Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago: A Trailblazer in Education
From growing up in a Puerto Rican migrant worker family to paving a path to success in academia, Dr. Bonilla-Santiago has never lost her straightforward and honest approach to creating change.
Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago does not mince words when she speaks about topics both good and bad, flattering and difficult. She knows she’s a “legend” at Rutgers. She believes that President Trump is “racist” in his actions towards Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and that the response to the hurricane that devastated the island over a year ago was a “historical disaster” for the U.S. And she is not above using profanity when applicable to call out false pretenses and empty gestures for what she sees as, in its abbreviated form, “BS.”
But her laser vision also goes deeper, beyond surface-level appearances. She sees the capacity to have been an executive leader in a notorious drug dealer in Camden, NJ, who sat next to her on a recent flight from Puerto Rico. And it’s precisely this kind of insight and capacity to imagine that allowed to see beyond her world as a child in a family of migrant workers to fight for a different way of life, and persevere in signing herself up for school year to year, move to move.
It’s also the same capacity to uncover and catalyze potential that allowed her to look at an economically depressed, crime-ridden neighborhood and envision the six-building campus that is now LEAP Academy University Charter School long before she got a state law passed, won over the support of reluctant university officials, and moved millions of dollars to be able to lay the first brick.
The success of LEAP Academy in Camden has had an undeniable impact for the students who have passed through its halls as well as the surrounding community as a whole, most notably due to the 100 percent graduation rate for the school’s students since it opened in 1997. Today it serves approximately 1,560 students in grades K-12. Bonilla-Santiago, at the time working as an assistant professor at Rutgers University, not only led the push for legislation in 1997 that allowed for charter schools to be established in the state of New Jersey in what she described as a clear bipartisan effort; she also confronted opposition from some of the Rutgers’ leadership after she decided to open a school in Camden and requested the university’s support.
It was, some would say, “The Miracle on Cooper Street,” which also serves as the title of Bonilla-Santiago’s autobiography and description of the process of building LEAP Academy: an achievement made all the more miraculous not just by the obstacles in Camden that Bonilla-Santiago overcame to bring about the creation of the schools, but the challenges she faced early on in her own educational journey that oftentimes stood in the way.
Bonilla-Santiago still fondly recalls the “beautiful farm” in a little barrio called Molinas in Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico, where she was born and partly raised, conjuring up visions of guavas, oranges, naranjas, mangos, along with horses, cows, dogs, and chickens.
But all of this was left behind when the family decided to make the permanent move to the mainland, Bonilla-Santiago’s father doing so in search of greater economic opportunity as part of the country’s Operation Boostrap program, which incentivized Puerto Ricans to come to the mainland and work in New Jersey, Florida, and California as migrant workers while industrialization of the island’s economy continued to take place and disrupt smallholder farmers.
The life of growing up in a migrant farm worker family was not easy, but Bonilla-Santiago remembers everything with clear-eyed vision: the walks to school in Florida and New Jersey, the rotation of crops, the changing of the seasons, the “magic” of cutting asparagus down only to watch it grow and hurry to collect it before it bloomed into flower, becoming inedible. These things, she noted, have stayed with her, and are still a part of her very being.
But her life changed the day she met Marta Benavides in “Cowtown,” a more inexpensive marketplace of sorts where many of the migrant workers would go at the time to be able to purchase supplies and goods. A missionary and revolutionary from El Salvador, Marta became friendly with the Bonilla family and began to introduce the young Gloria into various intellectual, political, and activist circles. By the time Gloria entered ninth grade, Marta convinced Gloria’s parents to let their daughter stay behind in New Jersey and live with her during high school to be able to finish her studies in one place instead of having to move with the rest of the family to Florida as the seasons changed and the workers relocated in time for the growing season.
Bonilla-Santiago’s mother Nuncia Bonilla grew suspicious of what she saw as her daughter’s growing radicalization on the part of Marta and her activist training — “I was reading Marx in high school. Can you imagine?” explained Bonilla-Santiago. So when her daughter told her she was going to college, Nuncia — the one in charge of the Bonilla household — said no. In the dark of night, Gloria slipped out of the house, was picked up by Marta, and went off to start college - once again leaving a life and home behind, but this time by her own choice, in the service of her own future.
So began 10 years in which Bonilla-Santiago did not speak to her mother or have a home base after her mother essentially disowned her. Bonilla-Santiago channeled her energy and focus into education and the trips that Marta would guide her to take. She applied to the Peace Corps and worked in El Salvador during the country’s civil war in the year prior to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, whom Gloria met and Marta worked with. She immersed herself in learning about social justice and working under philosopher Paulo Freire.
“What I learned from the work of Paulo Freire was that I needed to find a platform to do my organizing and my work, and what better the platform than a university? Because I didn’t want to work for government,” said Bonilla-Santiago. “And the private sector? I said I’m not going to be building a career there.”
“I wanted to build a vocation,” Bonilla-Santiago continued. “I wanted to have a job where I could support myself, because I needed to support myself, but...I wanted to be in the middle where I could be about social justice and create a movement of change from within and from without.”
Bonilla-Santiago threw herself into academia, using it as a forum to write to express her views, as well as do service and be “an agent of change from within but being part of a movement of people that believe the same.”
That journey eventually led her back to her roots in South Jersey. After completing her master’s degree at Rutgers, she decided to choose a place to begin carrying out her vocation, and the ideas about social justice and education that she had been developing. Camden, she decided, would be her “lab” for that work.
Bonilla-Santiago saw Camden as a small city of almost 90,000 people that was “going through a major urban transformation” similar to many other cities in the country, and was struggling with corruption and poverty even as it contained “pockets of excellence” in the form of anchor institutions such as the university and hospitals.
“I used that as a way for me to develop an agenda about what I wanted to do. I was clear that...it was with intention that I made that decision,” said Bonilla-Santiago.
While working at the university, Bonilla-Santiago completed her doctorate degree in sociology at City University of New York, and also met and married her husband, Dr. Alfredo Santiago, who was working in the Rutgers administration as a dean of students at the time. He passed away suddenly in 1996, and Bonilla has since established the Dr. Santiago scholarship fund in his name at LEAP Academy to both honor him and support and recognize the school’s best scholars.
Though Bonilla-Santiago said her own educational and life experiences have been significant in informing her work, her motivation to contribute to the community as a leader in education has come first and foremost from her desire to end the inequity and injustice she has witnessed throughout the world.
“I was standing on other people’s shoulders and I had a responsibility, a social responsibility to create something out of what was given to me, and so I always saw it that way,” she said.
“I’ve been building a future for the next generation and bringing people along,” she continued. “And creating a space for others so that they grew up with that kind of awareness.”