Latino Thursday: The Next Generation of Leaders Looks Good

"Thank You" Poster Made by Luis Valdez Leadership Academy Student Leaders
“Thank You Poster”  by Luis Valdez Leadership Academy Student Leaders

One of my pet peeves is the phrase, “kids these days.” You know what I mean. What happened to the days when kids would speak only when spoken to and say “yes, ma’am” and “no sir.” Remember those days? My favorite is, “Kids these days don’t say ‘please’ when they want something or ‘thank you’ to show gratitude.

We old timers worry about what will happen when we get older and have to rely on the next generation to take care of us. What a mess, right? These kids can’t even write full sentences when they text. They would rather send “pics” on Instagram and Snapchat than pick up a phone or write a letter.

They listen to music that isn’t even music. What happened to the good old school days when you could understand the lyrics? Earth, Wind, and Fire. Santana. Al Green. Lionel Richie. Malo. Remember “Suavecito”?

That was music.

Many people my age wonder how kids these days will run the place when we retire. The old folks are sure that the world will go straight to the dogs when the youngsters take charge.

Well my dear readers, I absolutely, overwhelmingly, vehemently, and respectfully disagree!

I know we’ll be in good hands when the next generation of Latino leaders takes the helm. Let me tell you why.

During the last two school years, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to teach leadership classes at three east side high schools: Latino College Prep Academy, Luis Valdez Leadership Academy, and Roberto Cruz Leadership Academy. Latino students represent over 90% of the population at the schools. The program I teach is a six-week freshman course that provides students with the tools to present and conduct themselves in a professional manner.

The students learn how to set and plan goals, make professional presentations, and work in teams. They also do professional development exercises to help them with shaking hands, sitting and standing posture, making eye contact, and using body language to convey confidence. This is all done within the framework of understanding and respecting Latino cultural norms. The goal of the program is to send our kids to college and beyond with the self-assurance to succeed.

At Luis Valdez Leadership Academy (LVLA) I’ve been able to see the results of the program as the student government advisor. LVLA is in its second year of operation, so the student government is comprised of freshmen and sophomores. That means that these young leaders have an opportunity to set the cultural tone for the school well into the future.

After taking the six-week course, the elected leaders learned how to run a working decision-making government. The leadership group is large. There are four school-wide elected officers, class officers, and classroom representatives. In all, 23 students represent their peers to create and manage events and activities for the school year. In any governmental environment, a leadership team of that size is challenging to manage.

With that in mind, the student leaders are studying the fundamentals of the rules of order used by city halls, statehouses, and congress. They’re learning how to share their ideas with their fellow leaders through orderly debate and discussion. The students are using the committee system to tackle the details of putting their ideas into an actual plan.

After several weeks of intense training, the student government was ready to take on its first project. They decided to have a fall dance. As the first-ever dance in the school’s history, these young leaders felt much pressure to make the event successful. They had heated debates about the theme of the dance, the date, fundraising, the food and refreshments, decorations, and much more.

To have the event they wanted, student leaders had to raise $800 by selling tickets. They had less than three weeks to achieve this goal. That’s a tall order in a working-class neighborhood. Many on campus quietly shared concerns that the student council took on too much than they could handle.

Using the rules of order they learned, the young decision-makers developed a ticket sales and marketing strategy, and created a plan for a 100% student led and managed dance. I’ve been around many leadership teams in my career, and the students experienced all of the potential pitfalls and challenges that any team of leaders could confront. Through their raucous use of the democratic process, they worked through each barrier.

When the dust settled, here’s what happened:

LVLA had its first-ever school dance, they called it the “Falling for Fall” event. More than half of the student body attended. The student government made money on the event by raising over $1,000. The buzz on campus the next Monday was all about the dance. Everyone had a great time. The event was an overwhelming success by any and every measurement.

This gets me back to “kids these days.” Given the right tools and the confidence to succeed, Latino students will be exemplary leaders in the future. We’re in good hands. Today’s Latino civic and community leaders could learn a few things about teamwork and cooperation from the LVLA student government. In fact, so could our do-nothing United States Congress.

Oh, by the way, the student government planned and hosted an appreciation potluck for me and fellow advisor Mr. Osvaldo Ruelas, a young educator who is a future leader himself. The student leaders wanted to say “thank you” for the small role we played in supporting them.

Kids these days.

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Summer in the Waiting Room: Part Two – The Waiting Room (excerpt #42)

Click on image to read all excerpts
Click on image to read all excerpts

Author’s note: The manuscript of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life, is divided into three parts. The title of Part 2 is The Waiting Room. Excerpt #42 is the first installment of  The Waiting Room.

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Chapter 5 

Buen Corazón

My earliest memory of a hospital waiting room is from the day my sister Sisi was born. I had just turned five-years-old the month before. We were at the old Kaiser Santa Clara Hospital that was built in the early 1960s. I remember waiting in the main waiting room at the lobby of the hospital with my brothers and sisters, all of whom were teenagers by then.

