments, but i also connect with my engineering community and want to talk about all the research that I love what i do. Sometimes they are not all intersecting but i need to find a way to navigate those communities. So i think that the most important thing for latinx students when they come here is that they explore all different parts of themselves that make up who they are and see how different communities enable them to explore the multiple parts of who they are. Even where you don’t feel welcome, it’s important to reach out and find ways to be strong in those spaces to open the door for the next people to come. It takes work. Sometimes you may be the only person in your field, but you are the only person who can be responsible for your passion and dream. Perhaps, there is a need to discuss strategies and tools in situations where you may be the only person of your culture or background in a specific area of study.
L&E: I agree! We need to keep our strength and focus in those challenging moments.
Oscar: There are various alumni that I have heard speak, and they talk about what they did despite the odds, not what they didn’t do because of their situations. Sometimes it does take extraordinary effort. But we cannot shy away from the challenge. We can’t afford to! I hope that over time our work expands opportunities and makes it easier for other students down the line to feel fully welcome and supported.