Analysis: A tireless education advocate leaves a void as large as his legacy

Sitting in a since-closed downtown Boise coffee shop in the summer of 2018, J.J. Saldaña reflected on a challenge facing Idaho — then, and now.

J.J. Saldana posted this photo from Moscow on Sept. 20. Days later, the community resource development specialist for the Idaho Commission of Hispanic Affairs died in his sleep — a sudden passing that sent shock waves through the state’s Latino community.

The challenge of supporting Latino students, and making sure they stay in college. All too often, the money runs out. Or sophomores or juniors feel the need or the obligation to return home to family.

“Life happens,” he said, a bit softly.

Certainly, an accurate statement. But Saldaña was no passive observer of life’s happenings. He shaped and reshaped lives. As community resource development specialist for the Idaho Commission of Hispanic Affairs, he helped raise millions of dollars in scholarships for Latino students. More than that, he helped change the narrative about college within Idaho’s largest minority — a demographic that has long struggled with low enrollment and low graduation rates.

Saldaña sought to take college, something aspirational, and turn it into something attainable. His death late last week, in his sleep and at the far-too-premature age of 49, has left Idaho’s Latino community in mourning, and left many residents of his adopted home of Boise in shock. In the education arena, his passing leaves a vacuum in advocacy, a void as large as his legacy.

“If you’re following somebody that’s a rockstar … they’re really going to be (under) a lot of pressure,” Gov. Brad Little said in an interview Wednesday.

A celebration of life honoring J.J. Saldaña is scheduled for 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the Simplot Ballroom of Boise State University’s Student Union Building. (More details from the Idaho Press.)

After moving from Elko, Nev., and attending Boise State University, Saldaña touched many lives over his nearly three decades in Boise. Among those was Soñia Galaviz.

Twenty years ago — before she became a decorated Boise teacher, and before her election to the Legislature in 2022 — Galaviz worked on a tobacco cessation project in Canyon County. Saldaña was Galaviz’s mentor on the project.

“That’s how I got to know him,” she said this week. “And he was always such a gentle spirit and an advocate for education and support for our Latino youth.”

Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise: “Nobody in the Latino community wants to see the efforts that J.J. championed and really facilitated, nobody wants to see them go away. And I think, to his credit, the work that he has done has established a framework.”

Over the following years, Galaviz worked with Saldaña and the commission on several Hispanic Youth Leadership Summits, helping to line up speakers and identify students who should attend. These summits, which Little aptly describes as “revivals,” are a centerpiece of the commission’s education outreach. More personally, they reflected Saldaña’s vision. At each summit, hundreds of high school students would gather on a college campus to meet college recruiters, and hear from role models during a full day of seminars.

“He really believed in having the kids see a reflection of themselves in the workshops, in the speeches,” Galaviz said.

In many cases, students left the summits with scholarships — an important step in seeing college as affordable, and possible.

Even in the wake of Saldaña’s death, the summits have continued as scheduled. Students gathered at the College of Southern Idaho campus in Twin Falls on Tuesday. Next Tuesday, Idaho State University will host nearly 800 students. It will be the fourth Eastern Idaho summit; attendance has grown from about 500 students the first year.

“It’s a great problem to have,” said Effie Hernandez, the multicultural coordinator for the College of Eastern Idaho. Hernandez, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, notes that the summits have expanded their reach; next week’s event, and others around the state, will also include Native American students.

Saldaña realized that the work didn’t end when the summits wrapped up, Galaviz said. In order to be an advocate for Latino students, he knew he had to be willing to be there for students at night, or on Saturday mornings. In other words, he recognized what many teachers recognize. “J.J., though not a public school teacher, was definitely an educator and a champion among leaders,” she said.

In all arenas, outreach was simply part of what Saldaña did. It was impossible to do work at the Statehouse — or kill time in Boise’s social media community — without making a connection with Saldaña.

And here, I feel like I have to step out of third person for a paragraph, and switch briefly to first-name basis. J.J. was a source, and a frequent podcast guest, but he was also one of my favorite follows on the social media platform once called Twitter. I took my share of good-natured ribbing from J.J. — including, but not limited to, some tweets about my taste in socks. Other people have J.J. stories that are far more interesting, meaningful or funny; I share mine only to illustrate that everyone has a J.J. story.

Gov. Brad Little (seen here with J.J. Saldaña on Sept. 18, after signing a proclamation marking Hispanic Heritage Month): “There’s quite a few of those kids that have gone through the programs and gotten their education, just like J.J. did, and want to stay and continue to contribute. He set a good example.”

While Saldaña was unrelenting and passionate in his advocacy, he was also unfailingly genuine, and genuinely nice. Those are valuable traits in a Statehouse that runs on retail politics — and in a Statehouse where a taxpayer-funded Hispanic Commission is not universally embraced.

While small, accounting for barely $500,000 this year, the commission’s budget is a perennial hot-button spending bill. “As its programs work to promote ‘economic, educational, and social equity, for Hispanic residents throughout the state, this agency resembles a government-funded lobbying firm,” wrote Niklas Kleinworth of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, urging lawmakers to reject the commission’s budget. This year’s bill passed comfortably, yet 29 of the state’s 105 legislators voted against it.

Yet when Saldaña talked about education, what he said could hardly be called controversial. He identified challenges that are clear on their surface. Achievement gaps that begin in kindergarten and tend to grow over time. A lack of classroom role models: while Latinos account for 18% of student enrollment, only 3% of school staff are Latino. A fall college go-on rate that improved in 2021, and pulled even with Idaho’s white student population, but still was just 38%.

Student by student, and dollar by dollar, the Hispanic youth summits are designed to improve this go-on rate. As these events grew under Saldaña’s watch, they also exceeded his expectations. In 2022, students received $14.4 million in scholarships, up from $7 million the preceding year. “Every year it’s just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger,” Saldaña said in an Idaho Education News podcast interview in December. “We’ve just been very thrilled with this.”

Whenever a summit wrapped up, and the students lined up for their buses, Saldaña would take a minute to take in his favorite moment. He’d listen to students calling home, often in tears, to tell their parents they’d just received a scholarship. “It’s kind of weird to say that I like that,” he said during December’s podcast, “because I feel like I’m just eavesdropping on them.”

Of course, Saldaña was no passive observer, and no eavesdropper either. He was too busy building something. These joyful and tearful phone calls — and the calls to come in future years — are his legacy.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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