Sitting in arm chairs were older people reading magazines or engaging in whispered conversation.  My brother David and sister Patty had their noses stuck in either books they brought from home or the magazines that were strewn on the little tables that sat around the chairs.

My sister Barbara was trying to keep me and my brother Stevie from getting in the way of hospital visitors as we scampered around the lobby looking for mischief.  Our exploits came to an abrupt end when a giant nurse wearing green hospital scrubs scolded us for playing on the elevators.

That first visit to a hospital waiting room was fun and exciting to me as Stevie and I darted in an out of the elevator on different floors until we got caught by that super tall nurse.  And all ended well when we brought home a baby sister the next day.

My next experience in a waiting room wasn’t the same. I was about nine or ten-years-old when a cousin named Albert, who was in his early 20s, was in a terrible car accident that left him badly hurt and in a coma. He was driving a small sports car on the winding highway that weaves its way through the steep Santa Cruz Mountains connecting the Santa Clara Valley to the beaches in Santa Cruz.

Near the summit, Albert’s car was sideswiped by another vehicle that sent him and his car tumbling 200 hundred feet into a deep ravine.  I remember my dad driving through those same mountains to be by his sister’s side.  That waiting room was small and windowless, so it just added to the gloom of those of us who were waiting there.  Albert never recovered from the coma and died a few months later.

From that day forward, visits to hospital waiting rooms were brief and usually meant doom and gloom with an occasional sigh of relief if all ended well. My grandmother Joaquina died of a heart attack when I was 10-years-old. The news came via the waiting room.

My dad’s first heart attack in the early 1980s and my mom experiencing the same a few years later were marked by the stress and anxiety of the waiting room while doctors performed surgeries behind the operating room doors.  Both of those episodes ended with huge sighs of relief for successful operations.

A decade later, my dad suffered a major stroke early one morning as my mom and I sat alone in a small, cold, windowless emergency department waiting room at the old Alexian Brothers Hospital in east San Jose.  This time it didn’t end very well.  My last memory of my dad was watching him convulse with a faraway look in his eyes while doctors ushered my mom and me out of the emergency room.  Minutes later, the doctor walked into that little waiting room to deliver the bad news.

From June 18th through August 31st, 2010, the ICU waiting room at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center was a living breathing metaphor for sadness, joy, despair, hope, anticipation, disappointment, and triumph. In that waiting room, faith was tested and strengthened, family bonds grew tighter, and the true meaning of friendship emerged.

It became a gathering place for those who loved me, Sandra, and the girls. It was a place to share food, stories, and a sense of community. Day after day, week after week, throughout the summer of 2010, friends and family stopped by to check in on Sandra and the girls, gossip, laugh and cry, or just sit and take it all in.

My compa Will would later describe the scene as a three-act play that kept everyone riveted and coming back for more. Act I was the early part of July when my prognosis for survival changed almost on a daily basis. Act II continued from late July through mid-August when survival seemed possible, but my future uncertain. The final act during the last weeks of August brought a sigh of relief as I stabilized and began the long road to recovery.

It was compelling drama that drew people there. Will and Juanita remembered rushing home from work every day because, “we couldn’t wait get to the hospital to be with everyone.” Amid the emotion, camaraderie, steadfastness, and love, “the waiting room” supported Sandra while she fought for me and I clung to life just two rooms behind the plain double doors that led to the ICU.

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SPECIAL NOTE: To accommodate your Thanksgiving Week schedule, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life continues NEXT MONDAY with Part 2: The Waiting Room.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 4 – 360 Days (excerpt #29)

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With Sandra, Marisa, and Erica at the Peralta 50th Wedding Anniversary – May 29, 2010 (Sandra & Eddie García family photo)

In addition to managing my own school board agenda and the ongoing tension with my siblings, at work I was the chief policy strategist for the office during the county’s $4 billion budget process. This required horse trading and intense negotiations as the county was in its tenth straight year of budget cuts. The strain on me was reaching the point of being intolerable. I slept just a few hours each night.

The pressure on my neck, stomach, and chest felt like the familiar panic disorder symptoms that led to my first health scare six years before. I was wearing myself down, but I kept pushing ahead trying to manage the responsibilities I had created for myself.  With the personal, professional, and political madness swirling around me, the last Saturday in May provided much needed relief.  Sandra’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a beautiful mass and an elegant reception on May 29, 2010.

The reception was held at Silicon Valley’s exclusive Capital Club atop the Knight-Ridder building, a structure named for the Ridder family who was the longtime publisher of the San Jose Mercury News.  The Peraltas, their four daughters and sons-in-law, and their eleven grandchildren hosted the party. The men and boys wore black tie, and the women and girls donned formal evening gowns.

The guests were served a four-course meal accompanied by live mariachi music, George presented an official county proclamation congratulating my in-laws, and some guests danced the night away while others enjoyed cocktails and cigars on the terrace that overlooked the valley.

