Octavio Pescador: Alumnus Hopes to Take Freirean Principles to LA’s City Hall

The co-founder of UCLA's Paulo Freire Institute looks forward to leading his community to tolerance, sustainability, and more jobs.

When Octavio Pescador (Class of ’93, Political Science; ’03, Ph.D., Education) was teaching a class in “Politics of Education,” at UCLA, his students challenged him to run for a seat on the board of trustees for the Los Angeles Community College District in the 2011 election.

“We were covering the topic of community college as the gateway for most minority students to achieve the college dream,” Pescador recalls. “A group of the students said to me, ‘You encourage people to make a difference if they see something in the world that’s wrong, to change it. But you are here, so comfortable, and doing nothing. Put your money where your mouth is.’ So, basically, they challenged me. They said, ‘There’s an election for the community college board of trustees, and we’re going to sign you up.’ I said, ‘Certainly, let’s do it.’”

Pescador garnered 30,000 votes through a grassroots campaign that was largely run by his students, no fundraising, and with a minimum of contributions. Although he did not win the trustee seat, he did already have voter recognition from his extensive work for more than a decade with students, community service nonprofits, and immigrant groups within the 13th District of Los Angeles, and from his notoriety as a political commentator for local and international media including ABC 7, AP, CNN, EFE, La Opinión, MSNBC, NBC 4, Univision.

Pescador, who has taught for nearly ten years at UCLA, is currently a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.This year, he is hoping to represent District 13 on the L.A. City Council, hoping to win in order to serve what he says is the most diverse council district in Los Angeles.

“There are over 100 languages spoken in a 13-square-mile radius,” says Pescador. “You have people from all across the social spectrum, from conservatives to super-liberals. There are young families, hipsters, Latinos, and within Latinos, Central Americans, Mexican Americans, first-generation, recent immigrants, African Americans, a large Asian population of Thai, Korean, Filipino, and Chinese. So it’s a beautiful kaleidoscope of what we are as a society, and where we’re heading.”

Pescador’s platform of tolerance, sustainability, and jobs stems from his experiences as an educator, an activist, and a parent. While planning on bringing effective mediation programs to LAUSD schools, he says that the UCLA Lab School’s “Cool Tools” conflict resolution program is an example of the importance of teaching tolerance to children as early as possible, particularly in addressing issues such as sexual preference and Black/Brown conflict.

“We must not let the opportunity pass to teach children about tolerance in schools early on and in the community,” says Pescador. “It is the responsibility, not only of the teachers, but of public officials and people in leadership positions. There’s a great deal of common history and there’s a shared future, for certain, for our children. They sometimes fight without knowing what’s been binding them together for years.”

Pescador is an advocate for sustainability, having taught a class on environmental racism at USC and collaborated with the Los Angeles Land Trust. He has also previously served as associate director at the UCLA Center for Community Learning, where he helped to administer the university’s civic engagement minor program and established the “Alternative Spring Break” program for students through the Yitzak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA. He also looks forward to helping to establish more jobs within L.A.’s transportation system and jobs associated with the newly approved Hollywood Redevelopment Project. He says that the 1,107 acre area will provide not only employment, but a source of equitable housing for a range of income levels.

“These are great opportunities to create jobs,” says Pescador. “Anything that I can do to support the development of a smart, green, and socially conscious development in that area, is going to be my priority.”

Pescador was selected by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block to serve on the Governing Council of UCLA Community School and is active in administering the internship program for UCLA-CS high school students.

“In a very generous gesture, Chancellor Block appointed me to what is in my opinion, the most important project that UCLA has in the community, which is UCLA Community School,” Pescador says. “If you look at the school, it’s marvelous. It’s a beautiful laboratory of what all public schools ought to be.”

Pescador is currently at work on an interactive e-textbook for elementary schools. Titled, “The Adventure of the Javios,” the story combines a flexible template for teaching mathematics, history, or science through a semi-fictionalized account of a family vacation that Pescador took with his father and two sons in order to teach the boys about Mesoamerican culture and history. Pescador says that he hopes that the story will not only pave the way for more effective teaching of content, but also provide much-needed cultural consciousness and self-esteem for young students from immigrant families.

