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The Power of Education

Marta Baltodano’s passion for social justice – and her belief in the power of education to address societal inequities – is rooted in the life she led before she immigrated to the United States.

For 13 years, Baltodano served as a human rights attorney and activist in her native Nicaragua, as the country was ravaged first by a dictatorship and later by a civil war. The experience, in which she represented political prisoners and refugees and taught humanitarian law to combatants, continues to inform Baltodano’s work now that she is an associate professor at the LMU School of Education.

“Even in the midst of the most difficult conflict, education was the major source for hope and mobility,” Baltodano says. “I saw what a difference education with a commitment to social justice can make in improving people’s lives, and I am now experiencing that with my students at LMU.”

After staying through the end of the war and helping with the repatriation process, Baltodano came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship. She earned a master’s degree from UCLA in Latin American Studies with a concentration in law, political science, and education, then went on to obtain her PhD in Education from Claremont University. She was recruited to the SOE faculty in 2000, where through her research and teaching she has continued to address issues of human rights and social justice – specifically in areas such as approaches to cultural diversity, teacher preparation, and interracial conflicts.

In her current area of research, which focuses on conflicts between Latino and African American students in South Los Angeles, Baltodano applies the critical pedagogical approach of the late educational theorist Paulo Freire, a Brazilian who, as a political refugee, became well known in the United States while a visiting professor at Harvard University. “These are not really interracial conflicts, but economic conflicts,” Baltodano says. “There are profound inequalities that affect both cultures. I am trying to address the reasons that these communities are disenfranchised and fighting over the few resources available to them.”

Baltodano has also spent much of this year writing "Can Teacher Education Have an Agenda for Social Justice? The Limits and Possibilities of Educational Reform." The forthcoming book uses a case study to illustrate the potential conflicts – and strategies for overcoming them – that can occur when attempting to incorporate a social justice approach to preparing teachers amid the economic realities of running a program that relies on its marketability to thrive.

Along with her prolific research portfolio – among many projects, she has recently examined teachers’ beliefs about social justice and has investigated the impact of California’s passage of Proposition 227 on identity formation of English learners – Baltodano has been a leader in the American Educational Research Association, currently serving as 2008-09 program co-chair of AERA’s Social Context of Education division.

But her greatest satisfaction, she says, comes from mentoring doctoral students at SOE, where social justice is at the heart of the mission. “I never want to feel as if I am only an academician or a theorist,” Baltodano says. “I see myself as a facilitator of the students’ journey to become transformative intellectuals, and when I see their growth as practitioners and advocates for social justice, I know I am succeeding.”