Social Justice Initiatives
Q & A with Margaret Montoya
Haywood Burns Chair 2008-09:
Professor Margaret Montoya
She discusses her classroom techniques, TV work and performance art.
Professor Margaret Montoya has broken barriers and forged new paths since she was a young woman. In the 1970s, she participated in the Chicano, anti-war, and women's movements. After earning a bachelor's degree from San Diego State University, she was the first Latina admitted to Harvard Law School. Upon graduation, Montoya received the University's Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellowship and studied affirmative action programs in Malaysia and India. She then worked in Mexico, Boston, and Potsdam, N.Y. before returning home to New Mexico. Professor Montoya joined the UNM law faculty in 1992. And, she taps her creative energies by writing stories and using the performance arts to highlight the views of women of various ethnic backgrounds living in America. Here, the professor takes a few moments to answer questions from CUNY Law magazine editor Emily Sachar about her appointment as the 2008-09 Haywood Burns Chair.
CUNY Law: We've heard that you consider Haywood Burns a role model and mentor. Why?
Professor Montoya: I am committed to the idea that, as lawyers and law professors, we are accountable to the community. Dean Burns worked to close the gap between the legal academy and the local communities in which he participated with such vitality and commitment. I am also deeply inspired by Haywood Burns' humility, and I hope to model that virtue for students and colleagues alike. Dean Burns was a pioneer and helped mold the image of the law professor of color. He and his counterparts rejected the idea of a life lived in the sanctuary of the academy and opted instead for engagement with the problems faced by communities of color. He also rejected the unearned privilege and deference that attaches to certain high-status positions such as professors and urged students and professors to work and learn shoulder-to-shoulder with people in the community.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish at CUNY Law School?
A. I would like to improve my teaching by learning from the outstanding faculty at CUNY. Secondly, I would like to learn from the students, who I assume will be considerably different in background from those I now teach at the University of New Mexico. Finally, I would like to learn more about New York City's Latina/o communities and how law schools can serve them better.
Q. What about CUNY Law impresses you?
A. CUNY has an unmatched reputation for public interest work, and that is what my professional life has been about. I think we're a great match.
Q: You are involved in working on issues of race, ethnicity and gender. What are some of the ways in which you are involved in these topics?
A: From my first article, "Máscaras, Trenzas y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories with Legal Discourse," I have been analyzing the connections between Law (writ large) and the Latina/o experience. My writing considers such issues as identity, language, and legal pedagogy, and I have experimented with using both English and Spanish with various forms of narrative—autobiographical, film critiques, and drawing on the classics. I am on the board of LatCrit, Inc., and I consider this scholarly group my academic home. I have been working with LatCrit for the past 12 or 13 years. We have a variety of projects in which I am involved — writing articles, mentoring new faculty, and organizing academic meetings. Each year LatCrit, which is a multicultural scholarly organization, sponsors an annual conference with a workshop for new faculty. I have participated in that project for several years. LatCrit sustains vibrant discussions about race, law, and public policy and greatly influences my viewpoint, which finds expression in my academic work as a writer, TV pundit, and educator.
Q. What are some of the activities in which you participate now that most pique your interest?
A. I am involved in "Pipeline" activities in the public schools and in undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. The nationwide effort to save affirmative action (which the U.S. Supreme Court did with its decisions in Grutter and Gratz) raised the awareness for many of us of the inequitable conditions in the public schools and the almost insurmountable barriers for low-income students of color. So, I looked for opportunities to get involved with stay-in-school programs and began working with the ENLACE (ENgaging LAtino Communities in Education) program in New Mexico, which aims to improve the educational outcomes for Latina/o students. Now, several years later, we have institutionalized those efforts so there's a faculty committee in the law school that works to improve our connections and build partnerships with students from elementary grades through doctoral studies. We have law students mentoring undergraduates and high school students; events to introduce the community groups to the law school; and projects to move students and faculty into collaborations with public school teachers and undergraduate students and faculty. I have also done mock trials in middle schools, and I'm currently working with the New Mexico Court of Appeals on a program that will feature a live oral argument in a high school. We are working with the local Bar attorneys to do a set of lessons with students plus a Q&A with the judges and lawyers who will be involved in the case. This work is a direct outgrowth of my work on affirmative action. I am proud to be a benefi ciary of this policy to change student admission policies to make them more inclusive.
