The Justice League of Education

At URI, Domingo Morel ’98, Soljane Martinez ’98, Tammy Warner ’99, M.S. ’06, and Matthew Buchanan ’98, —all first-generation college students from underrepresented communities—became friends. None planned to be educators. But they all found themselves drawn to education, finding there a sense of purpose and a cause—the fight for equity and social justice—that needed their particular superpowers.

By Soljane Martinez ’98

In the fall of 2019, a Brown University forum brought together a group of Rhode Island equity advocates, educators, and leaders to examine the shortage of teachers of color in the state.

Among the panelists and guests were three of my friends, all URI alumni, and myself. As tends to be the case in Rhode Island—and at URI—circles of friends often overlap and we all came to be friends through our involvement in campus organizations.

Reuniting at this moment in time at a forum like this, I was struck by the fact that, although none of us had studied education at URI, we had all ended up with successful careers in education and we were all wholeheartedly dedicated to improving the educational system and developing equity and social
justice within it.

Before URI, we’d each battled racism, poverty, and low expectations. At URI, we learned the power of advocacy—a power we’ve since wielded within education, each in our own way.


High School Principal Matt Buchanan’s Superpower:

CONVICTION

Buchanan believes all students can learn and aims to help educators understand the best way to help them.

URI alumnus Matt Buchanan '98 who now serves as a high school principal

In 1994, Providence native Matt Buchanan ’98 received an envelope from URI—a letter of congratulations from the Talent Development (TD) program. “I cried. That was the first time I really felt like college was for me,” says Buchanan, now principal of Hope High School, on Providence’s East Side.

“I didn’t really begin to think about college until my senior year. I was recruited by Gerald Williams and Brian Scott from Educational Talent Search,” a program that identifies potential college students from disadvantaged backgrounds and helps them succeed in higher education. “It was history from there. I can’t thank those two men enough for believing in me and assisting me in the entire college process,” says Buchanan.

“I arrived at URI in the summer of 1994 as a broke Black kid from the projects—unprepared academically, financially, and socially for college.” Friends and the TD program—which helps recruit and retain Rhode Island students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the majority of whom are students of color—got him through that first summer and the subsequent four years.

“We made a pact to make sure we successfully finished the summer program, and we supported each other. Three out of four of us ‘made it’ through the summer. We were roommates. My friends allowed me to be myself, and we were there for each other. They were my ultimate rock.”

Buchanan intended to major in education, but his plans changed. “I had taken a human development and family studies (HDF) class during the summer and loved it, so I switched my major. I also took an Africana studies class and loved that, as well. I learned through my TD advisor that I could minor in Africana studies.”

TD proved to be Buchanan’s biggest support system at URI. “TD was—and is—a family to me. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. They made sure I was ready for life after college. Because of TD, I had the best college experience ever,” he says proudly.

URI provided other opportunities for Buchanan: “I was a four-year member of Uhuru SaSa (Freedom Now) and that was amazing,” he says of URI’s first and oldest multicultural organization, established in 1972.

Buchanan has many vivid memories of URI, but two days stand out:

  • June 21, 1997: “On the way to a Beach Boys concert, I met my wife, Diana Figueroa ’02, who was a freshman. Here we are 24 years later, married for 18 years with three beautiful children.”
  • May 17, 1998: “My graduation from URI. The look on my family’s faces, especially my mom, is something I will never, ever forget.”

“Without their unwavering support and dedication, there’s no way in hell I would be where I am,” says Buchanan. “My experience on that campus provided a sense of belonging. Those were by far the best four years of my life.”

Twenty-three years later, Buchanan’s journey has taken him on a road as winding and unpredictable as state Route 138.

“A lot of educators don’t believe our students can learn, and that is a huge problem.”
—Matt Buchanan

After URI, Buchanan held myriad jobs in education, including: guidance counselor, financial aid counselor, director of programming for foster children, and advisor and college counselor at The Met High School. He even returned to TD as a tutor for five years. In 2014, he became vice principal of Nathanael Greene Middle School in Providence.

Buchanan—who most recently served as principal of Hope High School in Providence and will serve as the principal of Somerville High School in Massachusetts, beginning this summer—has always been focused on equity and “empowering white educators to fully embrace our Black and Brown students and all that comes with them, and empowering students to advocate for themselves,” he says.

