Jeanette Vazquez believes in the power of education — and community. That is why she chose not just to teach, but to create change as a member of her district's school board.
Explain what led you to care deeply about educational equity. What personal values, experiences or beliefs inform this?
Growing up in Fullerton, CA, I saw how hard my parents worked to make sure I had what I needed to be successful. My mom and stepdad often had to work 12-hour days, six days a week and motivated my siblings and I to have ganas — to not give up and put in our best effort. Their work ethic and words inspired me to keep going, to have ganas.
I also had inspirational teachers who instilled in me the importance of an education and giving back to our community. Their partnership paved the way for me to become the first in my family to graduate college. But I also noticed that friends I grew up with “on the other side of the train tracks” were simply not making it — dropping out to help parents make ends meet, not passing the high school exit exam, or moving out of the city altogether because it was too expensive for families to afford. It wasn’t until college that I realized these situations were not coincidental and, instead, a direct result of systemic educational, economic, and political failures that have continued to propel the cycle. That’s when I realized that not only could it be different, but that it must be different.
How has LEE helped you in your mission to end educational inequity?
After having been in the classroom for a couple years, I realized that educational equity was far more complex than what happens in a school. I attended my first LEE training in 2015 when I was still undecided about which avenue to take to have additional impact on my students and families’ lives. LEE provided me with the additional tools I needed to articulate my views, share my story, and connect with the network that would lead me to run for school board. Taking a step toward having a wider impact beyond the four walls of our classroom was intimidating, but I felt more confident taking that step with the help of LEE coaches and mentors, and the network of other LEE members who were as passionate as I was about closing the opportunity gap.
Tell us about your current role. What’s a typical day like? What is the impact you’re having on educational equity?
I am currently in my sixth year of teaching and have the privilege to learn with and from 32 amazing 6th graders and their families. More than ever, I feel able to be authentic with my students about what is at stake in our communities and have enjoyed facilitating civic engagement projects where my students are able to not only research issues in their community, but also propose solutions and take action. I instill in them the need to not only advocate for themselves and their families but also their community by analyzing the source of power and civic engagement strategies to influence that power to change things.
You’ve run for office. What drove you to do so, and what was the experience like?
I ran for school board in 2016, and ten months later, I am still recovering from the campaign. I truly enjoyed listening to my neighbors’ visions for our schools and community and found that we all agreed on the importance of a high-quality education in every neighborhood. Confirming that we were all on the same page about what needed to happen was not only a good first step, but also one that fired me up when my team and I (families, friends, and neighbors) felt like we couldn’t possibly make another call, knock on another door, or eat another slice of Costco pizza.
What do you see as your role in achieving this vision?
I believe education is the gateway to opportunity for every child. Our strong community partnerships have fostered high-quality educational opportunities for our Fullerton children. I believe that we can assure every child has access to quality educational opportunities in their own neighborhood by adopting equitable policies that bridge the opportunity gap of our diverse student populations.
As a representative of the community, I hope that I can bridge the communication between all stakeholders in order to strengthen our partnerships and that we are truly including everyone in the decision-making and budgeting process. These times have demonstrated to be especially challenging for many of our students, and it is vital for policymakers to use their voice to elevate the voices of students and families who are under attack by sending loud and clear messages that every child will retain their right to a safe and excellent education.
Jeanette Vazquez was a 2012 Teach for America corps member in Los Angeles. She still teaches, in addition to being a member of the Fullerton School District board.