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Teach For America Alumna on How to Prepare for a Career in Politics
From career educators and physicians to civil rights attorneys and entrepreneurs, Teach For America is a bold and diverse network comprising leaders from all walks and sectors. "Voices of Change: A Leadership Series" highlights some of the corps members and alumni who are tackling the systemic problems of inequity and partnering with others to make meaningful progress for kids and communities.
In five years, Mayra Macias (Miami–Dade ’10) went from being a field organizer for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign to being inside the legislative process at the U.S. Capitol. Additionally, she helped usher in the first Dominican state senator and the first Puerto Rican congressman in Florida, in 2014 and 2016.
Now, as she takes her next big career leap to head political operations at the Latino Victory Project, a nonpartisan organization created to ensure the voices of Latinos are reflected at every level of government, Macias reflects on how her career as a grassroots organizer began with the skills she honed in the classroom.
“Nowadays when people ask me why I am so calm under stress and pressure, I know it’s because I was responsible for the lives of 120 kids,” says Macias.
Layers of Exposure
Growing up on Chicago’s South Side in a working-class home with immigrant parents, Macias was exposed to inequity issues at a young age.
“I always felt very entrenched within these topics and attended immigrant rights rallies at a very young age,” Macias says.
Yet, being from a tight-knit Mexican community and neighborhood, Macias was unaware of her otherness, ethnicity, and class status until she enrolled at the selective Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on the other side of town.
“It was such a culture shock,” recalls Macias. “During the hour bus ride to my new school, I became aware of the inequity I lived in and began confronting issues of race I never really had confronted before.”
From the South Side of Chicago to Yale
Macias’ growing awareness led her to pursue justice through her studies and in 2006, she enrolled at Yale University where she double-majored in American Studies and in Ethnicity, Race and Migration Studies.
When approached by a Teach For America recruiter during her senior year, Macias was excited by the opportunity to address inequality in the classroom.
“At the time, I was very committed to academia and getting my Ph.D. Yet the idea of being able go back and teach in the kind of school that helped me achieve my dreams very much appealed to me. I wanted to give back to people and families like mine,” says Macias.
New Climate in Miami
When Macias began teaching with the corps in Miami, Florida, it was not what she expected. Before heading to Miami, Macias believed that her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago would help her better relate and connect to her students. Instead, she was confronted with a fluid racial system and privilege as a Hispanic woman that she never knew she possessed during her time teaching middle school language arts and reading in Liberty City.
Before heading to Miami, Macias had thought most of her students, like her, would be Hispanic. Instead, Macias would end up teaching middle school language arts and reading to a mostly African American student base in Liberty City.
“I found myself having to grapple with my own privilege in ways I never had to before,” says Macias.
“There were days when my lesson didn't go as planned, but my win was that I gave my students my all. I grounded my classroom in love and I felt empowered to be engaged in the community.”
Civic Engagement Beyond the Classroom
Macias’ experience with Teach For America solidified her resolve that civic engagement beyond the classroom is crucial for substantive change. As a result, she joined President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign as field organizer for the Little Havana office.
“The fact that my transition from the classroom to the Obama campaign was rather seamless is a testament to my work with students and families and the training I received from Teach For America—being data driven, backward planning, and, more important, building substantive relationships.”
For three years, Macias worked with the Florida Democratic Party, first as the Hispanic outreach coordinator for South Florida and then as the deputy political director. During her time with the FDP, Macias worked on over a dozen campaigns and fulfilled her passion of recruiting and electing candidates at the local level.
Teach For America Capitol Fellowship
After the 2014-midterm elections, Macias was awarded entrance into Teach For America’s prestigious Capitol Hill Fellows Program, where she worked for Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro, a ranking member of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations subcommittees.
The yearlong program places a small group of Teach For America alumni in full-time, paid congressional staff positions. While working on the Hill, fellows gain insights into the legislative process and experience in national policy and politics.
“I am incredibly grateful for the fellowship. At the time, my background was very much ingrained in politics rather than policy. I helped elect countless candidates but had no idea what governance looked like. The fellowship allowed me to gain entry onto the Hill without having legislative experience. I would not have been able to work on the Hill for such a senior member without the fellowship,” says Macias.
Community Organizing to Empower Communities
Macias rejoined the Florida Democratic Party in July 2016. This time, Macias was the new political director of FDP, and her work also involved applying her passion for community organizing to empower communities and highlight Florida’s diversity.
“I came back to Florida in the summer of 2016 and hit the ground running, helping get Latino surrogates to Florida and building the Latino base,” says Macias.
Based on election results, Macias felt encouraged by the growing electoral power of the Latino vote.
“We saw the first Dominican state senator and the first Puerto Rican congressman from Florida, which is huge, but I feel we could’ve done more,” laments Macias. “There’s much room for growth in 2018.”
Today, Macias is answering a call once again to our nation’s capitol, this time from the Latino Victory Project.
The organization provides training and support for future Latino candidates from school board to Senate. After being approached to head the organization’s political operations, Macias became excited about the impact she can make back in Washington.
“I’ve never been the political director for a national organization,” confesses Macias. “There’s a lot of pressure and a lot to learn—like the entire political landscape of California, for instance. There’s so much room for impact though, and I’m very passionate about building a pipeline of Latino elected officials.”
Macias remains thankful for her time in the corps. “Being in the classroom, I gained a lot of perspective at a young age that most of my peers did not have,” she says.
And, as for what’s next: “I’m very committed to the power of the Latino vote. Like Teach For America, politics are a vehicle for change, and I’m excited and preparing for 2018.”