Civil Rights Commission Chairperson to Bring “Statement of Gratitude” to GED Event


Civil rights lawyer and professor Norma V. Cantú emphasizes the great impact small events have had on her life.

It was “the worst day to bring her daughter to work,” she laughs.

During those summers, her mother drove her to Robstown for a day to work in the cotton fields. Cantú’s mission was to fill a big bag. It took all day.

Then there was the school, which started early. This led to graduating from college at age 19 and graduating from Harvard Law School at age 22.

But maybe the best event was in third grade, when she got her first library card. It was at Texas Southmost College.

“And they didn’t limit me to the children’s section.” So, she started with religion and philosophy. In grade six, she was reading at a grade 12 level.

Cantú continued, in particular, to work for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the United States Department of Education and the University of Texas at Austin.

In April, she became chair of the United States Civil Rights Commission, the first Latina to do so.

President Joe Biden appointed her to complete Catherine Lhamon’s term, which ends at the end of 2022.

Cantú, a longtime San Antonian, has kept a relatively low profile for someone who has been so influential for so long.

A professor of education and law at UT-Austin, Cantú led MALDEF for almost 14 years as a regional advisor and director of education. During the Clinton administration, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights.

Cantú was also part of the Biden-Harris Education Transition Team.

This Saturday, she will be speaking at the 14th Annual Fabulous GED Brunch which benefits the GED programs at Palo Alto, St. Philip’s and San Antonio Colleges.

It’s a concert the 67-year-old lawyer and civil rights educator had no problem accepting, given her own debt to a community college that gave her a library card.

She talks about great-grandparents born in “ranchos” and Mexican American students punished for speaking Spanish at school.

Today, Cantú travels to Austin to teach at UT and does most of his commission work remotely. Monthly meetings are held by phone. The commission is linked to a network of 56 civil rights advisory committees representing US states and territories.

The commission conducts briefings on civil rights issues, examines these issues, and drafts documents or statements ranging from bail reform to federal disaster assistance.

He recently examined racial disparities in maternal health and the role the federal government can play in reducing these disparities.

In December, the commission will hear from government officials, volunteer groups and others in Puerto Rico regarding the civil rights implications of disaster relief from Hurricane Maria.

The commission held a similar briefing on federal relief efforts during Hurricane Harvey.

“The two (hurricanes) happened around the same time,” Cantú said. But “the resources that flowed into Houston were disproportionately higher than in San Juan.”

In Houston, the commission also heard “a feeling of dissatisfaction from low-income minority homeowners. Houston got more money overall, but that was disproportionate for white homeowners, ”she said.

The commission studied civil rights concerns over the K-12 digital divide, even before they were magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.

The commission investigated the lack of Wi-Fi access, which led to a “homework lag” which, in turn, resulted in a loss of academic performance, especially for minority and disabled students.

The increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans topped Cantú’s list.

The commission identified plans for 2022, including how federal funds were spent during the pandemic. For example, in Texas, federal funds were approved for COVID assistance that allowed public schools to purchase personal protective equipment for which they could be reimbursed, she said.

Neighborhoods rich in real estate were able to purchase protective equipment and be “reimbursed immediately,” Cantú said. “The poor neighborhoods in goods were not able to benefit from this relief.

At the end of the day, “by moving quickly, (the money) did not flow fairly,” she said.

This semester, she is giving a writing seminar at the law school on the role of the courts in school reform. In the spring, she will teach a course on Americans with Disabilities.

At Saturday’s GED event, Cantú will find it easy to talk about how education can change lives. In many ways, this mirrors hers.

Latinas are looking for glass ceilings that haven’t seen a crack yet.

“We still find our primeras, 50 years after white women and 20 years after Latino men.

Her speech to GED advocates and graduates will be “my declaration of gratitude,” she said.

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