Will Gonzalez looks for the possibilities in people
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Do not see people as they are. See them as who they can be.
In his days at Camelback High School, two teachers saw beyond who he was — a kid named Gonzalez from an underserved neighborhood in the sprawl of urban Phoenix — and saw something others couldn’t see: his potential.
Gonzalez speaks fondly of Mr. Kirby, one of his history teachers at the then predominantly white high school.
“He was something I’d never seen before, growing up in Phoenix, with this crazy, Einstein-like hair … but he had just a brilliant mind. He came from a multicultural New York City melting pot.”
It was in Mr. Kirby’s class that Gonzalez got his first taste of public speaking, something he and his classmates weren’t keen on.
“One of the things I did to get over that is I would stand on a chair, or anything I could find to stand on, and started talking in my backyard. The dog and I had GREAT conversations on historical topics,” he said with a laugh.
“The feeling that I got from him was everything is possible.”
He got that feeling, too, from another history teacher, tough-as-nails wrestling coach Mr. Kafouris. One of the class activities Mr. Kafouris organized was a current events debate. He would fill the chalkboard with questions tied to current events. Students would choose a topic for, say, 500 points.
Gonzalez would spend his weekends at the library reading every newspaper article he could find.
“It’s so funny. I look back at all the hours spent just to beat the entire class. To this day, I could tell you who the Chinese premier was in 1979 — it was Deng Xiaoping. It ended up being me against the class. Being competitive somewhat, I enjoyed it. But I would dominate, so that became something.”
Gonzalez, a 1980 graduate of Camelback High, became something, too.
After graduating from GCU with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Behavioral Science and from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, he started working in 1996 for the city of Phoenix Prosecutor’s Office and currently serves as Executive Court Administrator for the Municipal Court.
But it’s his work as a positive force in the community that earned him the Alumnus of the Year honor from the Phoenix Union Foundation for Education, which supports the Phoenix Union High School District. PUHSD is one of the largest high school districts in the country, touting 21 high schools, more than 28,000 students and nearly 3,500 employees.
“Education is the difference-maker for many individuals,” Gonzalez said. “When they (students) have that teacher who looks at them and sees them, not as they are, but as what they can be …
“When I look at influences at the high school level, I look at those two educators and I say they looked at me differently. They saw me differently. They saw what I could be, and they treated me that way, to which I rose to that viewpoint.”
The work he is most proud of when it comes to schools has been educating students about teen dating violence through a program called “Healthy Relationships.” Since 2002, he has worked with district School Safety and Security Supervisor Irene Diaz to speak about teen dating violence.
Diaz’s sister, Janie, started dating the man who would become her husband when she was just 13. A victim of domestic violence, Janie would be killed by him at age 30.
“The relationship, it always begins with ‘Hello’ and then, tragically, it ends with one person being killed because they cannot imagine how they can’t be with this person,” Gonzalez said.
He and Diaz speak about power and control in those relationships and want to let young people know this kind of behavior is not tolerated, Gonzalez said. They have presented “Healthy Relationships” for more than 15,000 students across Phoenix.
Gonzalez also is a big believer in restorative justice. In schools, that means making sure children aren’t just being punished punitively. According to federal Justice and Education Department research, suspended students are less likely to graduate on time, more likely to repeat a grade and more likely to drop out. Instead of suspending a student, restorative justice looks at bringing in mediators who empower students to resolve disputes a different way.
GCU students trained as mediators to be part of a restorative justice pilot program in the Tolleson Elementary School District. It’s the same district Gonzalez has been working with when it comes to restorative justice practices.
“A student has an obligation to each of his classmates, to his teacher, to his school, to his community. But the teacher has the same obligations, as well. Once you can start teaching that, then you can start creating a more empathetic culture that really starts looking out for the needs of all,” he said.
On the elementary school level, Gonzalez has worked to bring equity to schools, particularly when it comes to programming before and after school.
What has been close to his heart is his work with a neighborhood revitalization committee to build a Boys & Girls Club on school property, an unheard-of idea that “really defined how Boys & Girls Clubs were made,” Gonzalez said, since those facilities usually are stand-alone operations.
The funny thing about that facility, he said, is the city said a Boys & Girls Club at a school would never happen.
“When I left that meeting, the planner who was with me said, ‘I guess that’s the end of it.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. Anytime you have a bureaucrat tell you something’s not going to work, you know you’re on the right path. $3.6 million later, there’s this Boys & Girls Club.”
He sees firsthand the difference the club has made in students’ lives.
One of those young people, Johana Lopez, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) student, would become the Arizona Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs Youth of the Year for the state and would graduate from GCU with a degree in forensic science.
“It’s an investment in the future and what you want your future to look like,” he said. “For me, I want kids to grow up, even if they grow up in the worst of circumstances, to understand … we have an obligation, and that obligation extends to them as it extends to others as they grow up.”
When you ask Gonzalez why he remains so involved in his community — he also is developing the Phoenix Municipal Young Adult Court and is a founding member of the Phoenix Homeless Therapeutic Court — he said, “I don’t think we are supposed to be passive. I think we’re supposed to be active in society.
“We do that as a university at Grand Canyon. We just don’t put big walls up. We do the opposite. We invite them (the community) on campus. We do what’s necessary to bring about the changes because this is who we are by nature. By nature, we do that which others say can’t be done. When you graduate from GCU, you look for those opportunities, you strive for those opportunities.”
Gonzalez has strived for those opportunities, too, particularly when it comes to schools.
He cares so much, he said, “because I was one of those kids.”
Gonzalez speaks eloquently about the differences we can make, about how the humanity we show each other can set someone on a different path, and how that humanity can lead to restoration and transformation.
It’s something GCU President Brian Mueller emphasizes often when he speaks of who GCU is as a Christian university and its mission to restore and transform a broken world.
“Where else would you start but in schools?” Gonzalez asks, thinking about the men and women he sees in court charged with crimes. “You look at them, just imagine, how are they there? What intersected in their lives?”
He says adverse childhood events — divorce, drugs, domestic violence, incarceration and the like — can have a detrimental effect on a child’s life and are linked to lifelong negative health consequences.
“All it takes is one caring adult, one individual, who will spend the time with them and show that love for that child, and that child, even though they came from all those adverse childhood experiences, can be put on a different path.
When he hears others say about another person, “Oh well, that’s their lot in life. That’s what they are,” he disagrees wholeheartedly. “I think you can change. I think you can transform. I think you can intercept people at different points in their lives. I think there is the potential for redeeming.”
Like Mr. Kirby and Mr. Kafouris, he chooses to be the kind of person who doesn’t see people for who they are but who they can be.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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