Ángel L. Vélez is the new Associate Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Student Programs at the Harris School of Public Policy
Ángel L. Vélez, Ph.D., the Associate Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Student Programs

Ángel L. Vélez , Ph.D, recently joined Harris at the start of the 2021-2022 academic year as the new Associate Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Student Program.  

Ángel, whose passion lies at the intersection of higher education and social justice, is bringing eight years of experience designing, implementing, and analyzing research studies dealing with racial equity. He also boasts five years of experience teaching racial and cultural diversity courses, including Black Studies, Latinx and Latin American Studies, Asian American Studies, and diversity in education. 

According to Ángel, diversity and inclusion fundamentally affects and informs policy decisions.

We recently sat down with him to learn more:

You hold a PhD in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership, and have degrees in justice studies as well as higher education leadership. What instilled in you such a passion for education and social justice?

I grew up poor, in a housing project in Puerto Rico, and I’m often reminded of the social inequities in my own lived experience. The systemic disinvestment from Puerto Rican housing and schools was evident in the dilapidated apartments I lived in and the schools I attended.

Once my mother moved our family to Humboldt Park, Chicago, in 2001, we ended up in a similar situation to what we just had left. For example, in my Chicago high school, we had metal detectors, x-ray machines, cameras, and a dozen security guards watching every move. In retrospect, the school resembled a prison more than a place of learning. As I started developing a critical consciousness based on my lived experiences, I began asking more profound questions about social and racial injustice. In particular, I had an interest in understanding policing as a teenager. After school, the police would often stop my friends and me for simply walking home together on the assumption that we were gang members. While I faced these inequities daily, in 2005, I graduated from high school. Unfortunately, over 50% of the school class would end up failing to complete their studies. These educational and policing inequities increased my interest in fighting for equitable education and social policies. It meant transforming not only myself but also the systems and institutions around me. To do that, I pursued the highest degree possible, despite the daily obstacles I faced as an English-learner, low-income, first-generation, Afro-Latinx man.

After 15 years of dedicating my life to studying these critical questions, I earned my Ph.D. in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership with a concentration in History of Education and a graduate minor in Latina/o Studies from the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign in August 2021. Out of 1,000 students who started in my high school class, I am the only one I know who earned this degree. And these are the type of unfair structural conditions that keep me passionate about education, social, and racial justice.

What do you see as the relationship between diversity and inclusion work and public policy?

Whether we know it or not, the relationship between diversity and inclusion and public policy are always inextricably linked. Over the past centuries, public policies have been used to intentionally discriminate. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. In 1967, the Loving v. Virginia court case ended the ban on interracial marriages. And in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marriage is guaranteed to same-sex couples. These U.S. Supreme Court decisions addressed policies that were intimately tied to issues of discrimination.

Diversity and inclusion inform policy decisions in very fundamental ways. It asks the questions: Who will benefit from this policy? Who will it adversely affect? What are the unintended consequences of this policy? Public policymakers will be better equipped to ask these questions, and in the process, reduce potential harm and maximize the effectiveness of the policies they are trying to enact.Since diversity and inclusion work is ongoing, public policymakers need to engage continuously in these topics to make good, informed equitable public policies.

As someone who has taught classes in Black Studies, Latinx and Latin American Studies, Asian American Studies, and diversity in education, how do you approach D&I work? 

My philosophy and practice around diversity and inclusion are centered on this concept of a “culture of critical understanding.” When I began as a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois in 2015, I aspired to assist students in developing a critical consciousness. In my Racial and Cultural Diversity discussion course section, I exposed my students to U.S. racial history and its impacts on contemporary society. While race can be a challenging subject, I learned that my students were eager to engage, debate, and unpack these topics. When I noticed that some of my students would not interact with the material, I made a conscientious effort to involve them through group discussions, in-class presentations, and online posts.

A culture of critical understanding allows everyone to share knowledge on a subject without being judged. In my classes, I ensure that there is a culture of inclusion and respect. I wanted the students to feel a part of the course, even when they did not share the same views on a subject. My entire class was set up to understand each other’s lived experiences, engage their knowledge on the subject, and provide historical and contemporary evidence to expand their worldview. Understanding each other leads to a richer learning experience, which is the primary teaching goal. Also, a culture of critical understanding allows students to be honest and vulnerable to themselves and each other. I intentionally built an environment where everyone could talk about their racialized, gendered, and classed experiences and different marginalized identities. I expected my students to pick up practical tools to critically question the structures that often lead to marginalization and oppression throughout my courses. When my students finished the course, I knew they would be prepared to understand society’s racial ideologies and structures, which lead to racist views and racial oppression.

After five years of teaching experiences at the college level, I have facilitated difficult intellectual conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Every teaching experience has deepened my knowledge of teaching and learning. I have also learned that an asset-based approach to student learning is essential to developing a critical consciousness and transformative changes. In my classroom, everyone had something to contribute. Everyone is a teacher and a learner. The best scholarly discussions have stemmed from student-to-student interactions. For me, a culture of critical understanding is key to developing these mature and challenging conversations. Not only will critical insights flourish from these dialogues, but they will also lead to interventions that create new ways of thinking and awareness.

If there’s one thing you hope to achieve at Harris, what is it?

Everyone must do diversity and inclusion work. Issues of diversity and inclusion are everyone’s responsibility. Whether you are dealing with environmental or urban policies in the U.S or internationally, diversity and inclusion issues will be present. Therefore, I hope to engage not only students but also faculty and staff in these efforts. To be truly transformative, we must be willing to engage others that are different from us.

What are your favorite things to do in Chicago?

I enjoy walking in the park with my family, exploring restaurants, and supporting community-based organizations.