Martin Luther King Jr. Student Leadership Award

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The Martin Luther King Jr. Student Leadership Award is a scholarship award given to a high achieving student who is actively involved in service within their community. We’ll talk to Gabriel Cesar, a doctoral student in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU and recipient of the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. Student Leadership Award, about his work with foster children in the Free Arts of Arizona program.

José Cárdenas: Good evening. I'm José Cárdenas. Thank you for joining us. The Martin Luther King Jr. leadership award is a scholarship award given to a high-achieving student who is actively involved in service within their community. The recipient of the 2014 MLK student junior leadership award is a doctoral student in The School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. Joining me now is recipient Gabriel Cesar. Gabriel,first of all, congratulations.

Gabriel Cesar: Thank you very much.

José Cárdenas: Welcome to "Horizonte." I want to talk about the work that got you the award but first, describe the process.

Gabriel Cesar: Sure. First of all, I would say that the people at the Gammage Foundation and the MLK Committee specifically have been super gracious, very generous and as a student, the process of getting the award first was I was referred for the award by my director, Scott Decker. He's the director of the criminal justice school at ASU and I was selected from a large group as a finalist for the award. I came out to Tempe and interviewed. I'm not sure how many interviews they did but that process in and of itself was so educational, so enriching. Again, they were very gracious but you ultimately are there with 15 people, each one asks you a question and the questions refer to your work, how it affects people, how it's affected me and it was really the first time I had thought about some of those questions and had to formulate an answer. The work I've done has always been fun and has always been something I do to help other people, so to do the interview and talk about the relevance of it and talk about how important it is to me out loud to other people in itself was a great growth process but again, the interview process actually facing a panel of people was a professionalizing experience for them.

José Cárdenas: I'm sure it was and again, congratulations. Let's talk about the work that you did do that was the basis for giving you the award. The principle focus was free arts of Arizona, correct?

Gabriel Cesar: The whole background of this award for me has come from my roots with free arts of Arizona. It's a great organization and they do a wide scope of things with kids. So starting with how I got hooked into free arts was the weekly mentor program and what they do is link volunteers usually in groups of two with specific shelters or group homes in the valley and around the valley and it gives the volunteers an opportunity to really focus on one place, one group offed kids, there's turnover but it's essentially one group of kids and you can really connect on a meaningful level.

José Cárdenas: We've got some pictures we're going to put up on the screen as you're talking of some of the kids you've worked with.

Gabriel Cesar: Sure. And so again you get to build a relationship with the staff.

José Cárdenas: And this looks like one example of what you were talking about.

Gabriel Cesar: That's actually MAC camp a program that they put in the summer for one week, kids come out to a school, and the kids can do a range of projects, move around the school, in groups, and they get a chance to do a lot of different art projects and express themselves in a lot of different ways and again, a lot of the point here is to get kids to express themselves but more than that to build a relationship with the kids either as a one on one mentor or as a group. And in case of MAC camp, that's a one week program so it gives you a chance to really develop.

José Cárdenas: And part of what you're doing is also exposing some of these kids to ASU as indicated in this picture.

Gabriel Cesar: These are kids that I met through my one on one mentorship, the weekly mentorship program and, like I said, you can really develop an ongoing relationship with these guys and kids and these are kids that are reaching the age, at the time of the picture, where they would age out, turn and be out of the system and that's a unique kind of position for a kid to be in, having grown up in CPS, and then now aging out, they become an adult and a lot of ways you're kind of cut loose. So one of the things that I really try to focus on is working with kids as they approach that aging out age, 18, to figure out what they're going to do next. The kids focus on being in CPS, they're focused on what their life is in CPS and there's not a lot of thought process put into what comes after. You're going to turn and you're going to get out and what are you going to do then? Are you prepared to move onto college? Do you have job plans? So one of the things I really like to do personally is expose those kids to Arizona State. There's a lot of great professors that I work with, all the administrators and the kids I work with have met all those people.