“Aside from the traditional factors of parents’ education, literacy, etc., the cultural being of someone impacts their ability to learn and to function,” says Pescador, whose family immigrated to the United States from Mazatlan, Sinaloa when he was a teenager.

“For some of these students, because of economic need, but also significantly for some of them, because of immigration status, they were never able to learn about or physically see their history or their culture. And in any educational process, the way you feel about yourself and who you are, where you come from, defines how you’re going to perform in terms of your attention span, your grades, in many aspects.”

After the release of “The Javios,” Pescador looks forward to working with ethnic populations in Los Angeles to create versions in other languages including Korean and Tagalog. He says that the culturally relevant tone of the story template, which he has tested in several L.A. schools, is appealing to students and provides them with tools for “a conversation… not a rigid lesson that turns off the kids. It actually engages them and makes them participate and want to participate.” He says that is particularly important for Latino and working class children, who typically come to preschool with a 50 percent linguistic deficit.

“It provides a very wide spectrum of vocabulary, language usage,” says Pescador. “This book allows kids who are not exposed to academic language to engage in that vocabulary early on in a fun way. They create glossaries and provide their own definitions and then they learn the skills of doing research and finding the accurate definitions. Also, they learn some words in Nahuatl, because those are the terms, the names of the places the characters visit.”

Dr. John McNeil, emeritus professor of education, assisted Pescador with the curricular development of “The Adventures of the Javios.” He says that the e-book will provide culturally relevant context for a wide range of class content, context that will reinforce learning for young students with “the importance of transfer.”

GSE&IS alumnus and candidate for L.A. City Council Octavio Pescador collaborated with his two sons and Professor Emeritus John McNeil (at left) to create “The Adventures of the Javios,” an interactive e-book that teaches academic content through ethnic and cultural references.

“Octavio really captures them,” says McNeil. “They’re on the edge of their seats.
The pyramids apply to the math [component]. Then they look at the big mountain, Popocatépetl, the volcanoes – that [lesson] gets into science, heat, global warming. Every subject matter – from writing, poetry, botany – everything can relate to what they’re learning in school. That’s what they need, not to just teach it as a book, but to show whatever they’re learning, that it’s applicable to the lives of the kids.”

Pescador has served as an advisor to various organizations including the California Department of Education, Families in Schools, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), and Thomas Jefferson Senior High School. He is the founding chairman of Larchmont Charter School, and has taught education and social science at USC and California State University, Los Angeles. In addition to his degrees from UCLA, Pescador holds an M.A. in international development from Stanford.
Pescador is a research associate and co-founder of the UCLA Paulo Freire Institute, directed by Professor Carlos Torres. While studying with Torres, Pescador served as his graduate researcher and worked as a program coordinator for the Comparative and International Education Society, during Torres’ term as the organization’s president.

“There are three principles that distinguish Freireans from many other educational philosophers,” says Pescador. “One is that we all share in defining and acquiring knowledge. Nobody holds superiority over anybody in a cultural circle in a space in a classroom when approaching a concept. We all are [both] teacher and student.

“The second thing is that… there is no end to our process of learning and evolving because for every opinion or every thesis that we formulate, there will always be a contrary view. In reconciling those two views, the antithesis and the thesis, we come with a synthesis – a new today, a new tomorrow.

“The third principle is that Freire is not static… [it’s] not a dogma, it’s not a methodology,” says Pescador. “It’s a set of principles and a perspective towards life that allows you to reconcile diverging interests and create community through cultural artifacts, be it textbooks and works, trying to engage immigrant students in the American dream, in the American way, to run a meeting of the city council, and to allow everyone to speak with the same authority, within the constraints of the extant structures.”

With these Freirean principles in mind, Pescador seeks to bring tolerance, sustainability, and jobs to Los Angeles. He says that his path to public service began at UCLA.

“I owe it to my students, I owe it to Los Angeles and to all the people that I stayed here to benefit, not just Latinos, but everyone,” says Pescador. “My students were right. Sometimes you have to leave that comfort zone to really prove what you can offer to the world.”

Above: L.A. City Council candidate Octavio Pescador with his wife Ana Pescador, and their children (L-R): José Ángel, Ana Paula, and Octavio Augusto. Courtesy of Octavio Pescador