An assistant professor with the Urban Teacher Education program at the IU School of Education at IUPUI was honored for her work with Latinx immigrant families of children with dis/abilities in family-centered projects.
Cristina Santamaría Graff, Ph.D., was honored with the 2019 Ernest A. Lynton Award for the Scholarship of Engagement by Campus Compact. The award recognizes a full-time faculty member who is pre-tenure or early career, and who connects their teaching, research and service to community engagement. The Lynton Award emphasizes community-engaged scholarly work across faculty roles.
Using her experience as a bilingual special education teacher, Santamaría Graff applies her skills in working with Latinx immigrant families of children with dis/abilities in community-engaged, family-centered projects. She focuses on ways community-engaged partnerships can transform inequitable practices impacting youth with disabilities at the intersections of race, class, and other identity markers of difference.
Her current work on “Family as Faculty” focuses on ways to position family members and community resources as key stakeholders in the training of future special education teachers. She wants family members to be able to help guide future teachers in how to make their teaching centered on their students.
For Santamaría-Graff, her interest in that work began when she was teaching special education to mostly Latino students in Arizona. She had learned and used multiple strategies and methods as a teacher, but still saw her students struggling, and she remembers continually asking the question, “What am I doing wrong?”
She decided to try a new approach by doing home visits with her students over the summer, meeting their families, hearing their stories and observing the way they interacted with their children to see what she could learn from them. That allowed her to develop more tools to work with children who were struggling, and it allowed the children to feel more comfortable and improve their ability to speak up for what they needed, she said.
When she engaged with not just the child, but their family and community as well, she was able to learn so much more about how to best help that child. But that also meant she had to listen differently, she said. She had to put aside her teaching methods, and be flexible and open-minded.
What she learned grounds what she does now with her community-based participatory research work: to never enter a community to impose her beliefs on someone else or to try to “save” a community, to remember that many voices help contribute to your goal, and community engagement means that every stakeholder has a voice and feels empowered to make a difference, she said.
“I cannot do the work I do without involving the community. I have some answers to some things, but in the big scope of things, I really don’t know a lot,” she said.
She views her work as a shift of power back to the community, she said.
“You go in with an open heart, trusting the process and hoping some of the outcomes and processes are going to benefit the community,” she said.
The award is meaningful to Santamaría Graff, especially after she researched Ernest A. Lynton, who the honor was named after. Lynton believed in a truly democratic process of learning, allowing for questioning that would lead to co-created knowledge. That resonated with Santamaría-Graff because that is how she does her work, tightly weaving scholarship, research and teaching together, she said.
While “Family as Faculty” is a research project, she has included it in her courses with students studying to become special education teachers, integrating educational theories with putting that work into practice, she said.
In her courses, parents spend time teaching her students, allowing her to step out of her authority role and make room for parents as an authority figure who can co-teach the skills future teachers need. She would like to see that kind of work done more in university courses, bringing in the real-life “experts” to be a part of curriculum, coursework, assessment and review of classes, she said.
“There are innovative ways we can re-imagine working with community engagement in university settings,” she said.
Cristina Santamaría Graff is an assistant professor with the Urban Teacher Education program at the IU School of Education at IUPUI, an editor Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, and associate editor for the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. She also received the 2018 Charles R. Bantz Chancellor’s Community Scholar Award, Indiana Campus Compact’s 2019 Brian Douglas Hiltunen Award for Community-Engaged Research and the American Education Research Association’s 2019 Research Award for Practice-Engaged Research.