“Education is critical to the success of our Black and Brown students. Too many white educators come at our students from a sympathetic—as opposed to empathetic—standpoint. Our kids need the mindset of educators to change. A lot of educators don’t believe our students can learn, and that is a huge problem,” says Buchanan, who considers himself to be “tough but understanding,” because of his shared experiences with his students.

He also acknowledges his role as a parent. “I am fully engaged in my children’s education,” Buchanan says. “I communicate my expectations with my children and also with their teachers. I know what questions to ask, how to advocate for my children, and I have the ability to hold educators accountable.”

As a parent and an educator, Buchanan hopes to have a long-term impact on the education of young people. “I hope my legacy is doing what’s best for students—using data to make decisions that serve our students and families,” he says. “I want my legacy to be that I have done whatever it takes to guide these students to greatness.”

Buchanan holds an M.Ed. in educational leadership from Rhode Island College.


Professor Domingo Morel’s Superpower:

INSIGHT

Morel sees, helps others understand, and works to improve the educational and political systems that discourage students of color.

One of the friends Buchanan counted on at URI was Domingo Morel ’98.

Their paths crossed at Central High School, when Morel’s family relocated from New Jersey to Rhode Island the summer before his senior year. “Although I knew that I wanted to go to college,” Morel says, “as a first-generation college student, I had no idea what the admissions process looked like or if I met admissions requirements.”

URI alumnus Domingo Morel ’98, associate professor of political science

Like Buchanan, Morel, a native of the Dominican Republic, also credits Gerald Williams with helping him immensely. “During the early part of my senior year, in his position with ETS, he registered me for the SATs, which I had not taken, and eventually helped me apply to several colleges, including URI—through the TD program,” says Morel. In 1996, Williams became an academic advisor for TD. He became the director of the program in 2000 and still serves in that role.

Morel, who is now an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, admits he was not a stellar student during his early years.

“I always received average grades and I felt misunderstood by my teachers. I remember my teachers constantly focusing on behavior concerns, although I never demonstrated behavioral issues,” Morel recalls. In fact, he cannot recall one teacher who he feels recognized his potential.

“It was always frustrating to me. I felt that my teachers did not view me and my friends as intelligent and capable of going to college,” says Morel, who is Black and Latinx. He says he experienced “culture shock” when he began at URI in 1994.

“It was my first time attending classes and living in a community where people of color were not in the majority. Eventually, my roommates and I adjusted and made friendships that help sustain me today,” Morel says.

Like Buchanan, Morel changed majors early. “I initially wanted to study marine biology,” he says. “But it only took one class for me to realize that it was not what I really wanted. I decided on HDF because I wanted to do something related to counseling.” He, too, credits TD for providing “the greatest source of support and mentorship.”

Morel planned to attend Howard University to pursue a master’s degree in social work after URI, but financial constraints changed that plan. He joined the admissions team at Rhode Island College for four years before returning to TD, this time as an academic advisor and recruiter, where he stayed for the next seven years.

“I do not believe that our politics and education systems are designed to provide positive educational experiences for students of color.”
Domingo Morel

During that time, Morel became involved in a number of community organizations, including Latino Dollars for Scholars. He also co-founded the Latino Policy Institute, which stimulates public policy discourse by examining and communicating the Latino experience in Rhode Island “We helped get in-state tuition for undocumented students attending the state institutions of higher education in Rhode Island and published a report on the state of education for Latinos in Rhode Island,” he shares proudly.

Morel completed his Ph.D. in political science at Brown, and in 2016, he joined the political science faculty at Rutgers.

Morel, who met his wife, Lisa Abreau ’01, when they were both students at URI, has two daughters. Did his views on education change when he became a parent? “I don’t know that they have changed,” he says. “However, my daughters are not growing up in poverty, as I did, and they attend a public school system with the resources to provide its students with a positive and rewarding education experience. Seeing how their educational experience is vastly different from mine—and from that of so many others who live in low-resourced communities—inspires me to continue my work.”

“I do not believe that our politics and education systems are designed to provide positive educational experiences for students of color in our country and in Rhode Island,” says Morel, who served as a local member of the Johns Hopkins team responsible for the 2018 report on the Providence Public School District, which prompted the state of Rhode Island to take over the school district in 2019—a takeover he opposed.

