Name: Michael Anthony Vargas
Hometown: San Benito, Texas (Rio Grande Valley)
CHCI Program(s)/Year: Congressional Internship Program, Summer 2007 Scholarship Recipient, 2009 Scholarship Review Committee
CHCI Program Placement(s): U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz (D-TX-27th)
Current Position(s)/Organization(s): Secretary, Board of Trustees, San Benito Consolidated Independent School District. Assistant Principal of Operations, IDEA Public Schools
1. Many CHCI alumni and current program participants have battled and continue to battle common challenges as they strive to become Latino leaders in their communities: living and working in low-income communities, some in single-parent households, as recent immigrants, DREAMERS, or first-generation American citizens. What challenges did you have to face to get to where you are today?
I am a firm believer that education is the central civil rights issue of our time, and among the Hispanic community, getting people to understand the “value” of an education has historically-proved to be a difficult task. I was born and raised in an area of South Texas where individuals don’t typically find themselves in better situations than the ones into which they are born. It is an area considered the most uneducated and most impoverished in the United States of America. Fighting this reality and escaping it as I matriculated to college was one of the toughest challenges I faced, particularly the culture shock I experienced when I first set foot on the campus of Brown University.
Because I wasn’t born into the most ideal life circumstances, every part of my life has been an added struggle to succeed. I did not have insurmountable resources or networks that I could easily tap into whenever I wanted; I had to work for every contact and business card, or earn every phone interview or in-person interview for every application I submitted. I wouldn’t count this as a challenge per se because the extra hard work and energy it took to be successful in these endeavors made success even more rewarding. The reason it was a challenge was because it did embed a psychological dissonance on why things were the way they were – why were other students afforded the luxuries that I was not and why in the United States of America could I accomplish my dreams if the playing field was not leveled or was indeed stacked against me and thousands of others in my same position?
There is much added pressure as a first generation college student because although it is an important and much-heralded title to earn, with it comes a lot of responsibility and social pressure. I knew that I could never give up or be selfish enough to come back home because not only would I let myself down, I would be letting down my family, friends, and an entire community. The importance of my early work and successes in college would transform my family’s trajectory, as many other first generation college students’ families would around the country. The paths that are paved for families of first generation college students are important for the capacity- and leadership-building in our communities; breaking this cycle of socialization is the key to elevating our entire community out of the lower rungs of poverty and low educational attainment.
2. What motivated you to apply to the CHCI program(s), and why do you think they are important for Latino youth?
It is through our American political machinery and public policy that substantial change can occur for those who need it most. CHCI has tasked itself with arguably the most important and consequential task in the country – develop, cultivate, train, and prepare young generations who will indeed inherit this country as the majority of the population. Especially in the area where I was born, how are we expected to lead this country in a couple of years if we lack the educational and leadership capacity to do so? CHCI has led this charge in closing the gaps and making sure that we are ready on day one.
I was first encouraged to apply to this program by my political science professor at Brown, Wendy Schiller. It was through her that I understood the need to engage in political networking and build capital, which will lay a foundation for any future plans. Once I internalized the mission and goals of the organization, I knew that I wanted to become part of this transformation for our community at large. I also knew that I would gain the political capital and networking experience that I needed to elevate myself past the culture shocks I had previously-experienced.
3. What have you been doing since you finished the CHCI program(s)?
After my Congressional Internship in 2007 and with it an early experience in policymaking, I frequently returned to the DC area to work for other non-profit organizations, including Presidential Classroom. I also served as a policy intern for Texas State Senator Eddie Lucio in Austin.
While I was nearing my college tenure, I decided to submit an application to the Teach For America (TFA) program. I was accepted to the competitive program during its first application deadline and after graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science in 2009, I was placed in the St. Louis Region as a 2009 Corps Member. This is where my professional life would begin, teaching high school social studies. While teaching, I was also able to earn a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education from the University of Missouri – St. Louis in 2011. My Master’s thesis is titled, “The Effects of Student Reflection on Student Achievement.”
I completed my first year of teaching Social Studies in the Wellston School District in North St. Louis, Missouri. After the state decided to close Wellston’s doors, I was displaced into the Hazelwood School District my second year, where I taught for two years (read TFA article by former student, Clifton Kinnie: How a Teach for America Teacher Saved My Life). I was quickly promoted to an Instructional Coach supporting Social Studies curriculum and instruction for high school. I then accepted the position of School Accountability Manager, where I was in charge of full oversight and implementation of the Missouri State Improvement Grant.
I used my position as an educator to focus on the racial disparities and opportunities in the St. Louis metropolitan area by helping to write and implement a first-of-its-kind course in the state on Social Justice. With final approval from the Board of Education, I helped pilot and taught the course during the 2012–2013 academic school year across the entire district. I also helped found So.J.A.M. (Social Justice Awareness Movement), which is a student organization charged with creating awareness and promoting action in the community about social justice issues in our society. I have been invited to speak on several panels regarding social justice issues in America, most recently to the American Association of University Women’s Gender Studies Symposium.
I also became a member of the National Education Association (NEA) via the state chapter in Missouri. In my local association, I was consecutively-elected to the Executive Board representing the interests of teachers and their professions. I climbed to the state leadership level very quickly, accepting an elected position as a member of the Executive PAC Committee. I dedicated most of my time as a member of the Human Rights and Ethnic Minority Affairs Committees, and also helped found and chair the first-ever Hispanic Caucus for Missouri NEA. I was also one of a few association members around the country invited by then-President Dennis Van Roekel to attend and take part in the National Education Association’s Inaugural “Dialogue on Social Justice,” which took place in Washington, D.C.