Later in the evening, the celebrants convened for a nightcap at the prestigious Fairmont Hotel next door. In an effort to show my health and vigor, I challenged younger relatives to push-up contests on the lounge floor to the enjoyment of those in the lobby and the laughter of Sandra and my brothers-in-law.

Sandra, the girls, and I took a family photo that day with a large picture window serving as the background. The camera lens captured east San Jose sprawling out in the distance. Wearing a black tuxedo with black tie and a red rose pinned to the lapel of the jacket, I confidently sat in a chair with my back straight, chin up, and hands overlapping each other. With poise and warm welcoming smiles, Sandra, Marisa, and Erica stood behind me elegantly dressed. Looking at that photo, one might guess that I was a successful man surrounded by his beautiful family at the pinnacle of his life.

Underneath the façade of the formal attire, dramatic backdrop, and appearance of confidence that bordered on brashness, I had been feeling fatigued and anxious for most of the week. Sandra commented that I looked especially tired and lethargic that night. The day after the party would give me a moment to relax as the extended Peralta family gathered at Kim and Miguel’s house for the family’s traditional “day-after” barbecue.

I gorged on ribs and washed them down with a few beers. My nephew Andres, who turned eleven years old that day, challenged me to a one-on-one basketball game on his backyard court.  Andres was a good athlete, but slender and much shorter than me. I figured I would dispose of him quickly and get back to the ribs and beer.

I took and made a few jump shots on my way to a sure rout when I suddenly had difficulty breathing. Bending over with my hands on my knees trying to catch my breath, I was sure that the long night of partying and my rigorous work schedule caused the breathless sensation. We stopped playing and I decided to spend the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying time with the family knowing that I had a hectic week ahead.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 4 – 360 Days (excerpt #28)

Standing on the porch at 48 Viewmont Avenue with my mom circa 2002 (García family photo)
Standing on the porch at 48 Viewmont Avenue with my mom circa 2002
(García family photo)

Blogger’s note: This is the 28th installment from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. I post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning. Check out the “About Summer in the Waiting Room” link at the top of this page to learn more about the story. To read previous installments, go to the “Tags” link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”

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Feeling nostalgic, I drove the familiar route that I used to walk as a teenager: right on White Road out of the school parking lot, left on Alum Rock Avenue through the Alum Rock Village, three blocks up Alum Rock Avenue, then a right on Viewmont Avenue.  Viewmont Avenue was different than it was when I was a kid, but in many ways it was just the same.

The families I grew up with were all gone with exception of the Ornelas family who lived across the street at 49 Viewmont.  Tony Ornelas was my godfather for Confirmation, his wife Marty served as godmother to my little sister Sisi for her First Communion, and I went to school with their kids.  Behind the wheel of a late model BMW sedan and wearing a business suit, I felt an enormous sense of pride and accomplishment as I slowly drove past the small tract homes of my childhood.

I continued through the east side on my way home passing more familiar places: right turn on Rose Avenue and left onto Dale Drive where the Alvarez, Moreno, Furlow, and Garcia families used to live and the Rodriguez family still lived.  Then I made a left on East Hills Drive driving past the elementary school I attended before turning right on Meadow Lane where my boyhood friend Rudy lived.

When I passed his house on Meadow Lane, I was reminded of how long it had been since I had seen him, or even talked to him.  We had spent many a day and night at that house drinking and partying without any concern for the future.  I drove on toward my house in the Evergreen Valley where the homes were bigger, the streets wider, and the roadways lined by trees, where many east side kids moved when they became more financially secure.

During the fifteen minute drive home, still feeling the warm glow of a busy day filled with accomplishment, I reflected on my life.  It had been a rollercoaster for sure, and now it was clearly on the upswing.

Several months after my triumphant return to James Lick High School’s graduation, the school board appointed me president of the board for 2010.  Once again, drive and ambition would dominate my life, and the New Year started at full throttle.  In my role as school board president, I could set the district’s agenda for the year.

A student group, Californians for Justice, had been lobbying the board for over five years to institute a policy to make graduation requirements parallel to college entrance requirements called the “A-G Initiative.”  Now, as president of the board, I had the ability to do that, and if successful, I could further solidify my chances to win the election in November.

The A-G Initiative became the centerpiece of my State of the District Address in January 2010, which I delivered to an overflow crowd at James lick High School.  In spite of the teachers union’s aggressive and underhanded behind-the-scenes fight against the initiative, I enlisted the support of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation to educate the community on the merits of the initiative and put together a coalition of students, parents, and public officials to campaign for its passage.

The upcoming summer would surely be challenging. The teacher’s union had recruited a disgruntled former district administrator to challenge me in the general election scheduled for November, so I needed to prepare for a full-blown campaign.  The final decision about what was left of my parent’s estate, a rental house they owned, created friction in our family.  The pressure and stress were almost unbearable, but this is exactly what I sought since returning to college, and I was having fun.

