Educational Dignity, Social Dreaming, and Amending the Colorado Constitution

March 16, 2020

On Wednesday, March 4, 2020, Manuel Espinoza, PhD, associate professor in the School of Education & Human Development, along with members of his Right2Learn undergraduate research collective, Maria Karina Sanchez Velasco and Tania Soto-Valenzuela, wove together captivating, unforgettable stories and research findings about human dignity, civil rights, and an archaic education clause in Colorado’s Constitution written in 1876. More than 200 people came to see the trio speak at the 2nd annual Distinguished Faculty Lecture titled “Masterpieces Made Visible: Educational Dignity, Social Dreaming and the Colorado Constitution.” 

“The textbook of dignity, the inherent and inalienable and supreme value of the human person is social life itself,” began Espinoza. “Every experience — yours, my own — is an entry, in the extended definition of the term….Dignity is not a lifeless abstraction. It is a living, social verb still in the process of finding recognition on our planet.” 

By the virtue of the problems that Espinoza studies, he has become a dignity scholar along with members in his Right2Learn undergraduate research collective. They study the language of dignity in education. They use the language of dignity to persuade people to consider certain possibilities and then to act on those considerations. They have even written a Handbook of Dignity: a guide to its usage, content and criteria.

Distinguished Faculty Lecture presented by Manuel Espinoza

Stories Shared 

Espinoza told the story of his adoptive father, Edward Cornelio Espinoza. What was lacking in his life were educational experiences that affirmed his mind, humanity and potential. Therefore, his private sense of his own value never really flourished. His vast and immeasurable potential was left, largely unrealized. Counter to this example, he gave an example of learning as a cultural force in a person’s life. He talked about his mother from Mexico, whose teacher affirmed her dignity by taking extra time to teach her to read after class. On the day she pieced it all together, she sprinted home, overjoyed.

Maria Karina Sanchez Velasco, a middle school teacher, Right2Learn researcher and alum of the School of Education & Human Development shared insights into the Right 2Learn research work: technology used, deep respect for team members, and purpose in the work. “This work, and this collective of humans, keeps my faith strong that we can make necessary and wonderful changes in education.” The “collective of humans” she mentioned is, of course, the Right2Learn research team.

Tania Soto-Valenzuela, the original Right2Learn student researcher and urban underserved track coordinator for the Colorado Area Health Education Center at Anschutz Medical Campus, works with diverse communities. She discussed her experiences as a working class, migrant woman of color. Her life’s purpose is to alter the world from how she has experienced it. She stressed the importance of survival and persistence to achieve goals. She discussed the Right2Learn team’s process of consolidating the Handbook of Dignity via phone conversations, web conferencing and a web annotation software called Hypothesis. They arrived at a definition of dignity as a duty — from person to person, and from the government towards the governed.

Research Findings

Amending the education clause in the Colorado Constitution would be a gift to the future, say the CU Denver Right2Learn researchers. 

“Changing the mandate will alter the quality of the educational process, the mind of the child, the character of the outcome, and the heart of our community,” says Espinoza. “We know how long it takes for ideas to settle into the marrow of a society. I think that amending the Constitution would provide a measure of justice to those who have been denied educational opportunities.

For the full details of the suggested changes to the Colorado Constitution, please read Dr. Espinoza’s guest editorial in the Denver Post on Sunday, March 8, 2020

Next Steps

Last Friday, Espinoza and Frida Silva, a Right2Learn community researcher, walked to the Office of the Secretary of State of Colorado to meet with Steven Ward. It was a first step in a citizen-initiated path to an education clause amendment. 

“This will be the most difficult thing we do,” said Espinoza. “Our goal is to have it on the ballot for the 2022 general election in our state.”

Delighted Audience 

“What I know about Manuel is that he is a person of great conviction and quiet strength,” said Chancellor Dorothy Horrell. “Every time I see him, I am touched by his commitment to his students and his love for the work he does. To me, he embodies the best about what we believe regarding who we are and what we do at the University of Colorado Denver.”

Dr. Espinoza’s mentor and former graduate professor from UCLA, Dr. Kris Gutiérrez, now at UC Berkeley, flew to Denver to see the lecture. CU President Mark Kennedy, Regent Lesley Smith, Dean Kantor, Associate Dean Dorothy Garrison-Wade and a multitude of CU Denver students, faculty, staff and community members found significance and humanity in the speech.

“I appreciated the opportunity to hear Dr. Espinoza’s lecture,” said CU President Mark Kennedy. “His insights and perspective were carefully considered and well presented. I am continually impressed by the high-quality work of our faculty.”

From left: Chancellor Dorothy Horrell, CU President Mark Kennedy, Assoc. Professor Manuel Espinoza, and SEHD’s Dean Rebecca Kantor.

About the Chancellor’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series

The Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series is presented by the Chancellor’s Office each spring and was created to complement the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series, which was made possible through a gift from Lennie and Bob Damrauer. It is an opportunity to showcase the exceptional faculty that we have here at CU Denver and to help the broader community understand the expertise and the incredible contributions that are being made by faculty at the university. Espinoza was selected by a very rigorous committee process.