By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

A force for change

When Nolan Cabrera graduated from McMinnville High School in 1998, he had his future all planned out.

He would study mechanical engineering at Stanford University, land a high-pay, high-satisfaction engineering job and live happily ever after.

Somewhere along the way, Cabrera changed gears. It wasn’t so much that he lost interest in engineering as that  he discovered his true passion lay in education.

“I loved the intellectual life ... and I started to gravitate toward the empowering potential of education, the transformations that can happen, the potential for addressing some of our most pressing social issues,” he said.

Cabrera is very happy with his choice.

“I’ll be a life-long learner,” he said. “I never want to lose that thirst for knowledge and I always want to be part of that group that effects social change.”

Now 33, the Mac High grad received his degree from Stanford in 2002, and went on to earn his master’s and doctorate at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He is now serving as an assistant professor with the University of Arizona’s Center of the Study of Higher Education, where he specializes in researching diversity, affirmative action and racism. He lives in Tucson with his wife, Paloma Beamer, an assistant professor of public health, and their 3-year-old son, Joaquín.

He and Joaquín recently visited McMinnville, where the preschooler played with Grandpa George Cabrera while the professor spoke at Linfield College and Chemeketa Community College.

Cabrera, who speaks all over the country these days, loves sharing his research.

At Linfield and Chemeketa, he talked about his work with the Tucson Unified School District, a largely Hispanic and black district that was subjected to a politically driven state mandate to eliminate its program of Mexican American and black studies. The alternative was loss of all state funding, which would have proven catastrophic.

Supporters of the curriculum are now fighting to have it reinstated.

Cabrera has been looking at the impact the program had on students. His study of cohort groups from 2008 to 2011 found that the classes positively affected achievement on state tests, as well as the graduation rate.

“Ethnic studies allowed students to see themselves in the curriculum,” he said. “This is the crux of education.

“Yet one of the biggest opponents of ethnic studies is saying, ‘Let’s get back to real studies,’ by which he means looking at white man’s contributions.”

He noted that the fight is taking place in Arizona, with its notorious practice of racial profiling to ferret out illegal immigrants — “a state that overtly combats anything that’s different,” he said.

The whole fight over ethnic students has been fascinating to watch, Cabrera said, because he has seen young people stand up and make themselves heard.

“Educators want to create critical thinkers who can use that skill to become active members of the community,” he said. “Now, Tucson’s school board meetings are filled with kids who are actively engaged. They’re passionate.

“They’re not just bemoaning a problem. They’re doing something about it.”

He said, “There’s something profoundly beautiful about that. They should be celebrated.”

Cabrera became interested in patterns of inequity in education while doing his doctoral work at UCLA. It’s not just the question of ethnic studies in an Arizona public school district, he said. Across the country, different groups receive distinctly different levels of service.

He’s proud to be affiliated with the Center for the Study of Higher Education, which is doing important and often ground-breaking work. For instance, one of his colleagues is investigating academic capitalism — the struggle of schools to attract paying students while still challenging them.

His own area of study is racial dynamics in higher education, which contrasts students at the margins with those in the mainstream.

Although there have been improvements, and no one is overtly attempting to create imbalance, inequality still exists, he said. In fact, “racial inequality is very dramatic, with dramatic disparities,” he said.

College campuses are often more diverse than the general population of the surrounding area, Cabrera said. That can lead to the assumption that racism on campus doesn’t exist, or at least isn’t a big issue, he said.

But it does, he said, even if mainstream culture isn’t realize or acknowledge it. “People can do something racist without being a racist,” he said.

Students who’ve come to campus after growing up in a monoculture or a majority-white town may not even consider they are being inappropriate when they tell jokes, for instance. They might have developed stereotypes from images in the media, and not realize it’s hurtful and unfair to the people being stereotyped.

“The idea I keep playing with is: I can’t look into your heart but I can look at your actions,” Cabrera said. “We all slip up. We may not intend to be a racist, but we may do something that’s racist.”

As part of his research, Cabrera interviewed white, male college students. They admitted telling jokes that played on stereotypes of minorities, but only to their white friends.

The students said they found nothing wrong with racial jokes, but know their minority friends might. They think minorities are just being “too sensitive,” although they haven’t raised that with them.

“I want to get to the point that we can have these uncomfortable conversations,” Cabrera said. He hopes to contribute to reducing racism and other societal ills, like sexism and homophobia.

The last few years have seemed like a step backward in the fight against racism, he said. With Obama’s election and the start of the recession, there has been a resurgence in racist speech and actions.

Cabrera said he hasn’t been surprised, especially by the reaction to financial problems. Fear can bring out the worst in people.

That doesn’t mean efforts to combat racism are unwarranted, though.

“A very big reason I’m doing this is Joaquín,” he said. “If I, and if groups, can make this world a little more equitable ...

“It’s delusional to think racism can be eliminated. But we have made tangible progress. We need to keep going.”

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or


Remembering blackberries, burritos and Turkey Rama

Nolan Cabrera, a Mac High graduate who went on to earn his doctorate, spent almost his entire youth in McMinnville. He was 6 months old while his parents moved here from Syracuse, N.Y.

He has fond memories of his hometown — zipping down the big slide in Wortman Park, playing in Cozine Creek, going to the library, swimming at the aquatic center and catching a movie at Third Street Pizza’s Moonlight Theater.

He’s proud to say he hit 20 consecutive Turkey Ramas. Summer memories also include raiding his dad’s raspberry vines or picking sun-warm wild blackberries — “so juicy, so awesome.”

He often could be found at Muchas Gracias.

“I ate Oregon burritos constantly when I was in high school,” he said. “That is home.”

As a child, he went to the Linfield Preschool. He also hung out on campus while his parents supervised Upward Bound students and spent time at Linfield sports camps.

He lettered in football, wrestling and baseball at Mac High. During his senior year, he also served as student body president.

He was part of Culturas Unidas and Mac High’s chapter of MEChA. The two clubs helped sponsor a regional MEChA conference that attracted about 1,000 students from around the state.

At the time, the late 1990s, he said many people at his school were resistant to MEChA, believing it to be a separatist organization. But he found it to be both inclusive and important in encouraging Latino students to take part in their education and think about college.

He recalled the first time he attended a meeting of MEChA, which strives to end imperialism, racism, sexism and homophobia.

“My Spanish wasn’t very good at the time, and the meetings were in Spanish,” he said. “So they’d have someone help me. It was one of the most inclusive student groups I’ve ever seen.”

The principles of MEChA still resonate with him in his work studying racial dynamics in education.

Today, outside work, Cabrera relaxes with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a form of martial arts that he said is similar to, but more gentle than, the wrestling he did in high school.

“Jiu-jitsu is one of the few activities I do that will get my brain to shut off,” he said. You have to concentrate on the physical in martial arts, he said, because “if you start thinking of the theoretical, you’re done.”

The other thing that takes his mind off work is playing with his son. “Joaquín keeps me grounded,” he said.

Cabrera, his wife and Joaquín, 3, now live in Tucson, Ariz.

When he introduced himself to his nearest neighbor, he discovered he didn’t need to explain how much his hometown meant to him. It turns out he lives next to Lois Martin, who grew up on a turkey farm, graduated from Mac High in the 1950s and went on to Linfield.

“She knows,” he said.

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