‘On equal terms:’ Isela Pena-Rager, assistant director

Isela Pena-Rager smiles at the camera

Isela Pena-Rager, assistant director of the Office of Undergraduate Advising for the College of Letters & Science is one 18 campus staffers honored as “unsung heroines.” (Photo courtesy Isela Pena-Rager)

In honor of the “150 Years of Women at Berkeley” project, each day until Aug. 18  Berkeley News is hosting a series of Q&As featuring 18 unsung heroines on staff from all corners of the campus. The series will culminate on Aug. 18 with a special edition of Berkeley Campus Conversations, featuring four remarkable female staffers:

  • Cruz Grimaldo, assistant vice chancellor and director of the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office
  • Sunny Lee, assistant vice chancellor and dean of students
  • Mia Settles-Tidwell, assistant vice chancellor in the Division of Equity and Inclusion
  • Charmin Smith, head coach of Cal women’s basketball

The tenth woman honored as part of this series is Isela Pena-Rager, the assistant director of the Office of Undergraduate Advising for UC Berkeley’s College of Letters & Science.

You were nominated for being “a strong advocate for staff professional development and equity/inclusion.” You’re known for driving and pushing equity practices to support not just your team’s office and L&S students, but also to support other marginalized spaces on campus. How have you been an effective equity advocate?

First, I have to confess that I am very humbled by this nomination. There are so many “womxn-identified” UC Berkeley staff members who are fighting the good fight and doing an amazing job at lifting others as they, themselves, rise. The reality is that our workplace embodies institutional oppression by definition.

Perhaps the most helpful initial first step I took on campus was to recognize my own role as both recipient and purveyor of racism and the other -isms and exclusions that come with a scarcity mentality, actions and thought that stem from a place of lack as a result of the belief that there will never be enough resources, space, promotion opportunities, etc.

Additionally, I have been authentic and vulnerable, which as a Latina is not always welcome in academia and other professional environments.

A handful of years ago, I realized that I had been in far too many spaces where I was the ‘only one’ – Latina, a first-gen college student and professional, low-income background, a parent, and equity-minded. I noticed that folks in positions of power and those with dominant identities tried unsuccessfully to put me in a box, whether intentionally or otherwise.

The beginning of the end was when I was told that I could learn to play my hand less when it came to being inclusive. My response was to branch out of those circles where I had held the false notion that my hard work, intelligence and care would be rewarded with professional advancement and respect. I pushed myself to take up space and learn and unlearn in many different situations, in front of and next to folks of all ranks. I started a doctoral degree; ran successfully as a staff organization leader; graduated from the Leadership and Career Enhancement Program (LCEP) for staff of color; and, became a facilitator for Bears that Care, PATH to Care workshops in Spanish and the Multicultural Education Program.

There were times when I felt low and lost some motivation, especially when professional opportunities came solely as lateral moves. Nonetheless, with each lateral move, I learned so much about systems and people and students. I think there is merit in that; and, I also firmly acknowledge that the trend of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) “getting stuck” in the lower level professional tier where I spent the majority of my time at UC Berkeley is highly problematic.

When I finally found myself earlier this year in a supervisory position, I dove head first into action while treading the political landscape that it takes to maintain both my livelihood and my integrity. As an assistant director, I am able to directly impact hiring and promotional practices, ways to reimagine and form strategic plans and mission statements, and opportunities to shift the campus culture to be more equitable and just. When appropriate, I use my knowledge and insights as a scholar-practitioner and my trusted networks of colleagues/students/faculty to effect change. This includes things as seemingly banal as creating rubrics for search committees, making suggestions about specific types of professional development that center diversity/equity/inclusion/belonging (DEIB) and inserting comments about DEIB in every conversation. This also includes the slightly scarier risk of stepping up to roles where BIPOC voices may be lacking, such as accepting nominations to serve as a BSA mentor, chairing a search committee full of folks who are properly versed in DEIB issues, or acting as the inaugural co-chair for the Cal Coaching Network, a community of practice taking the lead in spreading the staff coaching culture across campus. Anything that steers us toward recognizing untapped talent and more collaborative, strengths-based, and transformational relationships is worth exploring.

Who is a female staff member that you admire on campus and why?

As I mentioned earlier, there are many “womxn” doing exceptional work on campus. Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships Cruz Grimaldo is definitely one woman who works tirelessly to help marginalized students. As the highest-ranking Latina staff member, Cruz treats everyone with respect and dignity, a quality I admire. That brilliant and reassuring smile doesn’t hurt either. I feel fortunate to have come across my fellow Huntington Park, California native at Cal. I’m so grateful and in awe of the ways in which Cruz simultaneously handles professional areas of expertise and has taken personal interest in my life and in the lives of countless others. I experience love and support in every interaction with this shining star! Cruz makes me feel unstoppable.

Systems Analyst at Enterprise Applications in IST Patricia Juárez Chicueyi-Coatl is a treasure to whom I owe so much of my recent journey of discovery and self reflection, particularly when it comes to reconnecting to that part of my indigenous Mexican identity that those in toxic power have tried unsuccessfully to erase and silence. Patricia is a practitioner of Nahuatl/Toltec Traditions and the founder / leader of the Calpulli Huey Papalotl Danza Mexica circle and Calmecac Tlalocan (Nahuatl Higher Ed Institution). Maestra’s guidance and support have been essential to my survival and commitment to my community during the past year. Ometeotl!

What advice would you give colleagues to ensure that they aren’t creating obstacles or inequities for their peers?

Listen to and amplify Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) voices. Be curious and respectful. Pay attention and believe us when we say that something is not right. Learn about white privilege, white fragility, anti-racism, colorism and white supremacy. Understand that white supremacy and misogyny are so deeply embedded in our policies and psyches that we perpetuate them through silence, implicit bias, complacency and a colorblind mentality. Recognize that certain words and phrases like ‘most qualified’ and ‘professional’ are coded.

Most importantly, be intentional, let go of ego, and try not to fall into the fallacy that you have ever arrived – there’s always, always work to do. Reading is a start, although it is not enough. Engage with those in the campus, higher ed, and larger community who are already doing the work and constantly questioning and growing. Think about the actions you can take in your sphere of influence.

Will you give input on the next job description to include language about an equity mindset and a commitment to anti-racism, speak up when you notice that BIPOC are not proportionately represented in that committee or in positions of leadership, notice and question your reaction when a colleague or a student communicates in a particular accent or lexicon, or call in your white or white adjacent colleague when you’ve noticed the way they have undermined or dismissed a BIPOC person in the next meeting?

What future aspirations do you have at UC Berkeley?

Currently, I am very much enjoying my role as a senior staff member in the largest academic advising unit on campus. The staff at L&S Advising give me purpose. The campus partners and students who look for “femtorship” from me are inspiring. The colleagues who champion BIPOC are tireless and endlessly motivating.

I’d like to continue to work in roles that support folks in ways that will ultimately lead every UC Berkeley community member with historically marginalized identities to have a strong sense of belonging on this campus and in the world.