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  December 4, 2000

Morales Named Latino Citizen of the Year

The plaques that cover the walls of Professor Julio Morales' cramped office in the UConn School of Social Work are mute evidence of the twin passions - education and activism - that have consumed him for the past 40 years. Engaged in community action since adolescence, he has enriched his classes with the experience drawn from that work. Few of the honors in evidence on his walls, however, mean as much as the one bestowed upon him this year by the State of Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission - Latino Citizen of the Year.

The road leading to that distinction from Morales' birthplace in Vieques, Puerto Rico, has been a long one. And his memories of the trip include both the struggle to rise above degrading circumstances in New York and the joy of giving something back when success was finally in his grasp.

When he was only eight years old, his family moved to New York City where, instead of the American Dream, they found crushing poverty. Their first home was a sixth-floor walk-up in an East Harlem apartment building plagued with violence and repeated fires. Subsequent homes were not much of an improvement.

Out of this corrosive formative experience grew an indomitable commitment to struggle for change. "School," he says, "was my saving grace." Though he was repeatedly harassed and beaten in the tough urban schools he attended, simply because of his ethnicity, he nevertheless excelled academically. And he began to stand out from the crowd.

At 18, when he was the president of his high school's student organization, he became involved with the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA), an organization dedicated to improving life for New York's Puerto Rican residents and helping talented high school students go to college. Six years later, at the age of just 24, he became president of that organization.

A Life in the Community
Through community involvement he discovered social work and knew, almost instantly, it was what he wanted to do with his life. "I got involved in community activities when I was very young," he says, "and I never stopped. When I discovered social work, I realized it was the way to have a career and continue helping the community. I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life."

Morales' work with PRACA caught the attention of The Panel of Americans, another New York organization, which recruited him as a public speaker, one of a group of racially and ethnically diverse young people who visited schools, churches and synagogues to promote diversity, talk about similarities, and break down negative stereotypes.

Armed with both high grades and unusual experience, Morales was able to matriculate at Hunter College of the City University of New York, which then offered a free education to high school graduates who were academic high achievers. With a scholarship, he then went on to earn his master's degree at the Columbia University School of Social Work and later completed his Ph.D. at the Florence Heller Graduate School for Advanced Studies in Social Welfare at Brandeis University.

Morales subsequently served on the faculties of Brooklyn College, Boston University and Smith College. For the past 22 years, he has been a faculty member at the UConn School of Social Work, including four years as dean of academic affairs.

At UConn, he has taught 12 different courses and has launched eight new courses, including five for the growing curriculum of the school's Puerto Rican/Latino Studies project, a specialty Morales launched some 20 years ago to recruit, retain and graduate Puerto Rican and other Latino students. Since then, the project has successfully recruited and graduated hundreds of Latino students and, in the process, established itself as a national model.

A Life of Accomplishment
But it is only one of the many successes Morales can lay claim to. When they are considered in sum, his qualification to be named Latino Citizen of the Year quickly comes into focus.

He is, for instance, one of two people credited with developing the Puerto Rican Studies Department

and Puerto Rican Studies Institute at New York's Brooklyn College. He established El Programa Roberto Clemente, the first agency in Waltham, Mass., specially created to provide bilingual and culturally appropriate services to Waltham's Latino population. He is the author of the book Puerto Rican Poverty and Migration and co-editor of Multicultural Human Services for AIDS Treatment and Prevention. President of the board of Latinos Contra Sida from 1991 to 1996, he co-edits The Journal of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Education for Adolescents and Children. He has published articles and book chapters on an extraordinary range of issues, including Latinos, HIV/AIDS, children, lesbian and gay issues, and community organization. And he is currently serving a two-year term as first vice president of the National Association of Social Workers, the largest social work association in the United States.

A devoted single father, he has two biological children, both UConn graduates, a foster son and four grandchildren. As with other aspects of his career, family life has nourished a longstanding interest in the needs of children. Last year, he was co-chair of the National Committee of Los Ninos de Los Barrios, a nine-site, all-day national and regional conference on the impact of federal policy on Latino children and families. The conference, in turn, led to creation of the National Latino Research and Advocacy Center.

In Connecticut, he spearheaded creation of a Latino Advisory Board to the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, developed a new program to recruit and prepare Latino families to adopt Latino children, and recently organized a conference for Latino children receiving DCF services.

At the conference, called Escuchenos (Listen to Us), youngsters were the only speakers. They talked about their experiences and made suggestions about how DCF can be more helpful and more successful in supporting and caring for Latino youth. The adults who attended, including DCF administrators, lawyers and others with an interest in DCF youth, were required to dress informally, wearing non-threatening T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, and were not allowed to ask questions. Their job was to listen to what the youngsters had to say.

It is clear that Morales' life and his work are the same thing. Each informs and nourishes the other. In 1991 he was named both Father of the Year by The Hartford Courant, and Social Worker of the Year by the Connecticut chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Of the Latino Citizen of the Year award, he says, "I've received many awards during my career, but this one is especially meaningful, because it is given by people who really understand what's important to the Puerto Rican community."

Jim Smith