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Juan Velasco, Associate Professor, English and Modern Languages
Monday, Aug. 1, 2011
You won’t find Professor Juan Velasco talking about global climate change, energy conservation, or recycling in his courses. He doesn’t preach the importance of buying a hybrid vehicle, and is not a member of the Environmental Studies and Sciences Department. Yet, students leave his classes with a deeper understanding of sustainability that Santa Clara University seeks to address.
Professor Velasco is an Associate Professor in the Department of English. He teaches courses in Contemporary Latin American and Chicano/a Literature, and Film. A devoted academic, he has two PhD’s, with specializations in Contemporary Latin American Literature and Contemporary Chicano/a Literature.
Although one would think that Latin American Literature and Film are not directly related to issues of sustainability, his special topics course, “Border Crossings and Border Killings” raises awareness about the global injustices that are perpetuated in our world today. The course focuses specifically one of the most glaring examples of the consequences of industrialized globalization: the killings in Juarez, Mexico. As a result of the rapidly expanding maquiladora industry and the power of drug cartels in border cities such as Juarez, the mysterious murders of hundreds of women have gone unacknowledged and ignored. Velasco emphasizes the importance of addressing social justice issues such as these throughout the class, and the conversations often result in reflections on what it means to be sustainable. And for Professor Velasco, the deepest issues of sustainability are reflected in social justice questions:
“To me, I think the main question has always been how do you connect sustainability with the poor, with this issue of social justice. It is becoming more and more clear to me that at the core of this sustainable revolution, we need to start with the notion that we’re all connected.”
The Juarez killings and other negative consequences of a globalized society, such as the dissolution of local communities and the individual isolation people feel in this era of “dis-information”, can all be disheartening topics to discuss in class. However, Velasco encourages and inspires his students to become what he calls “intellectual activists”:
“Intellectual activism for me is realizing that the work that we’re doing in the classroom is crucial, because the main obstacle right now is ignorance and the lack of consciousness. The papers, the discussions, the work that we do in the classroom are able to bring that light, to bring that consciousness to the surface. And our job, in my opinion, should be the job of public intellectuals, so this knowledge should not just be for us.”
Velasco also encourages students to reflect on “what kind of cultural/economic/spiritual/intellectual consciousness we have in the planet right now and to what degree we need to transform to be able to be truly sustainable.” He can hold students captive by delivering carefully articulated descriptions of our water crisis or the amount of chemicals found in cosmetics; and, since this information is coming from an unexpected source: a Latin American studies professor, students listen.
“One of the students, Annie, was working in this little school in San Ramon, and she came in a state of hopelessness, and she said ‘we’re going to have to kick out 30 children tomorrow because they don’t have the money to pay for it.’ A lot of these children come from single moms, or they’re orphans, or they have parents who are alcoholics or drug addicts. It was the immediacy of the problem that drove me to action.”
Heartbroken, he started writing emails to families and friends asking for money to help support the 30 children. Within a few weeks, he had raised enough money to keep those children in school for another year. The community was so grateful that they named this new program “Programa Velasco.” The program is four years strong, and the donations that the program receives go towards the children’s education as well as parenting development programs. The donations also helped set up a microloan system for the women who want to start their own businesses.
Velasco’s devotion to this El Salvadoran community reflects the ideals that he teaches in class. The three concepts that he wants his students to take away from his classes are intellectual activism, a realization of global interconnectedness, and an awakened consciousness of the issues our world faces and the impact we have on the planet.
“Sometimes we don’t realize the problem of consumerism--if we all become just a consumer in a system looking for profit, eventually we all become the objects; we don’t have any agency. And whether it is using women to the point of breaking their health, or using up our planet to the breaking point, or using up labor from 3rd world countries, it’s the same principle of commodification. You have a system that is sustainable, or you have a system where everything and everybody becomes a commodity; you choose, to me that’s the paradigm shift we have to engage in.”
The Future of the U.S.
Our future is here and now:
Interview and article by Kaelin Holland, '11, Sustainability Intern for Waste Diversion.