Despite the current state of education, nationally and locally, Morel maintains a positive outlook. “I think our greatest power is the ability to bring people together to address the challenges our communities experience,” he says. “My wish is that we would be able to do more of that.”

Morel holds an M.A. in counseling from Rhode Island College, an M.A. in political science from Brown, and a Ph.D. in political science from Brown. He is the author of Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy, which examines the implications of state takeovers of school districts in racialized communities.


Commissioner Tammy Warner’s Superpower:

OPTIMISM

Warner’s personal educational experience gives her a unique perspective and fuels her belief that education can change lives.

College was not an option for Tammy Vargas Warner ’99, M.S. ’06; it was an expectation.

“My parents drilled this into me and my brothers as we were growing up. As the oldest, it was almost my duty to be the first in the family to go to college and become ‘someone great.’ It was a lot of pressure. However, in all honesty, it was as much my dream as it was theirs,” says Warner, the assistant commissioner of postsecondary education for the state of Rhode Island.

Warner—who, like Morel, was born in the Dominican Republic—witnessed, recognizes, and appreciates the long-lasting sacrifice her parents—both professionals in their home country—had to make when they moved their family to Rhode Island in 1984 to escape political turmoil, and began working in the factory assembly lines for minimum wage.

“I knew that I could not let them down,” says Warner. She enjoyed learning, attending primarily majority-minority schools throughout K–12 in Providence. While there were a few positive experiences, “most of them were negative,” she says.

“I was always a good student. But I was teased for being the ‘teacher’s pet’ and I struggled socially. I became a cheerleader in high school to be more social, to try to fit in. It was enough to get by,” she recounts.

When it was time to decide where to go to college, Warner, who was accepted to four of the five schools where she’d applied, chose URI—the only in-state school. “I chose to attend URI,” she says, “because I knew that I would be part of a caring and supportive community through TD.”

“My dream was to become a pediatrician. During my first semester, I learned about the nursing program and it sounded like a more appealing path,” says Warner.

By the end of her first year, she learned she was pregnant.

“My passion for college and for learning did not change when I found out I was going to become a mom—actually it deepened my commitment to my education and gave me even more of an incentive to become a college graduate,” Warner says.

TD was a source of support, but that wasn’t the case everywhere. “It was as if some faculty were ready to write me off. One instructor told me that they were surprised I was still ‘trying to do this.’ They figured I would just leave school and get married. I remember that day like it was yesterday. It still hurts to think about how close I came to giving up when I saw that was what others expected,” Warner recounts.

Still a full-time student taking general education requirements, but now with a newborn son, one of Warner’s classes was developmental psychology—in the human development and family studies program. “There were days that I had to take my son to class. The instructors were so understanding, encouraging, and supportive,” she says. “They didn’t mind that I brought my son, and, in fact, were happy to have him showcase some of the concepts and theories we were learning. I decided to change my major and study within that supportive environment, rather than have to fight to prove my worth at every step.”

Warner also found support through involvement in the Latin American Student Association and time spent at the Multicultural Center (now the Multicultural Student Services Center).

By the time she graduated, Warner was a mother to a toddler, attending URI’s Providence Campus full time at night while working full time during the day. “It took me a bit longer to finish, but it was worth it. I was incredibly proud of what I accomplished and the future that I was creating for myself and my son,” she says. “I thought I would start my career with my diploma in early childhood development in hand.”

It turned out that the customer service job she’d held for about a year before graduating would become a career. Her boss offered her a raise and offered to pay for graduate classes if she wanted to pursue an M.B.A. It was an opportunity she could not pass up.

Four years later, in 2003, Warner was overseeing human resources in a small, local textile firm while taking business courses part time. “I thought I had everything I wanted, but found myself wondering if I had settled,” she says.

A friend working as an academic advisor at the Community College of Rhode Island encouraged Warner to apply for an advisor position. She did. She was hired and soon began researching related graduate programs.

“I loved the new job,” says Warner. “It was incredibly fulfilling to work with adult students. I found that I could relate to many of these students—students of color, single parents with small children, working professionals—all looking to improve themselves in order to improve the lives of their families.”

Warner quickly realized she wanted to work in higher education. She enrolled in the college student personnel master’s degree program at URI the following year, where, after serving in advising roles at CCRI and URI, and in an academic program director role at URI, she served as assistant dean from 2016–2020.