Q. Tell us a bit about how you structure your class work.
A. My classes use service learning methods. For instance, last semester my students organized media training for the school. My "Gender and the Law" students provided training on domestic violence for immigrant women and helped staff a task force on cultural competence in health science. I am very interested in experimental pedagogies, especially those that deal with issues of race, language, gender, and class. I reject high-stakes testing so, in my torts classes, I use multiple instruments to evaluate performance. For example, I divide the class into small groups ("law firms") and frequently break the class up into law firms to do mock arguments, posters or maps of complex doctrines, or skits. Instead of one fi nal exam, I use problem sets, a graded midterm, a graded course outline, and a final exam. In my upper level classes, I use class participation as a major portion of the grade. I assign the casebook materials for presentation by the students, require a written summary and synthesis with audio-visual aids, and an evaluation by the class done after the presentation. This semester (spring 2008), I will have the students do posters (an idea I am adapting from my work in the medical school), which will be displayed in the law school's forum. I began my teaching career in UNM's clinic, and I use many techniques from clinical teaching in my classrooms. I try very hard to use the diversity in UNM's student body (race, ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, sexual identity, disabilities, and so on) to enhance discussions about law and public policy. This means paying close attention to the facts — who are the parties, who is prevailing, who bears the burdens, the process, as well as who gets in the courthouse door, whose claims get heard and, finally, the rules — what is at stake, what is obscured by the rhetoric and the discourse: where is race or gender? Finally, the students are assigned a community education project to use the law, and what we are discussing in class to provide services for underserved people. Over the past few years, the students have written a guide about students' rights to mental health care and a workbook on higher education for parents; organized a workshop on school segregation in Albuquerque for school administrators; provided media training for the law school and domestic violence training for agencies working with Mexican immigrant women. The students always exceeded my expectations, and I learn so much from them.
Q. Your work in performance art suggests that attorneys and professors can simultaneously nurture their creative side. Tell us more about that.
A. I am working with my colleague, Christine Zuni Cruz, an Isleta Pueblo woman, on a performance piece called "Narrative Braids." Most recently, we presented our work at the Harriet Tubman Theatre at the Underground Railroad Justice Center in Cincinnati. This performance is a conversation between Chicana, a mestiza woman (of mixed racial ancestry), and a Native woman, an indigenous woman, specifically a Pueblo woman, using different narratives — judicial opinions, popular culture, and motherhood stories. Story-telling and story-listening are issues that define my life, as a mom, a granddaughter, and an educator. Our purpose is to discuss such delicate topics as 1) the role the courts have played in creating a racial hierarchy that burdens Native and Latina/o peoples, although in different ways and for different reasons, 2) color-on-color confl ict and racism (tensions between racial groups including New Mexican Latinas/os and local Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache peoples are rarely examined), 3) the stereotyping of youth of color in the schools and public places, and 4) the manner in which "Brown" women—Latinas and Natives—use hair, clothing, facial gestures, silence, and voice to give expression to their identities and to resist cultural assimilation. I try to keep the idea of "paying back" as a motivator for all of my actions.
The Haywood Burns Chair
Haywood Burns, the Law School's second dean, died in an automobile accident in South Africa on April 2, 1996. In his memory, the Law School established a Chair in Civil Rights to honor his legacy of a lifetime committed to equality and justice. The Chair, funded by an endowment and a generous contribution from the New York State Legislature, is a visiting position, enabling a succession of extraordinary people — lawyers, scholars, and activists — to bring their experiences, wisdom, and perspectives to ensure that civil rights remain part of the Law School's consciousness, and part of the ethos of the larger legal community that supports justice and equality. Haywood Burns' civil rights career began at age 15, when he helped integrate the swimming pool in Peekskill, New York. As a law student at Yale University, he participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. He was Assistant Counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later served as General Counsel to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign. A founder of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, he was the first African- American dean of a New York law school, leading the CUNY School of Law to full ABA accreditation.