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Latina trailblazer tells ASU students they have power to change communities

Latina trailblazer tells ASU students that education is a game changer.
March 20, 2019

'Education is the most concrete form of democracy,' retired Army officer says

A woman who overcame poverty and discrimination to reach prominence in the U.S. Army challenged students at Arizona State University to help their own communities.

Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, who grew up in a poor border town in Texas and went on to become the highest ranking Latina in the combat support field of the Army, said that as she began to succeed, she always found a reason to not go back and help her village.

“I always thought of my village as an afterthought: ‘When I finish my studies,’ ‘When I help my parents.’ I always put a priority list before my community,” she said during a talk on Wednesday titled, “Living a Legacy,” sponsored by the First-Year Success Center at ASU.

But after a 22-year career in the military, just as she was offered the position of battalion commander, she retired and decided to give back.

“Now my greatest moments are to sit in the migrant camps and eat tamales with the most neglected, underserved communities in our nation,” said Castillo Kickbusch, who created a company called Educational Achievement Services that runs leadership programs for students.

Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch

Consuela Castillo Kickbusch became the highest ranking Latina in the combat support field of the U.S. Army. 

She struggled in school because she didn’t know English, and she began fighting. A teacher tried to Anglicize her first name, telling her she would be called “Connie.”

“I didn’t know that my language would be the first demon I had to conquer, and that not speaking English would put me in a dark world when I went to school,” she said. “I loved school but I didn’t know it didn’t love me back.”

Once, in high school, a teacher broke up a fight and asked her, “Why do you do this? You’re brilliant!” He convinced her that she was bright enough to go to college, but she would need to improve her English.

“So I started to study 12 hours a day,” she said, reading by oil lamp because her family couldn’t afford electricity. Her parents worried that her excessive reading would damage her brain.

She praised the First-Year Success Center, which offers peer coaching to freshmen, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, and Castillo Kickbusch said that it only takes one person to make the difference in a young student’s life.

“You’re the silent heroes who listen intuitively and with dignity to every student who has a need or a question or feels some pain,” she said.

She became the first person in her village to graduate from high school and enrolled at Hardin Simmons College in Texas, where she joined the ROTC.

“The voices in the background started to mess with me: ‘You don’t have what it takes,’" she said.

A sergeant took her on a seven-mile run and yelled at her, “Give up now!” But she finished. Then she had to go on a 20-mile march with a 35-pound pack. And she did.

“That night that sergeant walked into my dorm room and saluted me and said, ‘Lt. Castillo, tomorrow you will make history as the first woman commissioned in ROTC in Texas.”

Castillo Kickbusch told the students: “Even when you doubt yourself, stretch a little more and you’ll surprise yourself.”

When she got her first paycheck, she sent money home to her parents.

“My mother gets the money order and sees it’s $700. She said, ‘Consuelo’s selling drugs!’"

She flourished in the Army, earning a master’s degree in cybernetics at San Jose State University. One day, her mother came to California to visit her and told her she needed to give back to her community. Two weeks later, her mother died. When Castillo Kickbusch got the call to be a commander, she thought of what her mother asked.

“So there it was, stewing in my unconsciousness, aching for what I had promised,” she said.

So she turned the opportunity down and started her company in 1996. Now she travels around the country, speaking about education and bringing her programs to poor communities.

“Education is the most concrete form of democracy,” she said. “It is the game changer.”

ASU student Lincoln Augustine, who is from Haiti, said he struggled to learn English after immigrating and asked her how she did it. She said that she sat in the front of the class and asked her professors for help.

“And time management: I gave up all the things young people could do, but it was my investment not just in me but in my community,” she said.

“Haiti will always be in you. Some day, go back and free Haiti.”

Top photo: Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch delivers her talk, "Living a Legacy," at the Student Pavilion on the Tempe campus on March 20. Photo by Katie Collins

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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Community conversation moves One Square Mile Initiative forward

March 20, 2019

ASU project to help revitalize a growing community of 230,000 residents in Phoenix

The Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University is moving forward with a project to help revitalize a growing community of 230,000 residents in Phoenix.

