Manuel Espinoza walking with his students outside the Student Commons Building

University of Colorado Denver’s Manuel Espinoza, associate professor of Educational Foundations, School of Education & Human Development, and a group of 10 first-generation college students and alumni are on a mission to change the way we view educational rights. Collectively, they are preparing to write and publish an argument for a major law review. The argument could find practical application in amicus curiae briefs — briefs offering information and advice to the court on a matter of law — to courts hearing cases that deal with education.

CU Denver’s Right to Learn Undergraduate Research Collective (R2L), now in its 10th year, is a service and community-learning project that provides opportunities for undergraduates to work on salient social issues and develop research for real-world application. The primary object of R2L is to study dignity in education, or the ways that the supreme value of the human person is affirmed or disregarded in social life and educational contexts.

Manuel Espinoza sitting with a student
Manuel Espinoza works with a student in the Student Commons building.

The research group meets regularly in person and online to contemplate and discuss how education cultivates minds, humanity and creative potential. Key interests in educational dignity, civil rights and diversity bind group members in their commitment to the work, as do three new research grants: a $74,756 grant from the Spencer Foundation, a $12,000 grant from CU Denver’s Office of Research Services, and a $2,400 matching grant from the School of Education & Human Development for a total of $89,156 to support Espinoza and his students.

“Our current education system works under the assumption that classrooms are equalizing spaces, but as a previously undocumented woman, I can attest to how stratification still plagues our learning spaces on an economic, racial and cultural basis,” said Tania Soto Valenzuela, the lead research associate for R2L who met Espinoza through the Young Migrants Scholars program. “In the midst of the hate, our classrooms must be environments where human potential is developed and we affirm the dignity of everyone. Having access to the context of educational dignity is how we move forward. Our research is necessary for the future of education.”

Concept of dignity

Researcher Spotlight“The concept of dignity occupies an important place in moral philosophy, legal studies and religious thinking, but it has not been adequately explored in education,” said Espinoza, a Chicano ethnographer and philosopher of education. “I do think it is destiny that this Right to Learn project was founded by a child of desegregation (myself) who had an undocumented mother and a migrant student who was undocumented (Tania). There are so many beautiful facets of who we are as a group — interracial, migrant, young women (for the most part) and first-generation college students.”

Learn More

The Right to Learn Undergraduate Research Collaborative adds three to four student researchers per year who demonstrate a strong passion and interest for the work. Current members of the collaborative include:

  • Manuel Espinoza, associate professor
  • Tania Soto Valenzuela, lead research associate
  • Tamara Lhungay, senior research associate
  • Valencia Seidel, senior research associate
  • Maria Velasco, senior research associate
  • Mandy Wong, senior research associate
  • Arliss Howard, research associate
  • Raquel Isaac, research associate
  • Monica Luna, research associate
  • Frida Silva, research associate
  • Diego Ulibarri, research associate

Through the research, members of the team are realizing that educational dignity means more than respect. It is the experience of having one’s intelligence and sense of self affirmed in a way that fosters continued growth. “This experience is generated and guided by particular things teachers and students say and do in interaction, and those linguistic and interactional moves can be charted and analyzed,” said Espinoza. “The sense of full ‘humanness’ that results from such encounters aligns with discussions of dignity in human rights literature and could establish the grounds for legal arguments regarding education as a fundamental right.”

Creating a guide for social scientists

As an important step in the process of preparing the argument, the group is currently creating a handbook of the usage and meaning of the concept of dignity — a guide for social scientists writing for a legal audience. They blend technology into their learning experiences by using apps such as the open-source Hypothesis to read and annotate digital documents of four landmark court cases from 2004 to the present and transcripts of the citizenship education programs run by the Highlander Folk School during the 1950s and 1960s.  “Our group is most thankful to my colleague Remi Kalir, assistant professor in SEHD’s Information and Learning Technologies program, who suggested the Hypothesis app for collaboration and trained us to utilize the technology. The app allows us to read and mark up digital documents together without being in the same place at the same time. It curates our thinking, it allows us to respond to one another’s thoughts so that we can build common understanding over time. It’s going to be a turning point for us.

Landmark Court Cases in the Study

Tennessee v. Lane, 2004

United States v. Windsor, 2013

Lobato v. Colorado, 2014 (Colorado Supreme Court)

Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015

“This handbook will provide a comprehensive review of the content and criteria of dignity in the four cases,” said Espinoza. “It is a necessary and intermediate step towards achieving our long-term goal of writing an argument for education as a fundamental right because it will allow us to understand the ways dignity functions as a legal concept from the trial court all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The collective experience of creating the handbook will help us better understand the prohibitions and positive obligations that dignity places upon governments and individuals, and allow us to use those principles in our argument for education as a fundamental right.”

The preliminary iteration of this group’s argument will be presented at the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities conference in April 2018.

The written argument will be submitted by August 2018 to the Public Interest Law Journal at Boston University, the leading civil rights journal in the country according to the ExpressO law review submission guide.

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