When Dina Walker graduated from Fontana High School, like most young adults, she had no idea what she was going to do with her life. She wasn’t a bad student but she wasn’t a great one either, it was more a lack of focus than a lack of ability. She drifted from Chaffey Community College to LA Trade Tech, doing well enough there to be admitted to UCLA. She soon left UCLA to work before realizing, after a few years, that she needed a college degree if she were to achieve any significant career advancement. Her journey took her to San Diego State University where she worked alongside her brother Daniel in an organization, Leadership Excellence, which he co-founded. It was during those years as a counselor that she found not only her passion, but also what would become her calling in life, providing a pathway for students who lacked access to college. She landed jobs as an academic advisor at two universities before discovering where the need was even greater: high school campuses. The DC College Access Program funded by the Washington Post’s Graham family, gave her that opportunity.
“While working in college access, I started to see why students were not college-ready and pulled the data around A-G coursework completion, SAT testing, and financial aid,” she told me during a recent conversation. Three areas, she explained, that were responsible for the low college-going rate of the Black students she worked with in Washington DC, a demographic that made up the majority of students in the public school system. When she returned to California she discovered it was a problem for Inland Empire students in general. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the Inland Southern California region joins Fresno as the two largest metropolitan areas with the lowest rates of college enrollment in the state. Dina immediately started working in coursework advocacy, SAT advocacy, and financial aid access, and started fighting for systemic changes, “The DC College Access Program proved to be the perfect model to help all students in the Inland Empire.”
Through Blu Educational Foundation, an organization she founded in 2009, Dina has touched the lives of over 10,000 students through her various college outreach programs and has awarded over $700,000 in scholarships to Inland Empire college students through partnerships with the College Futures Foundation, Southern California Edison, and the California Masonic Foundation, bringing much needed financial resources to the region.
“For too long,” she said, “I have heard people say college isn’t for everyone. They dismiss an entire group. It’s a matter of equity…we need to ask who is not going to college. We are not examining who they are and definitely not doing anything innovative or creative to change that narrative.” Now a trustee for the Rialto Unified School District, Dina is helping the children of the city she now calls home by creating policies to change the college-readiness narrative for an entire district. It’s a role she didn’t plan on playing but had been preparing for her entire career.
Dina learned the power of activism and civic engagement through the actions of community leaders in her hometown, “Growing up in North Fontana, Ms. Jessie Turner was an inspiration, a force. She fought for Head Start and made our mothers get involved. I watched her, and others like Teddy Davis, who was a member of my church Bethel AME and a member of the NAACP. He was also fighting for the rights of others. They were significant role models in civic engagement.” She is now teaching the next generation how to be change makers through her Institute for Civic Engagement, a new Blu Educational Foundation program. Funded by California Cause, the institute, which holds its inaugural session this weekend, has a goal of building a leadership pipeline. Participants will study power dynamics, communal leadership, and campaign management, learning how to be effective education and community advocates. “We want to help those who have historically lacked representation move into places of decision making and positions of power.” To learn more contact Dina directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Because the foundation of our democracy is equality and justice for all, my new Race Matters monthly series will highlight the important work being done to combat racial inequities in Inland Southern California institutions and communities.