An IDEAL approach to race and ethnicity

Our national conversation on these topics is evolving—thanks in part to Stanford’s IDEAL Provostial Fellows program.

IDEAL Fellows Hector Callejas and María Velázquez.

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Mold on the wall again? Just scrub it off. Repairs that the landlord should do? Do them yourself, lest the rent get raised.

The braided burdens of poverty and renting didn’t rise to María Velázquez’s attention as a child because they were the norm in her Hayward community. A friend’s parents would commute from Modesto, where homes were cheaper. Kids had limited space to do homework, moved again and again. It was only in adulthood that Velázquez began to examine this mode of existence with a critical lens, and the lattice of invisible forces behind it. In her upbringing was an area of study not yet explored.

Now, as a Stanford scholar working at the intersection of housing and education, she studies some of the same generation-shaping policies that molded her own experiences. How does an economic ripple over here impact the rental market over there? How does living at the whims of the rental market affect your relationship to school?

But having a critical view onto these forces doesn’t exempt you from them. A graduate student has to pay the rent, too.

The Provostial Fellows program, part of Stanford’s IDEAL initiative, was conceived to address this reality. Established in 2021 through a significant university investment, with philanthropic support now starting to sustain the program, the fellowship recruits a multidisciplinary cohort of the world’s most promising postdoctoral scholars studying race and ethnicity.

Each year, a group of promising, early-career scholars of race and ethnicity are selected by a committee of Stanford faculty and appointed by the provost to a three-year term. The scholars may be pursuing studies in any school of the university. IDEAL Provostial Fellows receive competitive compensation and a one-time research fund while pursuing scholarship, teaching one course per year, and participating in the intellectual life of the broader university community. Fellows also organize an annual IDEAL Provostial Fellows Conference, where they share their research with the Stanford community and convene scholars who are at the forefront of the study of race and ethnicity.

Velázquez, who joined the third cohort of fellows in September 2023, says the program isn’t just nice.

Maria stands in a black dress in front of a shadowy wall

IDEAL Fellow María Velázquez. Photo: Jess Alvarenga

Without this fellowship,
I would have questioned if academia was even a possible route for me. Because in terms of pay, in terms of housing, in terms of the heaviness of this work, I think it would’ve been unsustainable.”
María Velázquez
A photo illustration of Hector and Maria

IDEAL Fellows Hector Callejas and María Velázquez. Design: Jonathan Chaves

Hector Callejas grew up in a predominantly Mexican Latinx community in Sacramento. With a mother from El Salvador and a father from Guatemala, he did his best to fit in—the cultural traditions weren’t entirely different—but a sense of disconnection hovered. By the time he made his way to community college and then the University of California, Berkeley, as a first-generation college student, that feeling had evolved into something more constructive: curiosity.

The complexities of Callejas’s own biography beckoned. He decided to major in ethnic studies at Berkeley.

“I wanted to learn more about my own identity as a Salvadoran/Guatemalan American,” he says. “I decided to use my honors thesis as an opportunity to look into what different racial identities and Indigenous identities exist in El Salvador—and what that means for me personally, as a scholar and as a member of the diaspora.”

Hector sits on a step in front of a Stanford arch

IDEAL Fellow Hector Callejas.

In 2014, he traveled to El Salvador for a research project on modern Indigenous identities and politics. For two months, he lived with an Indigenous activist in a small rural town and studied the connections between grassroots organizing and national policymaking in the capital city. Soon he was back in California with a full-blown plan: He would get his PhD in ethnic studies at Berkeley and turn that initial curiosity into his life’s work.

Today, Callejas is an interdisciplinary scholar of race, Indigeneity, politics, culture, and the environment, with a focus on social movements. He uses critical theory and ethnographic methods to examine how organizations use discourses of race and Indigeneity to mobilize ordinary people to address social inequalities, and the effects of such mobilization on the governance of ordinary people and their surroundings. With his IDEAL Provostial Fellowship, he’s able to direct that work toward a central goal: academic knowledge production centered on the experiences and perspectives of Indigenous, Latinx, and other racialized communities. 

This year Bryan Brown stepped in as faculty lead for the program. In addition to shaping the national conversation about race across multiple disciplines, he says, the fellowship has professional benefits, too.

“This cohort is building the kind of collective expertise and professional growth that I think will be quite impactful,” says Brown, who is the Kamalachari Professor of Science Education and Vice Provost for Faculty Development, Diversity, and Engagement. “We look forward to contributing to the growth of these incredible scholars. We know they will thrive in the Stanford community and emerge as leaders in research on race.”

The fellows, meanwhile, say one of their chief goals at Stanford is doing complex work with concrete impact. Callejas, for example, says he’d like to see his research contribute to policy solutions for urgent social problems, such as Indigenous dispossession and poverty in El Salvador. 

Velázquez, for her part, notes how an array of policies led to the foreclosure crisis, which in turn led to shifts in rental housing—which go on to shape schooling opportunities for kids. None of that was by accident, she says. By highlighting how policies were deliberately structured, and how families and young people navigate these realities, she hopes to challenge all-too-often individualized understandings of low-income and minoritized communities like the one she grew up in.

Such analyses, like race itself, are invariably complex—in Velázquez’s case, you can’t look at the education piece without looking at the housing piece. The interdisciplinary nature of the fellows’ work, she says, can be both the most exciting part and the most challenging part.

Headshot of Maria
Those unique intersections can make it hard to put us into a category.
That’s what makes the fellowship one of a kind. It creates the time and space and capacity for fellows who are pushing the edges of research, and thinking about inequality and racialized inequities at multiple levels.”
María Velázquez

Photo: Jess Alvarenga

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