Pursuing Change by Seeking Elected Office
These alums join a growing number of young leaders who are stepping up to change the systems that impact education.
March 14, 2019
A growing number of Teach For America alums are feeling energized by the current climate of increased civic engagement and are seeking ways to influence change at the policy level as elected officials.
Over 230 alumni and corps members ran for office in 2018—the largest number of candidates from the TFA network running in an election cycle to date. For many, this was their first time running a campaign. They vied for a variety of roles that impact education, including local school board positions, city council seats, and representatives in state legislatures. The election season closed with 139 alumni and corps members winning a campaign victory.
These leaders can trace their decision to run for office to their time in the classroom, their relationships with students, and understanding the systemic barriers they face. While they ran for different positions in different parts of the country, they all share a commitment to equity and to bringing voices of marginalized communities to the table.
With the election now behind them, former candidates have turned their attention to what they hope to accomplish moving forward. For those who won, it means learning to navigate the political system from the inside, listening to what their constituents need, and setting priorities. Those that didn’t win are also looking ahead to how they can continue to lead change in their communities—and whether to try for elected office again in the future.
Lorena Chavez (Bay Area’ 08)
East Side Union High School District School Board, San Jose
Managing Director of Partnerships, Teach For America Bay Area
Lorena Chavez was elected to the East Side Union High School District board last fall—the same district where she attended high school. Lorena ran for an “at large” seat on the school board, which meant she had to win votes across the entire district, which covers about half of San Jose. In the face of seven opponents, she campaigned her way to a powerful victory thanks to extensive campaigning—including thousands of phone calls and door knocks—and the strength of her platform. She was the top vote-getter with close to 60,000 votes.
“For me, this is very personal,” Lorena said. “There is still a huge gap for students that look like me, who are the majority in this district. They too deserve to have access like their peers do.”
Lorena has been visiting the schools she is serving to hear what’s top of mind for students, educators, support staff, parents, and families. Engaging families across the district is one of her big priorities, particularly those from communities whose voices are often underrepresented.
“I feel like I can bring a different lens—that of an educator, and that of somebody who has grown up in this community and has experienced what our children are experiencing day-in and day-out. We need to make sure their voices, and the voices of their families are at the table,” Lorena says.
Lorena first ran for an at-large seat in 2016, coming close to victory and earning just 2 percent fewer votes than the second-place incumbent. She came out of the race disheartened but more determined than ever to fight for children in her community.
“It was heartbreaking,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life. What motivated me to run again was thinking about some of the most powerful moments I’ve had with my students and why I’m in this work.”
During the stressful moments that came with campaigning, Lorena was able to stay grounded by focusing on her “why,” and remembering the advice that she shared with her students when they were struggling.
“If you fail at something, what’s going to really matter is how you respond,” Lorena says. “That is the real learning opportunity.”
Everton Blair, Jr. (Metro Atlanta ’13)
Gwinnett County School Board, District 4
Director, Program Development, UnboundEd.org
Everton “EJ” Blair won a historic seat on the Gwinnett County School Board, on which he is the youngest and first person of color to serve. A first-time candidate, he won with 57.2 percent of the vote.
Everton is a Georgia native, first-generation American, and an alumnus of Gwinnett County Public Schools. He taught high school math at KIPP Atlanta Collegiate as a 2013 Metro Atlanta corps member.
After pursuing a graduate degree and working on education policy, he accepted a job at UnboundEd and returned home to Gwinnett County. While his role allowed him to make an impact at the system level, he missed having a direct connection with the everyday lives of students and teachers. He saw the school board as a way to re-engage with his community. When he attended his first school board meeting, he noticed that voices from current teachers and students were missing.
“Not hearing what’s going on from the folks that are most directly impacted—students and educators—felt like a missed opportunity. That gave me the courage to think about running,” Everton says.
After winning his seat on the school board last fall, Everton is focused on helping the district increase equity in teacher supports for early intervention, reduce disproportionality in student discipline, and provide comprehensive student wellness services.