Sandra continued to express concern about how the pace was taking a toll on me. But I didn’t listen. I had failures to overcome, ambition, and energy.  Sandra was right though, I was exhausted and the only thing that carried me through each day was the adrenalin fueled by my drive to succeed and three Starbucks double lattes per day.

Later that spring, my political prospects got a boost. Steve Poizner, a millionaire Republican candidate for governor of California wrote a book denigrating Mt. Pleasant High, a school located in the district I represented in east San Jose.  In a detailed letter citing California law against using public school facilities for political purposes, I publicly chastised the gubernatorial candidate and prohibited him from appearing for a scheduled campaign stop on the Mt. Pleasant campus.

Poizner canceled his appearance at the school, but kept a scheduled book-signing at a local Barnes and Noble bookstore. With over 100 community members, Mt. Pleasant students, faculty, and alumni, I awaited the candidate’s arrival at the bookstore.  Surrounded by his entourage, Poizner entered the store through a side entrance to avoid the crowd.

Waiting for him at the door of the side entrance, I demanded that he respond to the negative stereotypes about Latino kids, the east side, and Mt. Pleasant high school described in his book as news reporters and their cameras covered our brief exchange. The episode made statewide news, and the east side community recognized me as a defender of the community. That evening left me with a greater sense of ambition and inspired me to worker harder.

Latino Thursday: Luis Valdez Leadership Academy

LVLA-Logo

I was in the office at Luis Valdez Leadership Academy (LVLA) waiting to interview Founding Director Jeff Camarillo for today’s post. As I sat down, a student walked out of Mr. Camarillo’s office and his assistant poked her head into the door carrying several messages for him. Before she walked out of his office, he was on the phone taking a call.

I could hear Mr. Camarillo energetically brainstorming solutions with a colleague. He hung up, and before I could even see him, he enthusiastically welcomed me to the academy. Walking out of his office he greeted me with a big smile and hug, Latino style. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon, right around the time that most people start feeling the after-lunch blahs. Not Mr. Camarillo, he was a bundle of energy.

The LVLA is a new charter school located in east San Jose. It’s the second high school chartered by the National Hispanic University Foundation. As the education community grapples with the Latino academic achievement gap and debates over the most effective way to close it, institutions like the NHUF are seeking out-of-the-box solutions like their flagship school Latino College Preparatory Academy and LVLA.

Charter schools are proliferating in Silicon Valley, especially in east side Latino communities. For the past three years, I’ve studied charter schools and their impact on Latino students and neighborhoods. Charters are publicly-funded schools that operate without being handcuffed by the constraints of traditional public school rules. This offers advantages to be sure. But the jury is still out.

There’s no real data yet on their long-term effect on Latino student success. In Silicon Valley, the chain charter schools, derisively called “McCharters” by opponents, have been criticized for questionable recruiting tactics in Latino neighborhoods. Their source of financial support also raises eyebrows. High-tech contributors stand to profit from the chain charter reliance on computer-based “blended learning.”

LVLA isn’t a chain charter school. It’s an innovative concept. Education leaders serious about closing the Latino academic achievement and college attainment gaps should pay attention to the formula developed at LVLA.

Let’s start with staffing. Director Camarillo is an Ivy League and Stanford educated son of a distinguished Stanford professor. The Dean of Instruction also studied at a prominent Ivy League university. The team of teachers includes many who are first in their families to go to college, so they will have an intimate and culturally conscious understanding of their students’ experiences.

The savvy staff will work in an environment of a college-going culture. Nearly all of the 95 incoming freshmen that represent the Founding Class just completed a two-week summer bridge program where they were introduced to the school’s vision. The program included events and activities at Stanford and U.C. Santa Cruz. A trip to visit East Coast universities is in the works.

When students walk through the doors on the first day of school on Monday, they will have a rigorous schedule of classes. The “A-G Checklist” that’s required to gain acceptance into the University of California and California State University systems is the default curriculum at LVLA. So the college-going culture isn’t just a feel-good tactic, it represents the core of daily academics.

Rather than focusing on computer-based learning, LVLA will implement the tried and true strategy of individualized teaching and guidance. Teachers are committed to getting to know each student and students will have an advisor that follows them through the four years they prepare for college. Add a visual performing arts program created for LVLA by the famed El Teatro Campesino and you have a robust curriculum.

The legendary playwright Luis Valdez was on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony last week. The self-proclaimed “east San Jose homeboy” delivered keynote remarks that took the audience on an inspiring journey from the Latino struggle for civil rights nearly a half century ago to the innovative Silicon Valley school that now bears his name.

During my 20-minute interview with Director Camarillo, I could hear the passion in his voice and see the determination in his eyes as he described his vision for the future. As we were talking, from the corner of his eye he caught a mom and her son looking for the campus office. He jumped out of his chair, opened the window, and guided them to the office in Spanish. The mom smiled warmly knowing that her son was in the right place.

