On César Chávez: Armando Arias, Jr., ’76, MA ’77, PhD ’81

Armando Arias Jr. talked about the innovative ideas of Chávez on Facebook Live–view the video here.

Armando Arias Jr. ’76, MA ’77, PhD ’81, is a professor in the School of Social, Behavioral, and Global Studies at Cal State University Monterey Bay. He has had a long career working with public/private institutions, non-profits, and foundations to renew and enhance their missions and organizational structure. His newest book, Theorizing César Chávez: New Ways of Knowing STEM, received the Victor Villaseñor Latino-Focused Non-Fiction Book-English Honorable Mention Award at the 2020 International Latino Book Awards. We talked to Arias about the impact of César Chávez and the applications of his philosophy and methodology in other arenas. 

What does the work of César Chávez mean to you?

César’s work is both important and inspirational. In his capacity as a union leader, César believed in developing shared meanings and shared vision between people that are not like-minded. He believed in reaching common ground by:

  • Building long-lasting, trusting relationships
  • Seeking a COMMON VISION
  • Developing common values, beliefs & shared meanings
  • Making audacious moves, especially after a moment of inspiration
  • Taking a risky path – challenging the norms that surround you
  • Helping the underprivileged understand how to navigate social systems
  • Always ask for things
  • “It’s not about the grapes, it’s about the people”

Founding Third College faculty member Professor Charles Thomas, Urban & Rural Studies, helped me understand César’s points above, and why they are so important to the type of necessary urban planning and social change required by collaborative design. It is this type of thinking that caused me to write (pro bono) and receive a major grant (in conjunction with UCSD) from the Ford Foundation to create a Space for Change in San Ysidro as a point of departure for envisioning (along with perceived political influentials) how it is that planning may take an all-inclusive route to addressing existing injustices.

Cover of the book Theorizing Cesar Chavez, depicting three visages of Chavez in front of a blackboard with writing on it.What fascinates you most about your book topic?

My topic is really about what César use to say, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I am fascinated by how the integration of the social and behavioral sciences with STEM fields can benefit both disciplines, while at the same time discovering new ways of knowing their respective sciences.

I have also found unique ways to infuse César’s values and beliefs into “deep tech,” IT applications of systems engineering through the use of Enterprise Architecture (systems engineering), not only for building brand new universities, but also for transforming existing ones, as well as community planning, and deepening the sense of virtual reality.

I take relatively simple ideas suggested by César, like, “What if we could run the signal [a microwave signal from the UFW ITFS system] across the border?” and work with it until it turns into a paradigm for re-engineering cross-cultural pedagogical approaches and re-engineering higher education.

What do you remember most about your experience at UC San Diego?

What I remember most about UCSD was meeting students and faculty with a lot of passion for performing research, searching for the Truth and causing social change – all by design.

I was able to observe first-hand how Bennetta Jules-Rosette, professor of sociology, prepared in-depth notes to teach her classes and how these were tied directly to her fieldwork in Africa (Zambia). What I learned from her was not only the importance of ethnographic field work, but also how to conduct fieldwork in other countries, learn new languages, establish rapport, survive and flourish while conducting ethnographic research while living in the bush and how to write grants to major foundations.

Early in my career, I was left with the indelible impression that I too could conduct fieldwork in Africa and Latin America, and as a result, I won a number of major grants and contracts with the Digital Equipment Corporation to conduct human factor analysis on the earliest forms of virtual reality. As a direct result, I founded project BESTNET (Binational English & Spanish Telecommunications Network) and housed it at WBSI or the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (founded by Carl Rogers located in La Jolla) while at the same time remaining affiliated with faculty from UCSD who were also associates at WBSI.

I became part of Professor Jules-Rosette’s field-research team making trips to Africa, namely Zambia, and learned about the revolutionary work of Patrice Lumumba. So in vacillating between the United States realities of mistreatment of Chicanos (at the height of the Chicano Movement) and the history of Patrice Lumumba’s rise as a Congolese leader and hero for independence, I was more than star-struck by the idea of naming Third College “Lumumba-Zapata College” after these two great revolutionaries.

Third College faculty introduced me to ideas that were intellectually and experimentally broad in scope. Especially important to me was how Provost Faustina Solis stressed “giving back to the community.” I began to see my community (barrio), especially the border-region differently.

One unexpected experience was serving as a student representative on a number of committees that were start-up or brand new to the university, like the Dean’s Assessment of Student Learning, Provost’s Review, WASC accreditation, the student newspaper, Sea Deucer’s Club, Program Committee, MECHA and more.

As a result of the start-up (albeit, “brand-newing” experiences) I inadvertently became a “start-up guy,” having served on over a dozen brand new university start-up teams to include nine campuses of Texas A&M, three campuses for the Auraria Higher Education Center (Denver), CSU Monterey Bay and the InterAmerican College (National City), where I served as a founding board member.

Moreover as a “start-up guy” I help found 3 non-profits in the Big Sur Environmental Institute, Area Health Education Center (UCSD School of Medicine, serving medically under-served populations of South San Diego), and the Academic Program at The Leon Panetta Institute for Public Policy, so you might say my start-up experiences as both an undergraduate and graduate student at UCSD led to the formation of my “brand-newing DNA.”

UC San Diego celebrates 60 years this year–what can the impact of César Chávez teach us moving forward into the next 60?

We can take César’s values and beliefs and create a lens in order to see a new paradigm for looking at everything, from STEM to social injustices to re-engineering higher education (a la César’s idea to re-engineer everything) which fits during any time of rapid change, such as pandemic times).

What never left César’s mind is the unleashing of the imagination. We can keep this in our mind throughout the decades to come, among these other things he suggested:

  • Imagination as a social practice
  • The imagination must become central to all forms of agency
  • Never allow your imagination to rest too long
  • Inject new meaning-streams into our imagination(s)
  • World-education must become profoundly mixed
  • Globally defined fields of possibility
  • “Imagination is more important than knowledge”

Cover of the book Theorizing Cesar Chavez, depicting three visages of Chavez in front of a blackboard with writing on it.

Learn more about Theorizing Cesar Chávez – New Ways of Knowing STEM by Armando Arias, Jr., ’76, MA ’77, PhD ’81.