Skip to main content
Sarah Hernandez
Policy and Advocacy

TFA-LA Alum Makes Historic Run For U.S. House Of Representatives

Sara Hernandez (LA, ’05) credits her time in classroom for inspiring her bid for Congress

April 11, 2017

The TFA Editorial Team

The TFA Editorial Team

Sara Hernandez was the first Teach For America alum to run for U.S. House of Representatives. This April she placed fourth out of 24 primary candidates vying to represent the 34th Congressional District in California. We spoke with Sara about her time in the corps and what inspired her to run.

Q: Tell me about your upbringing and earliest experiences with education.

A: I grew up in Salinas, California. My parents were civil rights attorneys that dedicated a majority of their lives to fighting for the rights of farm workers in the 1970s and 80s, so I grew up with a healthy diet of stories about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Philip Veracruz and Bobby Kennedy. They instilled in me the idea that no matter who you are—whether you’re a legal aid attorney or a business owner or a teacher, we all have to do our part to make our communities better, lift up those who are most vulnerable, and fight against injustice. For them, their movement was the farm workers’ movement. For me, as the product of public schools in Salinas, my early experiences around education were really impactful. That led me along the path that led me to TFA.

I started in the ninth grade in a public high school in Salinas with 700 kids. Only 350 graduated, and from there, only 35 went on to a four-year college. That had a profound impact on my experience. I realized that being privileged enough to go to college, but having so many friends that didn’t, one of the biggest injustices we have in this country is the lack of educational opportunity for low-income students for color. Our life trajectories are really molded by the type of education opportunities we’re confronted with in our communities. With educational inequity being so prevalent in my community, I wanted to fight for education, and to do that, I actually had to be on the battlefield. Teach For America was a great opportunity to “walk the walk” firsthand and show education is something I’m passionate about.

 

Q: Why did you join TFA?

A: I was a senior at Duke when I applied, and I think one of the biggest selling points for me when I was deciding to do Teach For America was the idea that there is a network and larger mission that we need people in all sectors who understand what goes on in the classroom. That’s really critical in the realm of education when we’re talking about advocates for education across the board on all levels of government. You need people who are like-minded, and it helps to know that whether you go into the political realm or another field, you’ll have that support whether you decide to stay in the classroom.

 

Q: What did you learn from your corps experience?

A: I was a 2005 L.A. corps member. I taught English and social studies at Johnnie Cochran Middle School in South L.A. for three years, and then went to Loyola Law School in 2008. Law is a great tool to have in the toolbelt when you’re trying to shape policy. I did a lot of educational policy work with the California Charter School Association. From there I became special counsel to Councilmember Jose Huizar in East Los Angeles. I really got interested in how do we create this holistic communities in our city. I dealt with a lot of issues like homelessness, improving park space, supporting small business, and ushering in major transportation and infrastructure projects.

One thing that TFA did a really good job of is meeting people where they are. I’m really passionate about education, but one of the biggest lessons I learned as a teacher, and one of the reasons why I’m running for office, is that I learned very quickly that every single issue we deal with on a federal, state, and local level, those issues play out in the classroom every single day. Whether or not my kids were able to achieve academically in my classroom and change their life trajectories depended on whether or not they had access to affordable health care, whether or not there was affordable housing in their neighborhood, whether or not there was criminal justice reform. In South L.A., we were dealing with a food desert.

Why I think the mission of TFA is so powerful is that all of these issues are interconnected, and so the only way we are going to improve educational outcomes for children is if we understand this interconnectedness and we support people throughout these sectors to really create and effect change in their own way. Regardless of whether you’re a lifetime educator, or you leave and become a doctor, or go into journalism or go into business, all of those things play a role in how we shape educational outcomes.

The way TFA recruits by meeting people where they are, and talking to young people about the importance of being in a classroom, and understanding the realities of our educational system, and taking those lessons with you and utilizing them in whatever industry you end up in is incredibly powerful and important.

Also, nothing is in a silo. If we’re going to talk about public education, then we need to talk about public health. If we’re going to talk about education, we need to talk about criminal justice reform. That’s important in any elected leader, but it’s important in any leader in any industry.

 

Q: Why are you running for the House? How much does your TFA experience have to do with it?

A: What I really appreciated about TFA is that they didn’t just go recruit at the school of education. They recruited at the school of public policy, the business school, kids that wanted to go to Wall Street. They explained the importance of what this experience is about and what you’re going to get out of it, and how you can apply it to whatever work you do. I still strongly believe in that mission and in that goal because for me, it’s the reason why I’m running for office.

I think TFA played a significant role. Back when I was corps member, I talked to my region’s executive director at the time, Brian Johnson, about public service. He had recommended a new, young city council member, and I actually worked for him between the summer of my first and second year teaching, and came back years later as general counsel, so that directly came from the TFA network.

When I was teacher, I started a nonprofit with a fellow L.A. corps member Rachel Torrey called HYPE that identifies low-income students and provides them with exceptional educational opportunities. There was support from TFA’s donor base.

The reason why I’m excited to be the first TFA alum to ever run for the House of Representatives is that it’s an organization that has had such a profound impact on my career and personal life trajectories.

I’ve been involved in this work for a while, and I believe that one of the biggest reasons why I’m running is that it’s necessary to invest in the next generation of leadership, to identify the challenges facing our country to keep us moving forward. There’s also a need for some honest, courageous leadership around issues that are really tough and challenging for the Democratic Party. TFA has really shaped my views about this, but I’m really tired of listening to political one-liners about education that do not directly identify what the issues are when we talk about how we improve educational outcomes specifically for low-income students of color.

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, we’ve embarked on this political rhetoric that’s created this sort of false choice of where you stand on education. Whether you are pro-charter school, or pro-labor, or pro-ed reform, or pro-traditional public school, that ideological bickering that happens on a political level is failing our students. While adults are fighting over this ideological argument, we have students who are drowning in a world of low expectations in classrooms around the country. I find that appalling. I say that unapologetically, but I think anyone who’s been in a classroom would do the same since we’ve seen time and time again a system that has failed our children.

I only know that because of my experience in the classroom, and I think we need more people in elected office that have that experience to get us out from under this very politicized rhetoric around education that is killing our public education system.That’s something nonpartisan and non-ideological.

We have such a political tension because this is such an emotional issue for people. If Teach For America can encourage more people to assume positions of leadership, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on, that’s going to make our public education system better because we need people who truly understand how public educational policy plays out on the ground.

 

Q: Would you consider running again in the future? 

Yes. This was a really good experience, as it laid the groundwork for future political endeavors. I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds.