Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro on Equity in Education, Activism

BY: LAUREN LUMPKIN

  University Communications/Jeff Watts

University Communications/Jeff Watts

Dubbed a "rising star" by Politico, Julián Castro represents a new generation of democratic leaders. Last week he told NBC News he has “every interest” in running for president of the United States in 2020.

In the meantime, the former San Antonio mayor and Obama-era Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is testing the waters with the young voters who could potentially send him to the White House in two years.

And what better place to find civically-engaged young people than a university? Castro on Thursday joined American University President Sylvia Burwell and CEO of Emeritus Consulting Group Alma Clayton-Pedersen for a panel discussion about AU’s Plan for Inclusive Excellence and equity in education.

“I think that I, along with many other people, represent a new generation of leadership that is diverse, that brings a fresh and, too many times, new perspective to the conversation,” said Castro in an interview before he took the stage with Burwell and Clayton-Pedersen. “So I’m glad to get to speak with a lot of young people.”

  University Communications/Jeff Watts

University Communications/Jeff Watts

Castro’s career in politics began at Stanford University, where he studied communications and political science with his twin brother, Joaquin.

“I know how important it is, based on my own experience in college, that everybody—no matter what their background is—be able to feel comfortable on campus in order to excel and thrive as much as possible,” said Castro. “[My brother and I] came from a community that was a high school that was probably 85 percent Latino, into a much more diverse campus.”

Castro said Stanford was special because there seemed to be a basic respect for all students—regardless of an individual's race or background. 

“Now, of course, every university has its incidents, but I just found that it was so important that everybody feel respected, and that diversity be looked upon as a strength of the university and not a weakness,” Castro said

This point of view has informed Castro’s stance on education – a topic that is consistently at the forefront of politics.

“At every level of the American education system, we don’t have equity,” he said. “And so to me [equity in education] means ensuring that there’s good opportunities for everybody, no matter what their background is. That across the spectrum of education, people of different backgrounds have the same resources to succeed, because whether its urban Baltimore or the school districts I’ve seen in Texas, oftentimes resources are still an issue.”

Castro said that at the university level, equity means investing in programming and organizations that support historically underrepresented groups.

  University Communications/Jeff Watts

University Communications/Jeff Watts

“All of that is important so that everybody can thrive in this 21st-century global economy, that you’re providing as many students as possible, that actually get their degree and are able to contribute in the working world.”

Castro in 2001 became the youngest person elected to San Antonio City Council. He was just 26-years-old. That experience helped propel him into larger positions—the mayor of San Antonio and, in 2014, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Since his early days of community organizing, Castro says he’s learned that every voice—particularly those of young people—matters.

“A lot of the progress being made here at American [University] is due to the voices of students, and also that you have a very open-minded and willing collaborator in President Burwell and the administration,” he said. “So [students] have a fantastic opportunity to make a lot of progress over the next couple of years.”

The community has seen a shift in campus culture since Burwell took office summer 2017. From faster communication about incidents of hate on campus to increased security in the Mary Graydon Center to the launch of the inclusive excellence plan, Burwell has shown she is a president of action.  

This work, of course, could not have been done without student activists who, for years, have demanded the university be held accountable for its lack of diversity and inclusion. Castro said he believes this is young people's job.

“From what I can tell, the students [at AU] are doing a lot of things they should be doing in terms of pushing the university to embrace the right things,” he said. “[The role of young people in politics is] to push the system to be better than it naturally would, to get out there and push the boundaries of good public policy."