It was a historic day last January when 27-year-old educator Gabriela López was sworn in as the youngest-ever San Francisco Unified School District School Board member. As she took her oath — in perfect Spanish, no less — it was clear that López epitomizes the future leadership uniquely positioned to move San Francisco forward.
It was also an exciting day when López recently agreed to join the 16-person Mission Promise Neighborhood (MPN) Advisory Board, an education initiative for which MEDA is the lead agency, where her unique perspective will push forward our education initiative’s vision to strengthen families so students achieve.
As the daughter of working-class, immigrant parents, Commissioner López is working with the community on a comprehensive, landmark Board Resolution to address the challenges that Latinx students across the city are facing — including many Mission Promise Neighborhood students.
Following is an interview of Commissioner López by Director, Mission Promise Neighborhood Richard Raya.
RR: What in your background led you to your work bettering the lives of children?
GL: Growing up in public schools in Los Angeles led to my interest in pursuing public education. I almost immediately saw the mistreatment of students of color, and decided to become a teacher in the third grade. With my understanding of how geography affects the outcome of a student’s success, I immediately wanted to create change in these areas since I saw this affected my community the most.
RR: How does it feel to be the youngest person ever elected to the San Francisco School Board, and what unique perspective do you bring?
GL: Before running, I was told that if I won I would be the youngest woman ever elected to office in San Francisco. Initially, that felt like the furthest thing from reality. And while running, my age became more of an issue because it meant instability to a lot of people, despite the fact that I had the most experience in schools and education. When I found out I won, I was truly shocked, to the point of tears, but am of course extremely proud of this accomplishment and hope to encourage other young folks to do the same! My perspective is closest to the number of new teachers we are serving and my current experience in the classroom provides me the lens necessary when making decisions that better serve all of our students.
RR: Why did you opt to deliver your San Francisco School Board oath in Spanish?
GL: The thought was immediate once I learned about the legal issues that I can work around in order to do it. I knew my parents would attend, and wanted to make sure they were able to hear the words that granted me a seat on the Board. It reminded me of the work I did often as a child to help my parents understand what was happening — and the work that many young people who are bilingual do every day for their families.
RR: How does your vision for San Francisco students align with the vision of MPN to make sure every family succeeds and every student has the opportunity and tools to go to college?
GL: My vision ensures every decision made keeps students at the center. With this in mind, we can move forward in ensuring ALL students have access to a fulfilling, rigorous and empowering education. These, and many other characteristics, are the ones we need as a people to be successful in all areas of work, schooling and socialization. Which is where I can combine efforts and make connections with the work being done at Mission Promise Neighborhood. My role as a leader of the District also includes to call out bias and racism that prevents this from helping achieve this for all of our students.
RR: How does the fact that you were once compelled to supplement your teacher salary with a gig job give you empathy for our MPN families, who often face the challenge to make ends meet in an increasingly expensive neighborhood?
GL: I am no stranger to holding various jobs to make a living wage. Up until landing my first teaching position in 2015, I was working at a restaurant while finishing my master’s in Education. Throughout my college experience, I had two, sometimes three jobs in order to maintain a living and finish my degree. Some of these jobs required me to work graveyard shifts and many, many nights. I more than empathize with many families who are working hard to survive. I’ve seen my parents go through it, and value it more than many of the qualities I hold. As a teacher in the classroom serving the populations that so often need more than one job to support their children, I focus on making their connections to their child’s education as seamless and accessible as possible, without interfering with their work.
RR: Can you describe the importance of the San Francisco School Board Resolution, on which you are currently working, to ensure Latinx students’ equity?
GL: It’s important people understand the power the School Board has over the decisions being made that comes through the district. There are many opportunities to give input, feedback and advice since we are deciding for many different families. Each group has unique needs that the District can support — and the Latinx community is no different. This resolution will be the first of its kind to support a community of folks that even within it has a variety of needs. The resolution can help address what those needs are and how to better serve that specific group. But it can’t be done without much community input!