“The majority of our students are students of color. When I walk into a school building, a lot more students are affirmed by my identity. I connect really deeply to them, and they feel that too,” he says. “This has been a really powerful moment for me to remember why I am doing this work.”
When thinking back to his corps experience, Everton draws parallels between being a teacher and his time on the campaign trail.
“Teachers have to develop skills to meet every student’s needs, recognize different learning styles, different identities and approaches,” he says. “That is a little bit how running for office feels.”
Everton’s advice for others seeking elected office: Start by building a coalition.
“You need a base of support to help with the on-the-ground work. I leveraged those in my network—former teachers, family members, siblings, students. You can’t do this by yourself.”
Callie Kozlak (D.C. Region ’08)
Former candidate, D.C. State Board of Education
Associate Superintendent for Policy and Government Relations, Arizona Department of Education
Callie is a former D.C. public schools teacher and has extensive experience with government, policy, and advocacy. While her former role at UnidosUS gave her the opportunity to influence national policy, she wanted to get more involved in education locally. After learning about an open seat on the D.C. State Board of Education, she decided to throw her hat in the ring.
“What really inspired me was that I had been a teacher in D.C.,” she says. “I felt a connection to the local schools and community through that experience.”
Callie ran to represent Ward 1 on the D.C. State Board of Education, which serves a diverse population. Elevating the needs of underserved communities was one of the big themes of her campaign.
“My lens toward education is focused on equity and civil rights,” Callie says. “I wanted to be out there talking about how we are serving our historically underrepresented communities in D.C. including our English language learner students.”
Callie and her campaign worked hard and persisted until the very end, even against two formidable candidates who had gotten into the race before she filed. While she might consider running for another elected position in the future, her time on the campaign trail was a tremendous learning experience.
“One of my biggest takeaways is that local relationships and networks really matter,” Callie says. “You need to know folks who are intimately involved in the community, who can help you navigate the landscape It comes down to people spreading the word and getting behind you.”
Callie continues to fight for students and educational equity in her new role as associate superintendent for policy and government relations with the Arizona Department of Education.
“I got to know the people and the landscape in Arizona through my former role at UnidosUS,” she says. “Working at the Arizona Department of Education is a great platform to get to do a lot of the things that I had hoped to do through the D.C. system—particularly around multilingual education, which benefits all students."
Tony Vargas (New York '07)
Nebraska State Senator, 7th Legislative District
Executive Director, Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance
Tony Vargas ran for a seat on the Nebraska State Senate in 2016, beating both the incumbent and a former state senator. He is the first Latinx member elected to represent Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature.
As a first-generation college student raised by immigrant parents, Tony was drawn to education and public service early in his career. After teaching in the 2007 New York corps, he continued working in the non-profit and education sectors and served on the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education from 2013-2016. His experience as an educator has a major influence on his role as a Senator.
“I think about my kids every day,” Tony says. “Working with parents, teachers, and the community has shaped so much of how I think about public policy. My time in the classroom has fundamentally changed how I think about what is possible.”
Now entering his third year serving on the Nebraska State Senate, Tony shapes policies on a broad range of issues that impact the state: education, affordable housing, the school-to-prison pipeline, job creation, and skills training. “We don't view things through a single-solution lens,” he says. “We have to build coalitions to provide what's best for kids.”
Tony suggests that those who want to become more civically engaged should start by learning as much as they can about their local elected leaders and the issues in their community.
“Make sure you know who your local leaders are and hold them accountable,” he says. “Educators need to share their stories with local elected officials—they are making hundreds of decisions every day. The only way things change is when officials know what's happening.”
Tony also offers his own story as encouragement for those who are contemplating running for elected office, but might feel daunted by the steep learning curve.
“Oftentimes we put up our own barriers as to why we think we're not ready. We say somebody else is more experienced, better equipped. I'm a non-lawyer, first-generation college student from New York City. Everything I cared about as an educator is what I needed to run.”