The moment Wesley Farrow suspected that his student, Fidel, had been inappropriately labeled as mentally disabled, Wes took action.
A Teach for America special education teacher at a South Los Angeles high school at the time, Wes discovered that Fidel’s previous school had placed him in a high-needs classroom. “He did have a learning disability, but he certainly did not have mental retardation,” Wes said, adding that Fidel would tell him, “’I guess I’m retarded, but I’m OK at school and I don’t necessarily feel like that (label) fits me.’”
Outraged by what he saw as a violation of Fidel’s rights, Wes was determined to change the designation and, perhaps, the future trajectory of the boy’s education.
He went to Fidel’s parents’ home to explain the situation. He had dinner with Fidel’s mother, father and siblings. They chatted. They shared stories. They connected. For Wes, getting to know Fidel’s family illuminated what he was fighting for.
“It struck me that all of these things I was doing for this kid to help didn’t mean anything without an actual connection to his family,” said Wes, who grew up in Plymouth, Mich., about 12 miles west of Detroit. “It really made the work I was doing meaningful.”
It also marked a turning point for Wes: His experience with Fidel showed him the importance of listening without an agenda. Of truly hearing another’s perspective. Of connecting.
Such characteristics are core to how he approaches everything he does. “Because at its root,” Wes said, “the humanity we share makes us more similar than any political differences we might have.”
Today, Wes is the new executive director of Coro Southern California, a national organization founded in 1942 to strengthen the democratic system through ethical leadership. He landed the position after working to expand the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power curriculum on the West Coast. Along the way, Wes was involved, and continues to be involved, in numerous endeavors, from starting his own foreign language education company and serving as a committee member for NewTLA, a political caucus within the L.A. teachers’ union aimed to create more collaboration among teachers; to serving as a neighborhood council member in his home community of Del Rey in Los Angeles.
Throughout, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) has been instrumental in developing Wes’s leadership and organizing skills. “LEE has been a consistent source of connections and training over the years,” he said. “I do just about everything I can to be challenged and supported in my approach to leadership by LEE events as well as LEE members.”
Learning to direct change
In particular, Wes said he now has a framework for understanding how to effect change, which he sees as a multidimensional process. He thinks not only about how to direct community transformation, but also the mechanisms, “especially when looking at policy change, systemic change and dealing with issues of societal inequities,” he said.
And the notion of connecting communities and valuing people’s individual experiences while working towards a more just, equitable system of opportunities for everyone – regardless of where they live or who their family is – still holds true for Wes. Just as it did when he first met Fidel.
Ultimately, Wes was successful in having the inappropriate label removed from Fidel’s records. And he turned out to do exceptionally well in Wes’s class, earning a B in algebra after having failed the subject previously.
In fact, Wes’s algebra students, including those without disabilities, scored above the district average on targeted subsections of the state test that year. Fidel, of course, was one of them.