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Cris Garza

Name: Cris Garza

Hometown: Los Angeles

Current Position/Organization: Director of Community Engagement, San Francisco/Teach For America

CHCI Program(s)/Year: Public Policy Fellow 2005-2006

CHCI Program Placement(s): Former U.S. Congressman Donald Payne (NJ-10)

1. What motivated you to apply to the CHCI program(s), and why do you think they are important for Latino youth?

During my second year as a fourth grade Teach For America teacher in Philadelphia in 2004, I reflected on the multitude of challenges that the teachers and kids were facing at my low-performing school. I decided that, while I loved my wonderful students and would miss my vibrant community and hard-working colleagues, public policy changes were necessary to ensure that teachers would receive more effective support and every student would be guaranteed a world-class education. At the time I didn’t really know how to act on this but thankfully, I received a pamphlet from CHCI in the mail and jumped at the chance to join a cohort of Latinos in DC with the same passion for policy-based public service and social justice.

The CHCI programs are a blessing for our community. We all know how few Latinos walk the halls of Congress and the other corridors of power in DC. Even with rising Latino influence in 2013, our voices are still tragically underrepresented. CHCI provides a pipeline for young, smart, ambitious Latinos to get on the fast track to high ranking positions of power and puts them in a position to have a seat at the tables where decisions get made. Also, the cohort model brings groups of Latinos together that can support each other as they collectively navigate the difficult political terrain of DC. This support structure makes CHCI and its numerous alumni our DC familia and it is truly a unique aspect of the experience.

2. What have you been doing since you finished the CHCI program(s)?

After the fellowship, I moved to Tucson, AZ in 2006 to serve as (former Congresswoman) Gabby Giffords’ research director on her first campaign for Congress and then, after she won, I went back to DC to help get the new office started and worked as her legislative assistant. While I loved Congresswoman Giffords and the Hill, I did miss the direct service of teaching students, so my wife and I joined the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and lived there for a little less than two and a half years, where we taught environmental science and trained elementary school teachers. After Peace Corps, I went back to graduate school to study public policy, statistics, and management at the Harvard Kennedy School. I then found my way back to Teach For America, this time as a staff member for the organization, as the Director of Community Engagement in San Francisco. In this role, I support and connect our alumni and build relationships as well as collaborate with schools, school board members, and other education and youth organizations in our community.

3. What impact did your CHCI experience have on your career and development as a leader?

It was HUGE! In Congressman Payne’s office, I was fortunate to work with an incredibly supportive staff that invested time, effort, and care in me so that I could learn how to be an effective legislative staffer. I remember being asked to write a short statement for the Congressman my first week and realizing just how amazing it was that I was doing substantive work right away. This was a sign of the increasing responsibility and trust I would get throughout the fellowship. I not only built self-confidence in my ability to be successful in the elite policy world of DC, but I also learned how to have a political mind and grasp how to think in terms of people and groups and their interests and values. Thinking in terms of relationship building and power analysis was one of the most critical lessons I learned during the fellowship and this has made me more effective in every single role I have held since. Also, as I mentioned above, our CHCI familia has enriched my life and this professional and personal network of friendship and support has been simply beautiful to have.

4. How do you continue to give back to the community?

Given my recent transition to a new position in a new city, I haven’t yet found where I am going to consistently volunteer in San Francisco (I will very soon!), but my professional role luckily has still given me the chance to find ways to give back to our community. I collaborated with two other Teach For America staff members to organize an association for our alumni of color and the kickoff event was one of the largest events we’ve held in the Bay Area in recent history. The purpose of this association is not only to build connections but also to figure out ways we can get our alumni and their networks more involved in community service and civic opportunities. It’s still in its nascent stage, but we’ve already held a college visit for high school students, raised awareness of local policy issues faced by our Latino students, and built connections with parents to discuss how to become more involved in their children’s schools.

5. Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years, and what do you still want to achieve?

I feel called to the struggle for education justice for all children, so I know I’ll be in a role that allows me to work on this issue. I can definitely see myself in my current role for a longer period, but I’ve also considered going back to classroom teaching or working as a campaign staffer for equity-minded politicians. I’ve only been in my current job for one and a half years so right now I’m focusing on being excellent every day and ramping up the work I’m currently leading at Teach For America.

Like many CHCI alumni, I have a large number of personal and professional things I hope to achieve. Given that I recently moved back to California and have been able to see my family more, especially during the holidays, I’ve been thinking about personal achievements. I want to be more efficient at work so I can find more time to spend with my family and others who are close to me.

6. What advice would you give current and future CHCI participants?

Take advantage of the CHCI network. There are so many incredible leaders at and associated with CHCI, so ask them to connect you with individuals who are working on issues you care about or who hold positions you want to hold someday.
Ask questions. There is no shame in asking questions to your supervisors or to CHCI staff. You have a chance to learn everything from the nitty gritty of specific policies to the personal backgrounds of people you admire to how to move up the career ladder. Ask those around you what you want and need to know.
Do excellent work. There is simply no substitute for working hard and producing incredible results. More than anything else, this will lead to more leadership opportunities.
Reflect on what you are learning. There are so many exciting things happening during your CHCI experience, so it can feel like you don’t have much time. However, it is important to take some time to reflect on what you are learning, what these lessons make you think about yourself and your experiences, and how you want to act on these realizations. This will help you constantly get better at what you do as well as prioritize what is most important.
Be thankful. Be known as someone that expresses gratitude to the CHCI staff, your supervisors and colleagues, and others who help you. Write a note, send an email, make a phone call, or take someone out for coffee. Everyone is pressed for time and those that help you will be much more willing to invest in you long-term if they know you appreciate their efforts.