The vision, staff commitment, academic rigor, and extracurricular enrichment are all in place to make LVLA a great school. Now Mr. Camarillo and his team have to execute. After attending the school’s opening and spending a few minutes with the person who’s charged with leading the effort, there is no doubt in my mind that they’ll succeed. I walked off campus feeling confident that something special is happening on the east side.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 4 – 360 Days (excerpt #27)

Photo courtesy of www.publicschoolreview.com
Photo courtesy of http://www.publicschoolreview.com

Blogger’s note: This is the 27th installment from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. I post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning. Check out the “About Summer in the Waiting Room” link at the top of this page to learn more about the story. To read previous installments, go to the “Tags” link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”

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Chapter 4

360 days

June 10, 2009, was graduation day for my high school alma mater, and it would mark the beginning of a feverish 360 days that sent my political prospects on a promising path.  It started out like any other day. I got out of bed at 6:30 in the morning, reviewed my daily calendar of appointments, and washed up to take Erica to swim practice.

After dropping off Erica, I went to the YMCA for a morning workout, then took Marisa to swim practice, picked up Erica, took a shower, dressed for work, stopped to buy a cup of coffee at the neighborhood Starbucks, and headed to my first appointment for the day.

Later that evening, while driving home after a typical full day, my thoughts wandered to the idyllic time growing up on Viewmont Avenue, my struggles as a young man, the years of redemption, the crushing school board campaign of 2008, and the rise out of the devastation of that defeat to serve on the school board again.  It dawned on me that I was experiencing a life I never could have imagined as a kid.

June 10th was a Wednesday. I had a standing appointment on my calendar for every Wednesday morning to meet with the chief of staff to the congresswoman who represented San Jose in the United States House of Representatives.  The major topic of discussion for the meeting would be a delicate conversation about building a park on federal property in the congresswoman’s district.

I wanted to know if the she would support the concept and help guide George through the process of the acquiring the property for the County.  Once the chief was satisfied that I had addressed all of her questions, she said that the congresswoman could support the concept and made some suggestions on how we could work together to make it a reality.  The day was off to a great start as I headed to the office.

Once at the office, I had just enough time to return several phone calls and e-mails, brainstorm with the staff about brewing issues, and check in with George.  As usual, the check-in covered a variety of issues in short amount time.  After the briefing, I returned a few more phone calls and e-mails before George and I were off to a trendy Oaxacan-style restaurant in the heart of downtown San Jose.

We went to the restaurant, located in the shadow of the city’s historic 18th-century St. Joseph Cathedral, for a lunch meeting with the Consul General of Mexico. We discussed a proposed County partnership with the consulate. After lunch, I was back in the office huddling with the staff to prepare for afternoon meetings.  I loved working in a fast-paced and dynamic environment where every day brought new challenges and required complex decision-making. And this work did just that.

With my day job coming to an end, I rushed to the elevator to go the ten floors down to the lobby of the County Administration Building. Once on the ground floor, I hustled across a breezeway to my car. As a member of the board of education, I was scheduled to preside over the graduation ceremonies at James Lick High School.

The ceremony had all of the excitement and anticipation fitting a high school graduation. The graduates were anxious and impatient as they waited to enter the small football stadium. They wore dark green gowns and mortarboards to honor the school colors.  The principal gave me the chance to speak to the students before the ceremony, and I told them something about being proud to have grown up in the neighborhood.

I doubt that any of them heard what I had said.  As soon as I finished my comments, the sound of a recorded version of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the traditional graduation processional march, started blaring over the stadium speakers.  Wearing a black suit with a white shirt and dark green tie, I walked proudly onto the field next to the principal and found my seat on the stage as the faculty followed behind to their seats on the field.

The graduates then filed into the stadium with their green gowns and tassels flowing in the wind to the cheers of family and friends. Standing on the stage watching the spectacle, I couldn’t help but think about the  rocky road I taken to this point in my life. Feelings of pride and humility washed over me when I realized I was playing such an important role in the very ceremony that my brothers, sisters, and I participated in so many years before.

After the speeches and conferring of diplomas, I formally accepted the Class of 2009 on behalf of the school board.  That’s when the real celebration began as the graduates threw their caps in the air, families and friends cheered, the recessional march played over the loudspeakers, and those in the bleachers stormed the field to congratulate their favorite graduate. I walked out of the stadium unnoticed to the jubilant celebrants.

When I got into my car, I decided to drive by my old neighborhood just to see how it was doing.  For nearly a half century, my family lived just a few short blocks from the high school. I always felt safe and at peace when driving through Viewmont Avenue. On June 10th, I also felt a sense of accomplishment.

Quotes & Quips: Dorothy’s Magic Words

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“There’s no place like home.”

~Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz

For over five decades, St. John Vianney Catholic Church has been the anchor to my boyhood neighborhood in east San Jose. During three days in May, the annual SJV Fiesta is the gathering place for those who live in the neighborhood and those who grew up there. As my friend Jason Rodriguez puts it, “Fiesta is an east side reunion.” Yesterday, I made my annual pilgrimage.

I’ve always known that people have notions about the east side, and I’m guessing they’re not so positive. I recently heard from a few people who lived in a “better part of town” clearly miffed that East Side Eddie Report.com was posted on Facebook. I could almost hear the disdain in one writer’s voice as he typed, “Why am I getting your east side report? You might as well be from Oakland.” In one sentence, he managed to look down on two communities he probably knows nothing about.

One quick walk around Fiesta demonstrates that writer’s foolish notion. For many of us, this neighborhood is home. Passing the carnival, food booths, and local entertainment stages, Fiesta visitors see generations of families enjoying each other on a beautiful spring day or evening.  Teens and pre-teens at the rides, little kids and their parents dancing to the music, and grandparents sitting at tables under the canopies sampling Portuguese linguisa, Philly cheese steaks, and strawberry shortcake.

I always run into old friends and their families. Three friends I saw this year reminded me of the talent the east side has to offer.  Two of them, Larry Gonzales and David Rosas, played basketball for me when I coached at James Lick High School. Those talented boys are now men serving as an officer in the United States Navy and a teacher/basketball coach at our alma mater. The third, Jason Rodriguez, grew up one block over from me. Today, he jets around the globe as an executive representing Hewlett Packard.

Like our parents, we east side kids grow up to be resilient men and women who work hard and raise good families. It’s fun to gather once a year at Fiesta to see old friends, share stories, and introduce new family additions. Over the years, I’ve been blessed to share stories about my own growing family and travelling across the country for work. Nevertheless, Dorothy had it right. My pilgrimage to Fiesta every year reminds me that, “there’s no place like home.”

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 3 (excerpt#21)

With Sandra, Marisa, & Erica taking photos for my 1998 school board campaign (Sandra and Eddie García Family photo)
With Sandra, Marisa, & Erica taking photos for my 1998 school board campaign
(Sandra and Eddie García Family photo)

Blogger’s note: This is the 21st installment from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. I post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning. Check out the “About Summer in the Waiting Room” link at the top of this page to learn more about the story. To read previous installments, go to the “Tags” link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”  

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I also began to face challenges in my professional life.  In 1996, I worked around the clock managing the supervisor’s campaign.  It was so consuming that when we celebrated Marisa’s second birthday at a pizza parlor, I stayed for just thirty minutes only to return to the campaign office because Election Day was just six days away.  It also became clear that my decision to pursue a career in elective politics severely compromised my day job.  Later that spring, I left the supervisor’s office for a failing non-profit organization that dissolved seven months later.

At home the night Erica was born provides a snapshot of that trying time.  While Sandra and the baby slept at the hospital in preparation to come home the next day, three-year-old Marisa and I sat alone in the virtually empty family room of our newly purchased house watching television.  While she was enjoying the quality time with her daddy, my mind wandered thinking about of being unemployed soon with a mortgage we could barely afford, worried about how I was going to provide for my family, and how I was going to pursue my professional dreams under such challenging circumstances.

With the impending collapse of the non-profit corporation nearing its endgame, I would scour the newspaper for job opportunities every day.  Once again, fate stepped in.  One Sunday morning while Sandra and the girls were still asleep, I stumbled upon a rare job announcement for a government affairs manager at the local cable company.  Government affairs departments are unique to industries that are regulated by federal, state, and local governments.

The role of a government affairs department is to develop and maintain relationships with elected and government officials to educate them to provide an opportunity for that company or industry to influence public policy that is beneficial to its business interests.  Usually, these types of job opportunities are shared by word of mouth with those who work in the political sector, so it’s unusual for a company to place an ad in the newspaper.  I applied for the job and called on all of the politicians and community leaders with whom I had developed strong working relationships to send letters and make phone calls to the cable company.

The work ethic I learned from my parents, the urgency that drove me since my dad’s passing and my mom’s heart attack, and the opportunity to right the wrongs of my past motivated me to prepare obsessively for the job interview.  Well prepared, I drove to the interview early so I would be relaxed and confident for the meeting, only to get lost in an unfamiliar part of the valley.  Those were the days before auto navigators and GPS devices, so I found myself driving up to gas stations and other drivers stopped at traffic lights to ask for directions as the clocked ticked ever so close to the scheduled interview time.

My heart pounded at the thought of missing this opportunity and watching failure rear its ugly head again.  Speeding through the maze of streets lined with the same looking, low lying concrete Silicon Valley research and development “tilt-up” buildings, I finally made it to my destination with just a few minutes to spare. I walked into the lobby nervous and anxious, wiping sweat off my brow and composing myself to look presentable.  Wearing my best suit, I walked confidently into the office to start the meeting.