Dean Jonathan Koppell led a community conversation in Maryvale Monday to discuss the Maryvale One Square Mile Initiative with a standing-room only crowd of stakeholders representing the neighborhood, various community groups and local police.

The initiative is a core project stemming from Sunstate Equipment founders and philanthropists Mike and Cindy Watts’ investment in the college to support Maryvale, the neighborhood where they grew up. 

“Maryvale is a great place,” Koppell said. “It’s a strong community with lots of people engaged. What we see is a community that is ambitious with aspirations to be more than it is today.”

Maryvale’s soaring population accounts for 10 percent of Maricopa County, and if it were a city, it would be the seventh largest in the state. The neighborhood is also one of the poorest in Phoenix, where 39 percent of residents lack a high school diploma or equivalency.

“There are some extraordinary things going on and there are some signs of unhealthy patterns,” Koppell said.  

Although Monday’s meeting was the first for the public at large, the college has been working on the project for months by listening to residents and soliciting feedback. That is a key piece for the long-term success of the initiative, because Koppell wants to ensure all work going forward is “of, by and for the community.”

“The idea is not that we come here, plant a flag, say we’re open for business and everything is about us,” Koppell said. “Because that’s not sustainable. What we are interested in doing is helping start things that have an organic basis and they last forever.”

To that end, the college established the Design Studio for Community Solutions. Led by Director Erik Cole, the studio will be the place to share ideas, bring in different perspectives and run possibilities up against reality.

“It’s not purely an architectural exercise,” Koppell said. “We think of it as a studio where we design concepts and we repeat, and if we fail we try again, and we design again.”

Many groups in Maryvale are already engaged in different community initiatives. Watts College is interested in helping concentrate efforts and “connect the dots” between activities that are already happening.

“There are so many assets, opportunities and organizations (engaged),” Cole said. “Maryvale Revitalization Corporation, Heart of Isaac (community center), YMCA, Grand Canyon University, school districts. None of why we are here is to say there aren’t those assets and that incredible work is not already happening.”

One other organization mentioned by Cole was Estrella Supermoms, a neighborhood block-watch program of about 20 families who help clean up Maryvale, remove graffiti and work on other service projects.

“That’s what this is about,” Cole said. “It’s really about community and coming together, and if we can be a vehicle for that, so be it.”

Monday’s community conversation also served as an opportunity to continue gathering feedback from residents. Attendees participated in three faculty-led group discussions about health and wellness; youth, families and children; and public safety. The discussions brought up areas of concern that present opportunities for improvement.

Security is an important topic often taken for granted in other neighborhoods, said Carlos Mendoza, a 16-year-old student at Phoenix Union Bioscience High School.

“Other communities have bright lights, security cameras, everything is safe and protected,” he said. “You look at the parks here; the lights are yellow, dim and so far away from each other.”

Parents don't let their children out to play after the sun goes down, because those who are not at home could find themselves in a “scary situation,” Mendoza said.

Contributing to neighborhood crime is the reality in Maryvale that many people are hesitant to report crimes to police, said Rosa Menjivar, who is the president of the Estrella Supermoms.

“We see the fear in the community that leads people to not report crime,” Menjivar said. “I need officials to help do their part in communicating more with families and get them more engaged.”

Crime is not the only safety factor challenging Maryvale residents. Simply walking down the street can be risky. The community layout and sidewalks are not pedestrian-friendly, and this can account for the high number of accidents, Mendoza said. Pedestrians have to walk a light or two down the street to get to a bus stop, which can take an extra 10 to 15 minutes. So jaywalking is common because some are willing to risk their lives to save some time.

“Sidewalks are not practical,” Mendoza said. “Things are dictated by how things are shaped, and I feel like most things here are shaped by, of course, the engineers that originally designed this community.”

Watts College has not set a specific timeline to achieve objectives of the Maryvale One Square Mile Initiative, Koppell said. The university intends to remain a resource for as long as necessary. The idea is for ASU to serve as an “empowering” force rather than an essential element needed for success.

“We can change Maryvale,” Menjivar said. “If we work as a team.”

Top photo: Dean Jonathan Koppell, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, speaks with Maryvale community members on March 18 in Maryvale. Photo by Jerry Gonzalez/ASU

Jerry Gonzalez

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications