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My passion is democratizing democracy and helping ensure that the people that democracy is supposed to support are actually represented in the decision making. And that's what I do in all facets of my life.
What brought you to education?
My dad was born in El Paso and until I was 12, my dad was a dairy farmer in Mexico. My mom’s family has been in the United States for about 100 years, a little longer, but they had escaped from eastern Europe. I think I definitely had a certain idealistic appreciation for what this country is and what it's supposed to be.
I remember as a kid growing up in El Paso, driving down the 10 and on the north side of the river, there's the Sun Bowl at UTEP and just south of that is the Rio Grande. And I remember as a little kid like, just being perplexed at the kids on the other side of this river. They had streets, but they were dirt streets and there were cars but they didn't have wheels. Um, I just felt so lucky to be on this side of the border not knowing more than I knew.
My parents really reinforced that the way that you make it in life is to work hard in school. That education would open up doors for opportunities for a better life. Having heard their story and their family's story, I just felt incredibly lucky and education was something that I took very seriously as a kid. When I found out that there was an opportunity to contribute as a teacher, I was finishing Grad school and I didn't know what I wanted to do with life. I kind of wanted to be an international peace broker. I wasn't sure how to do that. So I found this organization called Teach For America and I was just so compelled by this idea that we could add our education, our labor, our expertise to this lifelong mission to help kids like us grow up and have more opportunity in life.
What was teaching like for you?
It was amazing. Probably the best experience I've ever had. So I was fortunate that I was assigned to teach eighth grade social studies. I love social studies. It's my passion. I believe in it. Like I said, I grew up believing in the ideals of the United States and I have a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in International Politics and Middle Eastern Studies. So to me this was a real blessing to bring the actual experience I have and expertise and help it come to life for kids, but it was hard.
My eighth grade students were reading on average on a third and fourth grade reading level. So that complicated things. But where it became even more maybe troubling for me is that at 13 years old, at 14 years old, my students were cynical. They did not have the same sense of idealism that I did about what the United States is, what it could be. They felt under attack, and this was at a time when Sheriff Joe was conducting raids and locking up their families and friends. Many kids felt terrorized and were cynical and I'm supposed to be teaching social studies, something I love and care about. And they looked at me like none of this matters. None of this matters. And it was heartbreaking to be honest. It was a real eye opening experience.
We weren't taking care of our neighbors. In fact they were feeling terrorized. Like how much hubris did I have, thinking that I was going to go and create peace between the Israelis and the Arab? And guess what? We also need to treat our own neighbors and our own country with respect and dignity. That changed my life.
What happened after you left the classroom that started shaping the new trajectory that you were going to take?
I went to a school board meeting and, it's so embarrassing because I'm someone who believes in civics, I didn't even know about these things called school boards. I knew about mayors and city councils. I didn't know about school boards. And I'll be honest, I became radicalized at my very first board meeting. I was so disappointed that the conversation at the school board wasn't at all about impact on kids. I think I already had a certain sense of a belief that these things are important, but my connection to it changed again and I felt that I didn't know what my role would be but I needed to dedicate myself to making sure that our decision makers were considering the impact they were having on the communities that I live in and the people that I care about.
That spring boarded you into your most recent career and your most recent passion, which is inspiring others to run for elected office, particularly run for offices that directly impact students. Tell me about your recent work.
For 10 years, I've been looking for people that wanted to take on the responsibilities of elected leadership. So I'm looking for more families, more parents to take on these responsibilities. I'm looking at teachers who know the struggles that our kids face on a daily basis to help not just make those decisions and bring that perspective to the board, but to bring those voices with them. I do that specifically with teachers and former teachers all across the United States, but I also just do it for fun everywhere I go because I believe that democracy should belong to all of us. Right now, democracy works exactly the way it's designed to and it gets results for those who participate.
So what that looks like right now is my team and I invite teachers to coffee. We talk about their visions, their dreams, their hopes and fears for their kids in the communities that they teach in. We invite them into a conversation about changing the face of elected leadership. Maybe you think that you need to be some slimy politician. How could it look differently if we actually put energy in this? And why don't you just knock on doors and see if your neighbors agree. Through conversation and providing strategic coaching and helping people try these ideas on privately, we've now inspired more than 600 of our members to pursue elected leadership at all levels across the United States from super local seats all the way to the United States Senate.
What advice do you have for teachers who are listening or educators in general who are listening?
1) Dream big. If you think that politics aren't working for you, what could it look like? Just have a dream about it. But what could it look like if we were in control? Because guess what? We actually are in control of our own destinies, so dream big.
2) Just try it on. Have a conversation with a loved one or with a neighbor. Ask them what they think about you running for office or taking some sort of political action? It's scary, but there isn't a commitment to do anything just by having a conversation.
3) Here's the thing. Your elected officials love attention and generally the only attention they get is negative attention. Try to have a meeting with one of your elected representatives. You probably have to do the work to find out who they are because it's not always obvious, but you're elected school board members, your elected legislators, city council members, they're likely going to try to make time for you because that's just the business that they're in. Even if they're not doing a very good job, they're in it because they want to improve people's lives. They want to hear from you and if you're there to ask them questions, they're going to feel super important. So even if you're not trying to lobby them and changed their mind on anything, just building a relationship, asking questions. How'd you get into this? Take this space. This space is your space.
Carla Rivera-Cruz (CRC) is an educator and entrepreneur committed to helping like-minded educators reach their fullest potentials.