I dazzled them at the interview and I was invited to meet executives at the division office in Walnut Creek, more than an hour away, a few days later.  I was nervous and excited to meet corporate executives, something I never would have thought was possible just a few years earlier. This time I wasn’t taking any chances. I arrived in Walnut Creek more than an hour early. The meetings went well and I got the job. My life would never be the same.

Working at the cable company was a great experience.  I strengthened my relationships in the political community, learned about working in a corporate environment, had an office all my own, and shared an assistant with my boss.  I also visited Washington, D.C. for the first time.  Managers at my level rarely had the opportunity to represent the company in Washington, but my solid relationships with a few members of Congress led to the invitation by our department’s vice president.

When I arrived early that January evening, a light snow was falling and the lighted monuments and U.S. Capitol made the city glow majestically.  That night, I went out into the freezing rain to see the Lincoln Memorial. I shivered while walking up the steps to the enormous statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting in a chair looking across the Mall toward the Capitol Building.  The statue took my breath away.

I turned and looked to see what Lincoln was seeing and stood motionless as I gazed at the iconic Washington Monument and Korean War Memorial shimmering in white as the rain gave them a shiny finish.  I couldn’t believe that I was there, a boy from the east side who failed in college and found his way back, standing in center of the free world. I returned to Washington several times a year over the next 10 years and never lost the excitement and inspiration our nation’s capital gave me that first night.

My career in the corporate world was progressing nicely as I was promoted to director within two years. Still, my hunger for political success grew even stronger. In 1998, for a second time, I ran for a seat on the elementary school board against three longtime incumbents. Sandra, her parents and sisters, and my brothers-in-law formed the heart of the campaign. We learned a lot from the last election and had a well-organized operation. When I walked door-to-door asking people to vote for me, many had remembered me from the 1996 campaign. On Election Day, hopes were high.  By the end of the night, I lost again by a slim margin.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 3 – Redemption (excerpt #20)

Ready for work in a suit and tie – 1993 (Sandra & Eddie García Family photo)

I called Mr. Shirakawa as he suggested and found myself in his office a couple of days later.  He quickly secured a job interview for me as a legislative assistant to legendary Latina councilwoman Blanca Alvarado.  I had met her at the convention center just the week before.  As the longtime city council representative who represented east San Jose, she was a household name at my parents’ kitchen table, so it was a surreal experience sitting in her office a few weeks later for the interview.  The interview went well, so I was hopeful as I left the meeting.

By mid-summer, more than two months after graduation day, I hadn’t heard back from the her office so I applied for jobs at the City of Santa Clara, the high school district, and an assemblyman’s office.  No job offers resulted, and the familiar feelings of doubt and uncertainty about my abilities began to creep in.  That fall, after two more months of anxious job hunting, the councilwoman, who had recently been named vice mayor of San Jose, offered, and I accepted, a three-quarter time position.

The next three and a half years were an exciting time for me.  After several months, I earned a full-time position as a legislative aide working on community development and controversial public art projects.  In this capacity, I had the opportunity to learn about the public policymaking process, and the rough and tumble world of local politics.  I worked tirelessly, never turning down an assignment or a night out at a political event.

I had quickly become one of the vice mayor’s most reliable lieutenants.  When her tenure ended due to term limits, she asked me to manage her campaign for the county board of supervisors.  I was flattered, excited, and apprehensive as I had never even worked on a campaign, much less managed one.  It was a hard fought campaign, complete with mudslinging from both sides and eighteen hour days, that wasn’t decided until the early hours of the morning after Election Day.

I had taken myself to the limits physically, emotionally, and mentally juggling the responsibilities of managing the candidate, the press, campaign donors, advisers, and volunteers.  After the early morning victory had been secured, I spent the next thirteen months in her office as a senior policy aide on the county board of supervisors.  Within months of assuming my new position, I was itching to do more as the failure demons began sneaking back into my consciousness.

I was thirty-two years old working as an aide to a local politician.  In my impatient mind, it wasn’t good enough to erase all of the years I lost in my personal wilderness.  The summer after Election Day, the supervisor sent me to Los Angeles to represent her at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) annual conference where I attended workshops on campaign management, and media relations, and heard the mayor of Los Angeles, the governor of California, and United States senators speak on a national stage at luncheons and dinners attended by thousands of politicians, community leaders, and education leaders.

I was fascinated and intoxicated by the power and influence that permeated throughout the convention hall so much so, that on the flight home, I had decided that I would pursue a career in politics.  I was certain that the prestige of being a successful public servant would cast away my demons for good.  That fall, I ran for a seat on the neighborhood school board, and despite running a solid campaign, I lost to a couple of longtime incumbents by a few percentage points.

When I returned to my full-time duties working for the supervisor, I continued doing my job as my impatience to become successful began to rise and my confidence sank.  As I contemplated my future, I faced struggles in my personal life.  Early in 1995, my mom suffered a major heart attack that required bypass surgery and my dad died of stroke at the age of sixty-nine later that fall after a series of heart attacks and strokes that began in his fifties.  Those two events had a profound effect on me.

