Fulfilling a family legacy

Dionardo Pizaña has spent two decades as a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist for Michigan State University Extension, fulfilling a family legacy of work in this area.

Dionardo Pizaña (back center), a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist for Michigan State University Extension, and his family.
Dionardo Pizaña (back center), a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist for Michigan State University Extension, and his family.

When a Tecumseh, Michigan farmer told Dionardo Pizaña’s grandfather: “If you are willing to stay for the winter, I can assure that I have enough work for you. And, if you survive this winter, you can bring the rest of your family to come and settle in this area.”

They survived.

“My grandparents settled in Tecumseh at a time when there were a lot of migrant workers wanting to move out of the agricultural stream and have some permanence in different locations across the country,” he said. “That began a settling out process of both my mother's and father's families.

Pizaña serves as diversity, equity and inclusion specialist for Michigan State University Extension.

“What was interesting about that was that my family almost immediately transitioned out of agriculture to start working at the Tecumseh Products Company, which was a small factory that made refrigerator and lawnmower parts. I don't think there's a male in my family that didn't work at that factory, including me, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college.”

Building a community

For the Pizaña family, the move meant bringing their culture and heritage to a new community.

“When my parents and family settled out in this area (Tecumseh), we were the ones that brought diversity to this community,” Pizaña explains. “It was a rural, predominantly agricultural community, and my whole lifetime growing up here, I can only remember one Black family.

“At one point, I think I was either related to or extended family made up of all the different Mexican Americans that had settled in this area from Laredo and San Antonio, Texas, to call Tecumseh their home. My parents, through their work in the church, the Catholic Church, really became involved in the community in a way to say, ‘We're here. We're making this our home. And, we want to be included.’”

Pizaña said his parents wouldn’t have called their work racial equity or diversity work, but their example set him on his path.

“Really what they were doing was they were creating circles where they were talking with white people in the community about what it means or what they could do to make this area more welcoming, in particular to migrant families” he said.

“My four brothers and I were dragged to many of those meetings as young kids. I feel like that was my initial training, even though I wasn't told that. I was at those meetings, and I kind of heard what was going on and began to think about what they were doing, but probably not as this is going to be my profession. It was more seeing how they moved in this majority white community to bring up issues that were impacting other Latinos in the community.”

Helping others

In a sense, Pizaña said this outreach by his parents was a gift to see that work in action.

Dionardo Pizaña, diversity, equity and inclusion specialist, MSU Extension

“It was a love for community. It was making sure that people knew that we were different in the sense that we might have different needs or different desires, and that we needed to be contributing members to the community. Again, I don't think that they would identify it as race work, but race was at the center of many of their discussions. Even to this day, the work that my father does as a deacon in the same church (St. Elizabeth Parish) that we grew up in has always centered on welcoming and providing opportunities for migrants and other Latinos that still come to our community.”

Pizaña’s father worked two jobs, one of which was as a landscaper for many of the wealthy white families in the community.

“He developed networks and connections with some of those individuals. They saw him as a dear friend and a confidant. So, he kind of learned what it meant to work in that space by building relationships with those individuals that he was hired as a worker, but often times I remember seeing some of those white men who were heads of those households turn to him for consultation and turn to him for direction.

“Then, I also saw him and my mom work in ways that were meeting the needs of other Latino or disadvantaged populations in the community. I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a baby – a cousin, or someone else’s in the community, whose parents who needed some time to move or transition to other housing.

“So, my parents just made themselves available to the community, served the community, opened up our home to the community. What that taught me was that we needed to be involved and help others that might need anything from financial, to food assistance, to just a listening ear, and trying to do that in a respectful, non-judgmental way while also trying to raise five boys, which my mom in particular did a really good job of nurturing that in us.”

Expanding social justice work

In college, Pizaña began what he described as his “formal training” in this work. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he said he still wasn’t acutely aware of the training he was receiving.

“What I would say about that was unbeknownst to me, I got a chance to spend one-on-one time with people that I admire in social justice work that came to campus. I lived in the minority center on campus – the William Monroe Trotter House – and we did programming. So, those individuals would come to campus to do a speech maybe at a classroom, and then they would come to that house to do something in the evening.

“I got a chance to have individual conversations with people like Carlos Muñoz who is a remarkable, now retired faculty member, but contributed a lot to Chicano history and the Chicano movement. I didn't know how much of that was my training, but that was happening for me at a very important time of my personal development.”

Oftentimes the only person of color in his higher education circles, he said his colleagues would “turn to me an want me to have an opinion, or I would express an opinion.”

“It actually wasn't until I got to MSU Extension that I had my first real formal training with VISIONS, Inc. which helped us 21 years ago develop our training – a multicultural self-awareness training – for our organization, that I really was asked to step up. First, as a community member and then, being hired as a diversity educator in my home community of Lenawee County.”

More than 20 years later, Pizaña persists in this work and reflects on his parents’ influence.

“There are a couple of things that I would identify as keeping me in this work and keeping me committed. It's important to live in what my parents taught me. If I’m going to be a part of a community, with MSU Extension or the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, I feel that one of my roles is to educate.”

Understanding each other and our differences, he said is typically not a part of an established curriculum.

“So, there's a role that I can fill in providing hopefully helpful and transformative learning opportunities.”

Changing the narrative

Pizaña said there’s something else that keeps him in this work.

“It's the opportunity for us to change the narrative, and also to allow people to change. Maybe, as an educator, I can provide an opportunity for someone to transform their thinking or actions and not freeze themselves in a negative experience or unhelpful thinking pattern when interacting with someone racially different from themselves.

“I believe in using dialogue as a process for change, but the dialogue itself may be that initial process of change. In our larger dominant culture, there are not a lot of opportunities, or it might even seem to be taboo that we talk about these issues that we tell ourselves are only going to lead to conflict. But, in many cases, they lead to transformation, or they may lead to life-giving opportunities that we never really explored.”

Honoring the past, looking toward the future

Pizaña said there have been times when he struggled to stay engaged.

“In 1984, I lost five of my family members – my mother, a 5-year-old nephew, my uncle, a 5-year-old cousin, and a 6-month-old cousin – in a car crash.”

He explains that while his family settled in Tecumseh, his grandparent’s wintered in Texas. It was during one of those trips that Pizaña and his family were forever changed.

“My wife and I had been married for six months. We had a 6-month-old daughter. My grief process led me on a process of introspection, which wasn't really healthy for about 10 years. I was pretty disconnected and in my own shock and grief, and I didn’t even know that's what it was.”

Pizaña credits his wife for her support. “Then I got help from hospice. They were really helpful in the grief process to me. But, most particular, helping me to delineate. So, what can I do if, in particular, my mother meant so much to me? What could I do to continue her legacy?”

And that’s why he continues this work.

“It's to continue a legacy of love, and leadership, and connection that happens to be the vehicle – my DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) work, but it was the work that she taught me, and my dad taught me. They didn't call it DEI work, but I really see what they have taught me and my siblings is about, how do we include people? How do we improve systems that haven't been set up to include others? Then, how do we live into creating cultures of love and support? That's given me great direction.”

Pizaña said carrying on the legacy his parents gave him has become even more important now that he’s a grandfather.

“I’m also trying to make a change in the world that I'm going to hand off to my grandchildren, that I hear a lot about people thinking about that when they get to the age of being a grandparent, whatever age that is. I feel a huge responsibility to try to help inform that in a different way. So, that also keeps me in this work.”

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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