Justice Now

Solutions in Sight: Social Justice

Todos Institute

"A place where all kinds of people learn to come together in peace."

A Conversation with Hugh Vasquez
September 1997
(read chat transcripts with Hugh Vasquez here and here)

Todos, the 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 social activists?

Hugh: No, but we had some experiences that happened to me at a very early age that had to do with racism.

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 acceptable. So...no.

TI: What affect did all of this have on you at that time?

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 color.

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?

Hugh: Yeah.

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 forestry.

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 work?

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 each other.

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 team.

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 against racism?

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 Harrison.

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.

Group ShotTI: 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 talking about.

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.

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.

 

Want to find out more about Todos?

Email them at: [email protected]

Write to:
Todos Institute
1203 Preservation Park Way, Suite 200
Oakland, CA 94612

or phone: (510) 444-6448

 


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