Jessenia Guerra will never forget her third year as an elementary school teacher, when she was approached by the grandmother of one of her students after school. In Spanish, she said to Jessenia, “Ms. Guerra, my grandson and his mother held each other as they crossed the border and they’ve been holding on ever since — we are trusting you to take care of him now.”
It was one of those moments that carves an indelible sense of duty in your psyche; and the weight of that grandmother’s words has influenced Jessenia’s path as an educator and advocate of children’s rights to this day.
“I could hear the voices of my family and the families in the community I grew up in,” she recalls. “She was not only putting her trust in me, but had also made the decision to trust this new country and its education system. As the daughter of immigrants, I knew all too well that stepping foot on U.S. soil would not be the end of the battle.” Jessenia acknowledged that her student would now be forced to overcome several hurdles, including being an English Learner in a school unequipped to meet the mental health needs of children who have faced trauma at home or in their country of birth.
But she was determined to be part of the change, “My student deserved better and I knew better was possible.”
In 2017, with both nonprofit and federal agency experience under her belt, Jessenia sought to “make better possible,” by applying to the Public Policy Fellowship, which allows participants to work with a senior policy or advocacy leader for nine months, while leading projects that advance equity. Jessenia carried out her work at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in Washington, D.C., where she was offered a position as a Policy Analyst in their Division of Early Learning after completing the fellowship.
Her insight into the unique experience of dual language learners and familiarity with research on home language supports in early learning settings is helping the District adopt a different vision for the way English Learners can develop — one that emphasizes the aptitudes of bilingual children, instead of perceived deficits. “By convening a DLL working group made up of diverse voices in early childcare, I am helping to shape the District’s plan to serve DLLs and their families across community-based organizations and local education agencies,” she explains.
Jessenia’s leadership continues to be guided by the experiences and needs of marginalized students and families, and the educators who strive to open doors for them, “We must be willing to ask ourselves the difficult questions when it comes to high expectations and both implicit and explicit bias in our society. Addressing attitudes and outcomes that stem from generational disenfranchisement will be key to making thoughtful decisions on how to support the whole child and make meaningful investments in underserved communities.”
Jessenia believes that having access to the fellowship, which helped her become more grounded in her personal theory of change and gain a broader perspective of the education landscape and key players in it, helps her to this day.
She also says receiving the personalized coaching offered by the fellowship and having a safe space to discuss issues not often addressed within the confines of an office all keep her focused on a broader sense of purpose, “The people directly impacted by educational inequity should be engaged and at the forefront of all decision-making...I will continue to inform quality policies that will give students the level playing field they deserve. I am grateful for LEE’s network of change-makers and excited to keep engaging with them to create a better future.”
Explore the Public Policy Fellowship as a next step in your own leadership journey today.