Solutions in Sight:
"A place where all kinds of
people learn to come together in peace."
A Conversation with Hugh
(read chat transcripts with Hugh Vasquez here and here)
Spanish word for "everyone," was started in 1985 by Hugh
Vasquez, Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, and Harrison Simms. They
began working with high school students on issues of race,
gender and class, focusing on how to break down barriers and
create alliances between groups. Today Todos
Institute is building a movement where people
"unlearn" the racism that lies within them. When that
happens, they can figure out how to come together as a
community and take action to create an environment where
people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds can thrive.
The InSite: What was
your personal motivation to start an organization that
teaches young people how to "unlearn" racism?
Hugh: Social justice has been a part of my hopes
and dreams since I was a child growing up in a small rural
town in Southern California. I come from a mixed heritage
background. My father is Mexican and my mother is white.
TI: Were your parents
Hugh: No, but we had some experiences that
happened to me at a very early age that had to do with
TI: Tell me a little bit about that.
Hugh: A family business was destroyed because the
power brokers in the town I grew up in felt threatened and
decided they were going to "take care of" the threat [which
they believed was us]. So that was the very beginning.
TI: That must have been shocking for you.
Hugh: It was! Very shocking! And it had a long
lasting impact in economic ways in the family. And
emotionally and psychologically on each of us.
Social justice has
been a part of my
hopes and dreams since I was a child...
TI: Was there any legal action
taken against the people who did this?
Hugh: There was some exploration of it but what
could have been done was not done. You know, we were a
working class family and the legal system was really not
something that working class families are used to using. We
weren't really familiar with it. It wasn't really
TI: What affect did all of this have on you at
Hugh: It was my world awakening to injustice. I
was about 11 at that time and I became very
angry from witnessing and
experiencing this huge form of mistreatment. I got real
silent. The childhood stopped at that point. The real world
slapped me in the face and I became very bitter and angry at
rich white people, even though my mother was white.
[laughing] My anger was really towards the upper class, more
than it was about color. These jerks took away something
that they shouldn't have taken away. They were unfair in
doing that. And I knew it was unfair.
TI: What was it like for you going to middle school
and high school in that town?
Hugh: My junior high and high school years were
spent "simmering" but I was a leader in the schools and in
many different ways because I didn't want to see what
happened to us happen anymore.
My anger was really
towards the upper class, more than it was about
TI: Did you have friends of
mixed races and backgrounds?
Hugh: Yeah! Of course there were people I didn't
relate to and didn't try to be friends with because they
were the "rich" people. And I was a busboy [someone who
clears tables] at a country club.
TI: What an interesting choice of a job considering
the direction you were heading! It must have fueled the
social activist inside of you.
Hugh: [laughing] It really did! Because to me it
was the wealth that I saw every day in my face and how they
treated us, especially as busboys. It was really something
outrageous. Yeah, it stoked the fires quite a bit. The
wealthier people came to the country club and I saw them as
nothing but snobs.
TI: So you were prejudiced against rich people?
TI: At the time you got ready to
graduate high school what were your plans?
Hugh: You know my goals at that time, were not to
work with people. I was going to college to get into
TI: [laughing] That's about as far away from people
and building communities as you can get!
Hugh: [laughing] You got that right! I didn't
really know why I was doing it, I just figured, I like trees
and well... So I was trying to get away, I guess, from what
had been happening. But this fire was burning inside, that I
had to do something about the world and the
injustice that was around me.
... this fire was
burning inside, that I had to do something about the world
and the injustice that was around me.
TI: So what happened?
Hugh: I started taking some forestry classes and
found out what that was about and I said, "This isn't what I
want." I began to get introduced to [the writing of] Malcolm
X and different activists. That's when it sparked something
in me that said, "Okay. It's not that I want to work with
people. It's that I want to work with social
situations." So I went into social work because
there was a lot of community activism in social work. I
didn't do it to fight racism at that time, I was actually
going [to get trained to do] family and child treatment,
criminal justice work in juvenile hall, that kind of stuff.
TI: When did your interest shift into anti-racism
Hugh: The spark was a
documentary film called, "Coming of Age" about a youth camp
program in Southern California that dealt with racism,
sexism and other "isms" head on. When I saw that it was real
clear that's what I wanted to do. And I met these two other
people. Erica "Ricky" Sherover-Marcuse and Harrison Simms.
Ricky was a Jewish woman and Harrison was an
African-American man. The three of us accidentally found
TI: [laughing] There are no "accidents."
Hugh: That's true! Ricky had been doing what she
was calling "Unlearning Racism" workshops all over the
world. Harrison had been doing a lot of anti-male violence
work. You know, working on
sexism with men. We three became a
TI: What did you do together?
Hugh: We would go into schools and recruit
students to come to our seven day summer program. We got a
mixture of areas, gender, ethnicity and all that. And the
young people came to camp pretty much not knowing what was
going to happen.
TI: With the idea that these kids in the camps
would go through your program and return to their own
schools and neighborhoods and become leaders for change
Hugh: Right! And there are some of them who are
now trainers with us! Unfortunately Ricky died in 1988 and
then Harrison died 16 months later.
TI: That must have been incredible for
you to deal with!
Hugh: Yeah. It stopped everything and threw
everything off. We almost fell apart as an organization. It
took about a year of stumbling and grieving before forming
the institute that we now know as Todos: Sherover-Simms
Alliance Building Institute. It's named after Ricky and
TI: You have been doing this work since 1985 and it's
now many years later. What changes have you noticed?
Hugh: There was a momentum being built, not just
in our work, but in a lot of work being done, that created
an increased demand for justice. It seems there are now a
lot of other groups, on the other side, that don't want to
see that [justice] happen.
There was a momentum being built...
that created an increased demand for justice.
TI: I love your use of the words "demand for justice."
That's part of the reason why The InSite is here! To be
silent is not okay. It is just as bad as actively
participating in racism.
Hugh: Absolutely right!
The InSite: If someone reading this interview is
thinking to themselves "There is so much diversity in my
school, my community. So much negative feeling and conflict.
I like what this guy is saying, but what can I do to make
things better?" What would you you say to them?
Hugh: I would say that it is very possible, in
fact it is in our human nature, to want to be close to other
people. There is hope! All of the divisions that exist among
us can be eliminated. If there is any fire burning inside of
you that says you want things to be different, then the best
thing you can do is recognize that you
have that fire and there will be a path
that comes your way. So if you look inside and find there's
a fire inside around racism and diversity and such, then
there is something that you can do.
TI: What would you say
to someone who says, "You know, I'd like to reach out to
people in other groups but I'm afraid my friends will give
me a hard time." I think that's a real issue for young
people. That choice between staying safely within their own
group, or crossing the line and following that "fire" you're
Hugh: What I see with high school and junior high
school students, is that those who recognize they have the
fire are not really worried about that other stuff. They are
willing to take the risk. Taking the risk and responding to
the fire doesn't mean you're going to lose anybody. I don't
want you to lose anybody. And my experience is that I have
not lost people, I have gained people through all this. The
fire will create the possibility for your friend group to
expand because people with that fire are very powerful and
they often don't realize how powerful they are.
Want to find out more about
Email them at: [email protected]
All of the divisions
that exist among us can be eliminated. So if you look inside
and find there's a fire inside around racism and diversity
and such, then there is something that you can do.
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Oakland, CA 94612
or phone: (510) 444-6448
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