“My work is fueled by my optimism in humankind, in our ability to respect and accept each other’s differences … [and] work collectively for the betterment of our entire society.”
Tammy Warner

Warner’s unique educational journey fuels her belief that education is the great equalizer, affording individuals access to upward mobility, financial stability, and improved health—for themselves and future generations.

Her firstborn, now 26, served as inspiration for her dissertation on college access. He decided early on that college wasn’t for him, which came as a surprise to Warner. She later learned that negative classroom interactions had created academic self-doubt and anxiety in her son.

“It was the same story I had heard countless times from students of color I’d encountered in higher education,” says Warner.

When she learned that her son shared those experiences, it became personal. It was the push Warner needed to dive deeper into researching a more complex phenomenon: racial microaggressions in the classroom environment.

“It is not something humans are born with,” Warner explains. “Rather, it is a behavior, a mindset that is learned and reinforced in a variety of systemic ways.”

“My work has only just begun,” says Warner, who is now Rhode Island’s assistant commissioner for postsecondary academic and student affairs. “My work is fueled by my optimism in humankind, in our ability as a people to someday learn to appreciate our individual strengths, respect and accept each other’s differences, lean on our similarities to build community, craft shared goals, and work collectively for the betterment of our entire society. I think my belief in people is part of my legacy.”

Warner holds an M.S. in college student personnel from URI and a Ph.D. in higher education administration from University of Massachusetts, Boston.


And My Superpower:

FORESIGHT

I see a future in which all students have the support, skills, and tools to have a positive and successful educational experience.

My mother is a high school graduate, my father earned his GED by taking night classes when I was a baby, juggling his blue-collar job and young family. My parents raised me and my sister with a simple mantra: “Education is the key that will open any door of opportunity.”

In our home, like Tammy’s, it was expected we would attend college.

I spoke only Spanish until I began kindergarten. I quickly mastered English and excelled academically. Despite moving quite a bit, including to Puerto Rico during middle school, I maintained a college-track attitude.

URI alumna Soljane Martinez

I was 6 when I decided I wanted to be a surgeon in the U.S. Navy. Then I discovered I wasn’t a big fan of swimming. Language and writing came naturally, so I chose another career: news anchorwoman. I would attend college with this goal in mind.

In 1993, I attended a college fair in New York City. There were three people manning a URI table—Victor Capellan ’92, M.S. ’96, M.A. ’02; Henry Remolina ’93; and Henry Ponciano ’97, M.S. ’11. I stopped to inquire about journalism programs. That moment sealed my college fate—and those three people became lifelong friends to me.

After a visit to campus I knew URI was where I wanted to be. It also seemed far enough from home to allow me to come out from under a strict upbringing. Back then, Rhode Island seemed a world away from New York City.

URI provided support in some unexpected ways. For instance, admission officer Frank Santos Jr., who called my home after reading my admission application, became my “URI dad.” One of my first stops when I arrived on campus was to meet him. I ended up landing a work-study job in the Office of Admission with Santos.

His care and encouragement kept me at URI when the challenge of going from city girl to rural college girl seemed too much. I missed the hustle and bustle of the city and hopping on a subway at any time of day or night. At URI, I was without a car and felt alone.

I joined clubs and met people who have become family in the 27 years since. I became a tour guide, a student senator, president of the Latin American Student Association, and eventually the editor-in-chief of The Good 5 Cent Cigar.

And I did something I swore I’d never do—I pledged a sorority.

Sigma Lambda Upsilon/Señoritas Latinas Unidas Sorority Inc. was not your typical pledge experience. The culturally based national organization was the perfect mix of philanthropy and discipline—best described as Girl Scouts meets military.

We wore uniforms, walked in formation, and practiced social probation—no partying or hanging out in between classes. It was all business: academics and community service. We were still new on campus, and many at URI weren’t ready to see a group of women exhibiting such discipline. We endured nasty comments and harassment.

The women who became my hermanas (sisters) have been there for me for everything—weddings, funerals, births, educational growth, and career promotions.

URI was a transformational time in my life. Like Princess Diana of Themyscira—Wonder Woman—I had to blend into society outside of my homeland. I acclimated to new people, customs, and traditions, and learned skills that have served as my arsenal over the decades.

While I didn’t become a news anchorwoman, I became a journalist on a different track—print. I landed a job at The Providence Journal straight out of URI before heading back to my Themyscira, New York City, as a personal finance reporter for The Wall Street Journal in 2000. A year later I changed tracks again.

