Ricardo Diaz says he is paid to give solutions, not to get discouraged by the problems. And solutions and generally optimistic views about the future of the Hispanic population in the Milwaukee area are what he offered in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Thursday in the Lubar Center of Eckstein Hall.
Diaz is executive director of the United Community Center, a booming, multi-faceted operation on the South Side that offers services for everyone from pre-schoolers to the elderly, including an art center, a fitness center, a restaurant, a treatment center for people with Alzheimer’s, and a highly-praised youth music program. It is perhaps best known for its Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, a kindergarten through grade charter school with 1,300 students and a record as one of the brightest lights on the Milwaukee education scene.
Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, asked Diaz what the overall goal of the UCC is. “Simply, getting Hispanics into the middle class,” Diaz replied. And he said there is progress in doing that.
The growth of the Hispanic population in the Milwaukee area is why the Milwaukee area has not lost population overall, he said, and about 10 percent of the total population of the metropolitan area is Hispanic now. That comes to about 160,000 people, of whom about 80 percent are US citizens, he said.
Employment rates are high among Hispanics, Diaz said, but many are underemployed, meaning they have low-paying jobs. Moving them up the job ladder is a priority.
Diaz is a strong believer that one of the keys for doing that is education. That includes giving Bruce-Guadalupe students an education that puts them in good position to go on to high-performing high schools. But, he said, the school has intentionally not opened a high school of its own because UCC leaders believe it is best for the students to go to high schools where they get involved with people from non-Hispanic backgrounds.
The UCC also has opened a second school, Acosta Middle School, with a goal of serving students who are aiming for two-year post-high school certificates and careers in areas such as technical and trade jobs.
In a recent piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, educator leader Howard Fuller expressed discouragement about overall education progress in Milwaukee. Gousha asked Diaz if he shared that view. “No, I don’t,” he said. “I think our problems are solvable.”
But asked how the education system overall in Milwaukee is doing, he said, “Not well.” He said he agrees with those who say people overall aren’t upset enough by the large percentage of children (generally 80 percent or more) in the city who are rated as less than proficient on state tests of reading and math skills.
There are several schools near Bruce-Guadalupe with good reputations. Diaz said he thinks that is healthy and competition is good – if it’s focused on improving education. He said he is tired of the battles that have gone on for years between advocates of public schools, the private schools in Milwaukee’s voucher program, and charter schools. That war is really about jobs for adults, not what’s best for children’s education, he said, and “the war is over,” with all the sectors here to stay.
What can be done to end those wars? “We need more leadership in this area, we need to lead from the front,” he said. The goal for all should be that “we need to uplift.“
He praised Milwaukee as a place to live, with great amenities and quality of life.
Diaz emphasized the importance of Hispanics to the future of the Milwaukee area. He said the population will continue to grow, not so much from immigration but from growth within the existing population, which is generally quite young.
“We think Milwaukee will go as far as the Hispanic community will take it,” he said. “There is a direct correlation between the success of the Hispanic community and the success of Milwaukee.”
Video of the one-hour program may be viewed by clicking here.