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Faculty Profile: Lydia Chavez

Award-winning Journalist, Barrier Breaker, 'Boot Camp' Educator

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted August 26, 1998

When Lydia Chavez, associate professor of journalism, received tenure in 1997, she became only the second tenured Latina at a major American journalism school.

Formerly an award-winning New York Times reporter and international bureau chief, Chavez is now winning kudos for her first book, "The Color Bind: California's Battle to End Affirmative Action" from University of California Press. Last year she received the first-ever $30,000 Leonard Silk Fellowship Award for work on the book.

Says Mark Silk, chair of the selection committee: "We looked for a book by a journalist that really contributed to understanding a public policy issue. 'The Color Bind' sheds important and interesting light on the affirmative action question. We were particularly impressed by Chavez's ability to tell the story from different sides, not just as an advocate for one side. California is at the cutting edge of affirmative action in the country, so this book is of more than local significance. It's an important contribution to the entire discussion of affirmative action."

Kirkus Review calls the book, "A strong yet impartial look at the beginning of the end of affirmative action in the U.S. by a self-proclaimed recipient of its benefits."

Ultimately "The Color Bind" shows how the initiative process takes social policy and "mangles it, reducing it to 30-second sound bites," says Chavez. "But you've got to learn how to play the initiative game if you want to affect social policy."

Chavez grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., in a large, tight-knit family. Her parents both graduated from the University of New Mexico and became teachers. "My father went to college on the largest affirmative action program ever -- the GI Bill," says Chavez.

After trying Arizona State University and UC Irvine, Chavez came to Berkeley in 1972 and immediately felt right at home. "I loved the anonymity and I studied a lot; I wasn't an activist," she recalls. She graduated in 1974 with a BA in comparative literature.

A chance encounter with a biography of Ernest Hemingway convinced her to become a journalist. In 1977 she received her MA in journalism from Columbia University.

"I never looked back to creative writing," she says. "Journalism allowed me to get paid for being curious. I found I loved to attack something complex and explain it in language readers could understand. You can teach students to write, but it's difficult to give people curiosity."

In 1986, while New York Times bureau chief in Buenos Aires, Chavez adopted her first daughter, Geraldine, now 12, from Chile. A year later she adopted Geraldine's younger sister, Lola, now 11. "Every year they get better -- more fun, more interesting," says Chavez. "I've loved having kids."

In 1990 Chavez joined Berkeley's faculty, turning down offers from Columbia and NYU.

"Unlike other universities where I interviewed for a job, there were no tenured women on the journalism faculty here," says Chavez. "I found that shocking."

Chavez teaches Journalism 200, the "boot camp" for entering students; international reporting, which has included class trips to Mexico City, Cuba, East Los Angeles and the U.S.-Mexican border; and courses on civil rights decisions and ethnic community reporting -- always emphasizing the importance of thorough research.

This fall she starts a year-long course on Central America with visiting professor Carlos Chamorro, former editor of La Barricada and son of former Nicaraguan president Violetta Chamorro. Their students will write about Central American communities in the Bay Area for papers in Nicaragua and El Salvador, then visit those countries and publish a magazine of their writings.

Says Journalism School Dean Orville Schell: "While it is true that Lydia Chavez is a Latina and a woman, which makes her something of a rarity at American schools of journalism, it is also important to note that she is a wonderful person, an extremely fine journalist and an unusually effective and conscientious professor. As a dean, it is hard to imagine anyone combining a more stellar set of attributes."

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