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Julio Alicea Selected as a 2022 NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellow

By Joanie Harmon

Urban Schooling PhD candidate conducts ethnographic study of sociospatial forces and organizational dynamics that impact Black and Brown high school students.

Julio Alicea, a doctoral candidate in the division of Urban Schooling, has been selected as a 2022 Dissertation Fellow, supported by the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation. His dissertation titled, “From Every Shade of Brown and Back; That Includes Black”: A Critical Ethnographic Study of Racial-Spatial Politics and Pedagogies at an Urban School,” explores the relationship between shifting immigration patterns, political economic restructuring, and Black displacement as it creates an impact upon Black and Latinx students at a South Central Los Angeles high school. The fellowship, which is the most prestigious award for dissertation research in education, includes $27,500 to support Alicea's final year of graduate school.

“In my dissertation, I utilize ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews to show how coalitional racial politics are fraught with tension and contradiction,” says Alicea. “Such complexities speak to larger issues in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work in school spaces. Racial stratification takes place not simply between whites and people of color, but also between groups of color. Tackling such manifestations of racial stratification requires that schools move beyond a rhetoric of DEI to intentional acts of pedagogical and organizational change.”

Alicea’s ethnographic study includes participant observation, in-depth interviews, historical analysis, and qualitative spatial methods, utilizing data from four consecutive school years. With the data, he demonstrates how a school’s politics and pedagogies have evolved in response to the changing racial landscape and new crises that shift organizational priorities and dynamics.

In his dissertation, Alicea underscores the transition of the South Central Los Angeles population from 80% Black to nearly 70% Latinx. He offers a myriad of insights into school-based mechanisms of stratification between racially minoritized groups, including relational processes of opportunity hoarding and the decoupling of organizational values and practices. He also seeks to contribute to the sociology of education and reveals the limits of coalitional racial politics before and after George Floyd, and how those limits shape diversity, equity, and inclusion at the K-12 level.

“Anti-Blackness is a distinct system of physical, structural, and symbolic violence that renders those in the Black diaspora as an ontological other,” says Alicea. “In schools, anti-Blackness is present in curricula that minimize, misrepresent, or otherwise marginalize Blackness and Black peoples [and] in school climates that habitually conflate Blackness with inferiority, deviance, and nothingness. In short, anti-Blackness contributes to divergent and unjust movement through academic pathways, school-prison tracks, and career pipelines.”

At UCLA, Alicea is a member of the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society and the recipient of several fellowships and grants, including the Eugene V. Cota-Robles Fellowship, the Graduate Dean’s Scholar Award, and the Shirley Hune Inter-Racial Studies Award. His scholarship has been published in several publications, including Sociology Compass, Urban Education, and the Handbook of Urban Education.

In addition to his doctoral studies at SEIS, Alicea graduated with his Master of Public Policy from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs this year. He earned his B.A. in sociology and anthropology from Swarthmore College, where he was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and achieved a master of arts degree in the teaching of social studies from Brown University, where he was a Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellow.  

“My experiences growing up in a working poor Latinx community and later teaching in a multiracial urban community greatly inform the research questions I ask, as well as the methods and theories that I take up to explore said questions,” says Alicea. “In particular, my own experiences as a Puerto Rican youth living in public housing inform the ways in which I conceptualize schools and the larger social contexts in which they are embedded and implicated.”