José Cárdenas: In your bio, you talk about the significance of role models in two respects. One of them was that initially was the focus of your research, what impact role models had on kids in these circumstances and the results were a little surprising for you.

Gabriel Cesar: Yeah. Again, kids specifically as they age out, I wanted to know having worked with 14, 15-year-old kids, kids all of ages with free arts, the kids that are in CPS, they talk a lot, they do think about getting out, I wish I was back home with my friends in my neighborhood, and when I started to look at doing research on kids who had stayed in past 18, they call it a voluntary, you can sign a voluntary agreement to stay in CPS care and complete, do things like complete your diploma and so I was really interested in why those kids had decided to stay when, you know, most of the kids I talked to couldn't wait to get out of CPS and these kids had turned 18, there were 5 of them and decided to stay in care. I looked at that like what about the programs you've been in made you stay? What made you change your mind, in other words? And it didn't have anything to do with mentorship. It was focused on resources. The kids didn't have anywhere else to go. And really that was the focus for these young men of why they didn't want to leave CPS, why they weren't ready to move on.

José Cárdenas: And that changed the focus of your research?

Gabriel Cesar: Sure, sure. Because you wonder what are you trying to do when you're working with a kid? CPS does a great job of generally speaking of getting kids in stable environments. And once they're in CPS care in a group home or foster care, they've got a relatively stable environment. Free arts works to enhance that effect and give kids a chance to express themselves. And you see more and more research about epigenetics and neuroplasticity of the brain, and as a PHD student, that's the research that's coming out and that idea is that our brains continue to grow and without the epigenetics, it's not necessarily what genes you have biologically. It starts to become what kind of environment you have and do you have a stable, predictable environment and are you able to be supported and have new experiences? These things influence how our brain chemistry works and I wanted to understand how new experiences in stable environments can help a kid's trajectory change.

José Cárdenas: Let's talk about your influences. You group in Detroit.

Gabriel Cesar: Sure. I was raised in a suburb of Detroit. It's one of the most violent places in the world. It just made the list. But at the same time, I was raised by really tough union family, hard-working people who put a strong emphasis on empathizing worth people and helping the people around you.

José Cárdenas: Or as you put it, taking care of the people around you.

Gabriel Cesar: Taking care of the people around me, that's my grandfather raised me with that being really the key tenet to how I was raised. You help the people that are around you, your family, friends, the people you work with and the people you live with, your community, and he raised me that that was a way to not just help your community, but to help yourself. This how you connect with people, this is how you make relationships and it's how you can really look after yourself. My grandfather's 82 now and everybody in his neighborhood loves him and he's got this long career of having helped people. He was a safety man at G.M. for 45 years and over that time a lot changed, and a lot of change because of him and because of people like him who supported labor, who supported integration and as new populations come into the workforce, he was really --

José Cárdenas: You learned a lot from him. We're almost out of time. What's your message? And you've been awarded this scholarship, what does it mean to you and what are you trying to communicate to other people?

Gabriel Cesar: I would love to communicate that people can get involved and that they really should and there's a huge -- there's a lot of room for volunteers to get involved, particularly with something like free arts of Arizona. I would encourage people to go to the website, There's a roster of events that are coming up and that's a really easy way to meet new people, have new experiences and on top of enriching your own life you can help out some kids who really need it. Additionally there's another agency, they do work with kids to help them write poems and every third Saturday at the burton bar library on central in Phoenix, they do a poetry slam where kids get up and tell their stories and they present their work. So I would say anybody that wants to get involve, anybody thanks they can help, I would encourage them to go to and sign up for an orientation and see Ruth.

José Cárdenas: Great, congratulations again on your award and look forward to seeing you again in the future.

Gabriel Cesar: Thank you very much.

José Cárdenas: You're welcome.

Gabriel Cesar:Doctoral Student, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University;

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