I was accepted to the New York City Teaching Fellows Program, which called upon people in diverse careers to bring their skills into the highest-need schools in the city. I simultaneously earned my master’s in education while teaching third and fourth grade in Brooklyn, the same borough in which I’d attended high school.

“All students should have the chance to receive the best educational services, resources, and opportunities—regardless of zip code or skin color.”
Soljane Martinez

Just four months prior, I’d left The Wall Street Journal to pursue my master’s and begin teaching. Our offices were located on floor 11 of One World Financial Center—ground zero.

The pain of 9/11 was too much. I decided New York City was not where I wanted to raise children once I had them. I completed my master’s and looked to Rhode Island to put down roots.

In 2003, I joined a young charter school in Providence: Highlander, where teachers, students, and parents were a team, a family. I stayed 15 years, almost giving birth to my youngest in the school’s halls.

I honed my teaching craft, reconnected with URI friends, and built networks, evolving as an educator and social justice advocate. I specialized in World War II, genocide, and Holocaust studies—a passion inspired by a course taught by Professor Robert Weisbord at URI. In 2014, I was selected as one of 25 teachers from around the world to travel to Poland to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, an experience that changed my perspective on life.

After many years teaching, I wanted to impact students beyond the classroom. That led me to the Principal Residency Network, which prepares aspiring leaders to champion educational equity and innovation to improve student achievement. As if that wasn’t enough, I concurrently enrolled in Johnson & Wales’ Educational Leadership doctoral program.

From 2016–2020, I committed myself to my doctoral work. While completing my doctorate, I was a classroom teacher, a dean of culture and students, and an elementary school principal, finally starting my own educational consulting business. On Friday, March 13, 2020 (as if that isn’t enough of a dance with superstition), I successfully defended my dissertation, hours before the state, and essentially the world, shut down operations due to COVID-19.

Currently, I’m the education coordinator at the Annenberg Institute, where I coordinate Brown University’s K–12 engagement programs, facilitating partnerships aiming for equitable opportunities for Rhode Island’s underserved students.

My URI education has been the catalyst that has sparked every professional opportunity I’ve had. It has allowed me to serve students, families, and entire communities. I hope that the legacy I leave behind for my children—and for all children—is one of transformation, equity, and opportunity. All students should have the chance to receive the best educational services, resources, and opportunities—regardless of zip code or skin color.

Martinez holds an M.Ed from CUNY, College of Staten Island, and an Ed.D. in educational leadership from Johnson & Wales.


I’m proud to be part of this incredible group of educators. We were brought together at URI, where our shared commitment to transforming education and our successful careers were launched.

Individually, the work we do has enabled us to impact the entire education spectrum—from K–12 to academia, and from policy to practice. A principal inspiring young adults, a commissioner overseeing academic program quality for Rhode Island’s postsecondary education, a faculty member bringing to light a failing system and providing a framework for improvement, and an education coordinator helping bridge the needs of districts with the resources of higher education.

Fueled by conviction, insight, optimism, and foresight—and by our collective faith in the power of education—my fellow educators and I stand united and firm in our beliefs and actions: We will always fight to conquer the injustices of inequitable education. •

PHOTOS: NORA LEWIS

8 comments

  1. Inspiring stories from incredible URI alum. I (Ph.D. ‘99) am fortunate to have worked with Dr. Warner in the College of Education and Professional Studies at URI.

  2. Great to read about these four remarkable people. Thank you for all your courage, smarts, and resilience.

  3. Amazing article about amazing Humans overcoming all odds against them and becoming such valuable contributing professionals and leaders, and blessed to know them all. Congratulations Solanje on a great article

  4. This article brought back great memories and how academic and personal advising, student organization participation and caring faculty all make a difference in the lives of our students. Excellent article.

    1. Tom, how could I forget all the support you provided us throughout the years! I remember you stopping into the LASA office to check in on how we were doing. It was much appreciated. Thank you!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this and I may be a bit biased because I know you Soljane but I thoroughly enjoyed it 😉 keep up the incredible work you are doing on so many levels and continue to document it so the world can also be a witness!

  6. Great to hear of this team and the work, Rhode Island needs it. Excellent article illuminating Black and Brown work in the community.

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