Not long ago, Monica Trejo found herself conflicted between respect for Teach For America’s “One Day” slogan and her belief that “one day” was too far away. “Our kids cannot wait,” she said. “They need real change now.”
Determined to do what she could to make change happen sooner rather than later, Monica ran for a seat on the Tempe Elementary School Board in Arizona this past election season — and won.
Growing up in poverty and changing schools more than ten times, the odds were stacked against her. But with teachers who supported and believed in her, Monica became the first in her household to graduate high school. She went on to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at Arizona State University. Her time tutoring and mentoring students in college inspired her to join Teach For America, which allowed her to see the classroom from another angle.
“Living in Arizona is a constant battle for educational equity. After joining TFA, I felt frustrated with our district and state policies that impacted my classroom and my kids at home,” Monica said.
With LEE’s help, she was able to transform her frustration into action. In 2015, Monica participated in the Latinx Political Leadership Program, part of LEE’s Diversity in Elected Leadership Series, which develops and supports LEE members from historically underrepresented communities to pursue elected leadership. Also, as a Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellow, she worked with LEE member and Arizona State Representative Reginald Bolding, where she was able to gain a deeper perspective on policy and the inner workings of government.
“Participating in LEE’s Latino Political Leadership Program was truly transformative for me. It was the first time I believed that I could run for office. In the past, I worked on other campaigns, but never actually saw myself as a potential candidate. LPLP helped pushed my perspective and made me see that it was possible.”
For Monica, it was important to see people who look like her doing work that she hadn’t imagined doing herself.
“I had an opportunity to learn from great Latinx leaders in education, like Erika Beltran. It was truly inspiring to see and hear from a Latina in elected office. Unfortunately, there aren’t many elected leaders in my state that look like Erika, and we need to change to that. By the end of the program, I walked away with new friends, a new perspective and confidence in my mission to impact my community through political leadership. I was ready to run for office. I realized I would not be running to win, but running to make change. Win or lose; I would continue to fight for my community.”
Monica took the skills and networks she gained from LPLP, along with her commitment and passion for education and decided to run for school board in her community. Though she knew that the challenges — and opportunities — would be different than teaching or state policy work, the goal was still the same: improve education for students.
During her school board campaign, Monica was simultaneously working and pushing through her last semester of graduate school to earn her second master’s degree. Despite the time constraints this created, Monica found the best part of running to be canvassing, where she was able to engage in substantive conversations about education with residents, “who do not always feel like their public servants are available to them.”
With support from the Candidate Ready Development Team at LEE and her campaign team, Monica was able to add to the number of women in office. “I have served as a teacher and school administrator, attended countless campaign and candidate trainings, participated in LEE programming, earned two master’s degrees in education — and I still felt I was “not ready” to run for school board. We just need to remind ourselves that our kids can’t wait until you are all out of self-doubt. They need us now more than ever.”
And as for what’s ahead now that she’s joined the board?
“School boards are one of the smallest forms of government but have one of the largest impacts in our communities,” she said. “I am excited about ensuring educational equity for all students in our district.
“I will always continue to fight for educational equity in Arizona. This is a lifelong struggle; there are no finite indicators that will clearly show inequity has been completely eradicated. Therefore, I am committed to being a permanent advocate for educational equity in every way that I can. Even if my roles change over time, I will always be involved in the fight for educational equity in some capacity.”