Social Entrepreneur Spotlight: Michael Piña of Central Valley ScholarsOctober 13, 2022
Central Valley Scholars, one of twenty-four organizations in New Profit’s first Equitable Education Recovery Initiative, empowers students to realize their potential and capabilities and directly provides the resources, guidance, and support in order to make their educational dreams a reality. They value and understand that every student has their own pathway to education, and they reimagine and rebuild their classrooms, programs, workshops, universities, and more to directly accommodate the individual needs of their students.
Below, Central Valley Scholars President CEO Michael Piña (who uses she/he pronouns), shares important social and economic context about California’s Central Valley and the wealth of potential in the students that call this area home.
Q: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about the issue your organization is working to solve?
A: California’s Central Valley is home to the wealthiest agricultural producers in the world, but it also contains the poorest people and the least educated congressional district in the US (Jarman, 2016; Berube, 2008). Many rural communities in the region have the lowest high school and college graduation rates in the nation. In Mendota, CA, for example, less than two percent of the adult population carry bachelor’s degrees, and high school students rank below average in college readiness (GreatSchools, 2021; Stebbins & Suneson, 2017). In this region, there is a critical need to transform the education system to help all students, especially those who are underserved, receive a post-secondary education.
Higher education systems in the US often fail to understand the intersectional issues marginalized students face. Based on our students’ feedback and experience, we have found that colleges maintain rigorous applications and hold ableist expectations that require applicants to adhere to a secret curriculum based on Eurocentric elitist values. Further, school administrators commonly hold privileged identities to the students they serve and lead with racism, queerphobia, and misogyny. These systemic elitisms develop shame and imposter syndrome amongst marginalized students in the Central Valley, discouraging them from attaining higher education.
Central Valley Scholars is a community-based organization led by low-income, first-generation, Queer, undocumented, and Black, Indigenous, Students of Color, with a mission of creating accessible pathways toward higher education for historically marginalized communities in the Central Valley. We foster equity by providing underserved students the mentorship (themtorship) and constructive tools they need to achieve the education they deserve.
Q: What has been the most fulfilling part of the work that you do?
A: It’s hard continuing my work, and realizing how deep systemic forms of oppression lie in many of the institutions we are forced to operate in. But the sense of power and love that comes when I organize with my community is like no other. When I stand within my community in the Central Valley, I feel hope; I feel optimistic that together we can create a world in which education is accessible to all.
My success in starting Central Valley Scholars doesn't stem from my degree or attachment to a prestigious university. It stems from my learned experiences and survived struggles growing up as a Queer, Latinx, low-income, first-generation student from the Central Valley. It stems from the knowledge my parents and family have passed down from me; it stems from my community and friends who have taught me accountability and reflection of my privileges; it stems from my ancestors (both Queer and immigrants) who have died and fought for me to reside in the spaces I hold today; and it stems from my team, who love and support me dearly, and share the common mission to make the Central Valley a better place to live.
Q: What would have to be true for the work that you do to not be needed?
A: Many students in the Central Valley, especially those who are underserved, reside in educational spaces in which their teachers don’t believe in them, their counselors discourage them, and their families aren’t able to support their academic trajectory needs. Further, they’re expected to keep up with their privileged peers, having to hold high GPAs and seek outside resources in order to be considered for different higher education opportunities – all the while, simultaneously facing racism, poverty, xenophobia, and other injustices on a day-to-day basis.
In order for our work to not be needed, we need a dismantling and reformation of the education system in America that is no longer rooted in white supremacy, ableism, and capitalism; but rather centered on community needs, community values, community knowledge, and efforts to solve systemic oppressions. We need higher education systems to let go of their ableist policies and practices, and we need school systems that believe, love, support, and advocate for all their students.
Q: What are some of the key challenges you personally have overcome since beginning this work?
A: When people would ask me how I founded Central Valley Scholars, I never knew how to respond; the answer always seemed so cryptic to me. However, I now realize that it was sacrifice, belief, and love that led my team and me to our current success.
We had to sacrifice our time, labor, and emotional energy to build projects that provided little to no financial compensation on our end; building resources and scholarships for students while we ourselves also faced financial need. And we had to sacrifice different opportunities and part of our youth due to the constant labor demands the organization needed in order to advance—I remember spending my entire summer in 2019 preparing and hosting workshops, networking, and looking for funding (even spending my 20th birthday packing boxes for a workshop scheduled the following day).
But to me, it was always worth it because I believed in my vision and I believed in Central Valley students. I believed, and still believe, that there is an untapped potential in the Central Valley, where students, especially students with underserved identities, have all the potential to make their academic and career dreams a reality; they merely lack the appropriate support and resources to do so. And I always believed that Central Valley Scholars would be the solution to solve the educational disparities found in our communities.
As first-generation students in underserved communities, we’re not only attaining a higher education for ourselves, but also for our families and those around us. We carry a common love for those who support us and want to make them proud and be a similar support system for them in the future.
Despite hardships I faced in the Central Valley, both by the community at large and in education, there were those few people—an educator who encouraged me, my friends who supported me, and my family who, although didn’t quite understand my ambition, trusted me—that loved me and made the Central Valley feel like home. I know there are so many students who lack that love; not just as students, but love for all they are—undocumented, parents, formerly incarcerated, low-income, queer, transgender, BIPOC. I love these students, my team loves these students, and Central Valley Scholars is their home to both attain the resources they need and also the love they deserve.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share that might help people to feel closer to you or your work?
A: I started the organization when I was 19 years old, as a full-time student at UC Berkeley (which presented its own challenges), and still having to hold another job in order to meet my financial needs. Three years later, I am 22 years old, a first-generation college graduate, and finally have the funding capacity to pay myself and my team full time.
Graduating high school was never expected from me. Graduating college was never expected from me. Now, being an executive director for a non-profit I founded… even I didn’t expect that from me.
My success in starting Central Valley Scholars doesn’t stem from my degree or attachment to a prestigious university. It stems from my learned experiences and survived struggles growing up as a Queer, Latinx, low-income, first-generation student from the Central Valley. It stems from the knowledge my parents and family have passed down from me; it stems from my community and friends who have taught me accountability and reflection of my privileges; it stems from my ancestors (both Queer and immigrants) who have died and fought for me to reside in the spaces I hold today; and it stems from my team, who love and support me dearly, and share the common mission to make the Central Valley a better place to live.
Often times “leaders” of institutions live in the comfort of academia, in which they discuss things like poverty, racism, and other injustices while never having to experience them in real life. I now realize that there is a high level of intelligence that emerges from the mere survival of systemic forms of oppression that educational institutions will never be able to cultivate. And who better to be on the frontlines of solving systemic oppressions than the people who face them on a day-to-day basis.
I know I am young, and have a lot to learn, but I have found my voice and I have found the power in my identities and struggles. I want students in the Central Valley to find their voice, to find their power, and continue to work to make the world a better place for all of us.
To get closer to Central Valley Scholars visit their website. You can stay up-to-date with Central Valley Scholars’ latest activities by following their social media accounts on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Learn more about why Equitable Education Recovery is a key investment area for New Profit here.