My mom was the glue that kept everything together, so to see her in a vulnerable state heightened my sense of uncertainty. My dad provided the philosophical and practical foundation of my life, so a deep emptiness and an uneasiness of what the future would hold became part of my being.  During this time, I began to pay attention to my own health and mortality, and developed an intense urgency to erase the disappointments of the past and achieve success before the fate of genetics cut my life short as well.  I started to eat better and exercise on a regular basis, but I also began a pattern of working to near exhaustion.

Winning the Fight for Higher Standards on the East Side

(Stock Photo)
(Stock Photo)

Sitting in the back of the multi-purpose room at Mt. Pleasant High School in east San Jose on Friday, I reflected on the untapped potential of this dynamic community. The occasion was the annual MESA (Mathematics Engineering Science & Achievement) College Poster Contest.  MESA is a non-profit organization that helps prepare educationally underrepresented students to graduate from college with an engineering, science, business or mathematics degree.

The college poster contest, one of many MESA programs, challenges students to research a college of their choice, make a poster, and present their findings to a panel of judges. For the past two years, I’ve had the honor to serve as a judge in the high school division. To my delight, the entire afternoon was an east side affair. MESA’s executive director at San Jose State University is a James Lick High School alum like me, the contest coordinator is an Evergreen High School grad, and the students represented east side schools.

I was impressed by the meticulous research, creativity and oral presentation skills demonstrated by the students. Two junior girls from Silver Creek High School, who chose to highlight UCLA, made my day. When I asked if they took the A-G class schedule needed to apply to UCLA, one of the girls said, “everyone takes A-G classes,” while the other smiled and nodded in agreement. A rush of emotion washed over me as I remembered the 2010 “A-G” fight at the East Side Union High School District.

In California, the A-G curriculum is the checklist of classes students need to take to be eligible to apply for college in the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. Most school districts don’t require an A-G curriculum for all students. According to a 2009 California Post Secondary Education Commission report, “the college-going rate for students in California to UC schools was 7.2% and the rate to CSU schools was 10.5%.”

In 2008, just six of the state’s over 400 school districts that issued high school diplomas required an A-G curriculum. The East Side was like the vast majority of school districts where 90% of the graduates weren’t even eligible to apply to a UC or CSU. During my term serving on the school board at the East Side from 2006-2010, a group of students from the district’s chapter of Californians for Justice (CFJ) were campaigning the school board to make A-G the required curriculum for all students.

When I was elected board president in 2009, I joined the CFJ students, their families, and community supporters to fight for A-G at East Side schools by announcing at the annual State of the District Address that I would ask the board to approve an A-G curriculum for all students by the end of the year. The standing room-only crowd in James Lick’s multi-purpose room that night expressed full support for what would be called the A-G Initiative.

I thought the proposal was a no-brainer that would easily pass the board by mid-summer. The day after the State of the District Address, I quickly learned that it would be anything but easy. I met with opponents who were concerned and angry that I made such a bold statement without consulting the broader education community. They warned that the rigorous curriculum would “set up students to fail” as “these students weren’t prepared to pass Algebra II.”

Together with students, parents, and community supporters, we moved forward nonetheless. The Silicon Valley Education Foundation joined the fight by providing critical resources to educate the public and my board colleagues on the values of A-G. Later that spring, I had a massive heart attack with complications that kept me in the hospital for over 100 days. As I fought for my life in the ICU, the community fought for A-G and higher standards on the east side.

The A-G vote was scheduled for the October board meeting and the initiative’s opponents had asked the board to delay the vote and convene a study session to better understand the impacts. Although I was home from the hospital, I was in no condition to participate in the board meeting, so my four board colleagues would determine the fate of A-G. The board ended up deadlocked so both proposals failed to get the required three votes for move forward. A-G was dead.

The next day, I confirmed with district officials that I was still board president and could vote by teleconference, so I asked the administration to once again place the issue on November’s board agenda. Student, parents, and community supporters rallied their troops to attend the November board meeting to show solidarity for the initiative. I planned to by on telephone standby until the issue came to a vote.

By the night of meeting, I was strong enough to attend and persuaded Sandra to let me participate in the A-G vote. An overflow crowd came to the board chambers on November 18, 2010, to enthusiastically urge the board to vote for the A-G Initiative. After brief comments by each board member, we unanimously voted to require the A-G checklist to be the default curriculum for all students beginning with the Class of 2015.

After casting my last vote as a school board member, I turned toward the door behind the dais and walked out of the board chambers for the last time as students and families celebrated their hard-fought victory. That was, and always will be, my proudest moment as an eastsider . We showed everyone that our community valued high standards that night. Last Friday, when the young woman from the Silver Creek High Class of 2015 matter-of-factly told me that, “everyone takes A-G classes,” I smiled, assured that 2010 was worth the fight.