Published May 3, 2021
“How do we educate young people so that they develop a sense of identity and understand their agency in creating an equitable society — not afraid to have the difficult conversations so many adults struggle with today?” asks Raisa Carrasco-Velez MC/MPA 2009.
As the United States undergoes a national reckoning over race and inequality, the country faces the dual challenges of repairing a fractured society and lifting marginalized communities. For Carrasco-Velez, who works as the director of multicultural affairs and community development at St. Johns Preparatory School, a boys Catholic preparatory school in Danvers, Massachusetts, students represent the future power and potential to transform society.
Carrasco-Velez goes to work every day on the sprawling campus of St. Johns, to help students and their families understand their role in a diverse community. A core tenant to her job is to guide students of color through the century-old institution. “A lot of these young people are aware and they're very knowledgeable of, ‘I'm a brown or Black student going into organizations that are mostly white’,” she describes. “But a lot of them are not aware of how powerful their voice can be.”
Finding her voice has been an important part of Carrasco-Velez’s own journey. “I was only 17 when I came to the US,” she reflects. Immigrating from the Dominican Republic to the United States to join her father—a political prisoner who was granted asylum in the US when she was only a baby—was hardly a seamless transition. Carrasco-Velez struggled initially to feel at home and find work, but in a series of events that she describes as “meant to be,” she found herself in Lawrence, Massachusetts and with a job at the local Boys and Girls Club.
Over 17 years, Carrasco-Velez became an integral part of the Boys and Girls Club organization and the Lawrence community, where she continued her education. Pursuing a bachelor's degree from Merrimack College in nearby North Andover, she experienced how two towns, Lawrence and North Andover, can be only a mile away but at the same time worlds apart in almost every other aspect. Merrimack College was the first primarily white institution that Carrasco-Velez had to navigate, she recalls.
“The work [at the Boys and Girls Club] was very meaningful for me, and I just fell in love with the job and the opportunity that I had,” she says. As she continued her work at the Boys and Girls Club, Carrasco-Velez would often dwell on the fact that many of the families she worked with there, largely immigrants and women of color, were largely excluded from the important decisions in the community about resources and priorities. “How is it that we can change systems so that we can provide access to these communities? So that we can have these communities be seen and heard?”
Her question about systemic change ultimately led Carrasco-Velez to attend the Kennedy School, where she was named the Ash Center’s 2008-09 Roy and Lila Ash Fellow, a scholarship program for a Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration (MC/MPA) students who demonstrates a strong commitment to democracy and governance. At HKS, Carrasco-Velez learned the importance of narrative and telling her story as a tool for empowering others from Marshall Ganz, who has taught legions of students at Harvard and beyond how individuals, communities, and nations learn to make choices, construct identity, and inspire action. “He [Ganz] talked about defining the self. He also talked about the other. But then he talked about action,” she recalls.
“Raisa was an inspiring and dedicated leader in education, youth development, and beyond when she came to HKS,” recalls Tim Glynn-Burke, Ash Center Executive Director, Programs, who worked with Carrasco-Velez while overseeing student fellow programs at the Center. And since then, she’s maintained that passion and her ties to the school, “Raisa has been one of our most engaged Ash Center alumni. Whether bringing a group of young men from a local high school to tour campus or making multiple introductions to the most interesting people in her broad network, Raisa is always helping connect new people to what she calls the power and the magic of HKS.”
Persistence for Change
Looking to the future, Carrasco-Velez knows that there is more work to do to empower students and help advance marginalized communities. Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are long-term, “it's a lifelong thing that I believe we as a community have been able to do,” she notes.
And we have to be persistent. “That's my only fear, things are going to gradually get better, but we're going to get comfortable again, and we might go back to the realities that we lived before. It would be really, really sad as an immigrant myself to experience the same inequalities — groups of people lacking access to education, healthcare, housing, employment, etc. — that we were dealing with before, after what we went through this past year and see no change. We just cannot be who we were before. We just have to make sure that we're better.”
Sparking the Tough Conversations
“There are so many skills that I gained at the Kennedy School that I'm using today with this [diversity, equity, and inclusion] work,” says Carrasco-Velez. In her current role at St. Johns, she leverages what she learned in a Kennedy School class on persuasion to help bring people into conversations about race and inequality. “I think that conversations about race in the United States can really help us get to solutions,” she says. “Thinking about those systems but also the role that you as a human being play, especially if you identify as a white person.”
Which is why when she is not working with students of color, Carrasco-Velez is often engaging with other students, parents, and teachers. Among many initiatives, she leads a monthly discussion for parents about race so that conversations that happen at school can be continued at home. “With this work, there is no formula,” she says. Every day is different for Carrasco- Velez, but her persistence and belief in young people remains constant.
The Voices of Tomorrow, Today
The same way she empowers students at St. Johns, Carrasco-Velez hopes to inspire graduate students through a community engagement course she now teaches at Merrimack as an adjunct lecturer. The class, called “Today's Youth: Power, Position, and Promise,” is focused on youth development and a core component of the semester is that each graduate student mentors a high school student from Lawrence as they go through the college application process. The mentorship is not meant to only benefit the high school students, but Carrasco-Velez hopes to lead graduate students to their own leadership style and navigate the world with intentionality.
She wants her students to leave her course and, “enter any space, see the power that they have, and use that power in a way that is meaningful for as many people as possible.” The dreams of young people are often painted with a negative brush, derided as being unrealistic or naïve. But unsurprisingly, Carrasco-Velez disagrees with that assessment. “We're afraid that they might not know what they're doing, and because of that fear, we don't benefit,” she says of young people. “So, they are different, but they are more powerful, they are more aware—they are present.”
Written by Sarah Grucza, Communications Manager