Outside of the education system in St. Louis, I was also able to utilize my political background by helping to manage some local campaigns in the metropolitan area. I helped to re-elect African-American candidate Charlie Dooley as County Executive for St. Louis County, and helped make history by electing Tishaura Jones, the City of St. Louis’ first ever African-American female Treasurer.
After investing five years in the fight for educational equity and social justice in St. Louis, I decided to move back home to South Texas to invest my efforts making sure the area I grew up is a much better place to live. I decided to run for elected office, a seat on the Board of Trustees for the San Benito Consolidated Independent School District. I ran on a three-pronged platform including Responsible Leadership, Modern School Systems, and Competitive Students, pledging that ALL students, no matter the circumstances into which they are born, deserve access to an excellent education (visit my campaign website: www.voters4vargas.com). On May 9, 2015, I was successful in my first race for elected office and won the Trustee seat with 62% of the vote. Soon after being sworn in, I was nominated and voted as Board Secretary.
I also currently work as an Assistant Principal of Operations for IDEA Brownsville Academy & College Preparatory at IDEA Public Schools. We are a network of K-12 public schools serving nearly 20,000 students across Texas including high schools ranked in the top 1% nationwide by US News & World Report, 100% college acceptance, and a graduation rate five times the national average for low-income students.
4. What impact did your CHCI experience have on your career and development as a leader?
My CHCI experience was multi-faceted. I learned how to appropriately network and “work a room” to make sure that lifelong contacts and relationships were forged. I understood, at its very core, the way the American political machinery actually operated by working for Congressman Solomon Ortiz. There were also many leadership sessions that improved my capacity as a future leader, especially those sessions where we were forced to lean into our discomforts. CHCI is where I held some of my first, deep, constructive, and courageous conversations relative to diversity and my own identity. This experience planted a seed for a conscience that was hungry to lean more into the discomfort as I got older and entered more professional arenas.
It was our community project towards the end of our internship that we did in the Columbia Heights area of Washington, D.C, though, that was arguably the most eye-opening and hands-on experience I would encounter as an up-and-coming young professional. For the first time, I was able to view a problem, plan around out it with sound solutions, and execute the solution with a group of like-minded leaders. I witnessed actual poverty and the plight of this specific marginalized community (like my own in South Texas), and realized what was needed in order to improve living conditions in this area. I soon realized as well that the work we did to temporarily improve situations for some of the residents of Columbia Heights was a drop in the bucket, but was unfortunately a microcosm of what our communities were facing nationwide. I will always admit that the community project we executed that summer planted a seed that would fuel my passion for finding solutions to larger social injustices that continue to plague our society.
5. How do you continue to give back to the community?
Now as an elected official, I have the great honor and privilege of giving back to the community in its truest, most traditional form every single day. Crafting policy and leading an entire school district, with decisions that affect thousands of students and staff, is a responsibility that I take very seriously. It has become my life’s work to try and help our society understand and soon come to the realization that ALL students should have true access to an excellent education. It is through education that families can truly escape the traps of poverty. It is through education that students from the poorest of backgrounds can maneuver institutional discrimination. It is through education that families’ trajectories can be forever be positively-impacted with more opportunities available. Education is indeed the great equalizer.
With the recent episodes in Ferguson and similar situations around the country, I want to make sure that I am a minor agent of communication for this group’s potent message that #blacklivesmatter. Having taught in North St. Louis during my TFA tenure, I was able to internalize the social stigmas, discrimination, and racial segregation that lived and breathed in the 21st century Midwest. The situation in Ferguson involved my former students, families, and coworkers who directly or indirectly experienced the trauma via the death of Michael Brown. Because I was a witness to this firsthand, and experienced the institutional racism and poverty in the area through the perspective of my students, I find it necessary to help educate others. This dialogue is important and constructive because our own communities may have a general lack of awareness on race issues in America.
6. Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years, and what do you still want to achieve?
It is my sincerest intention to hold higher elected positions where I am able to impact and influence larger constituencies. Holding public office at a young age was a lifelong goal of mine, so with this early experience as a Board Trustee for San Benito CISD, I hope I can build on it and embrace other elected offices. This goal is very much-aligned with the growing political and voting influence of the Latino community in the state of Texas.
I am optimistic about the future of the Latino community, as long as we keep working towards the realization that education should be accessed and achieved by ALL students. It’s going to take a lot of heavy lifting, but I believe that the work of CHCI, TFA, IDEA, and other trail-blazing organizations where I’ve been a member, have already done much to lay the foundation for constructive dialogue as well as the beginnings of incremental, structural, and institutional change. It is also my hope that I can work within the political machinery and sound public policy to transform the dismal statistics that label, plague, and set predispositions about our very own people. Through this work, I hope to see rates of crime, educational attainment in higher education, dropout, and so many others turn on their heads. We are a vibrant community with much to offer the world and through my own work, I only hope to start seeing the fruits of my labor, and others’ who have invested their lives in the fight for educational equity and social justice.
7. What advice would you give current and future CHCI participants?
Lean into the discomfort. Force others to lean into the discomfort. Practice constructive irreverence throughout life because this will make you a more productive citizen of the world. Question things that are wrong or unjust and work towards righting those wrongs. If people are attacking or grow animosity towards you, you are definitely doing something right. Stay true to your convictions and follow that true vision you have for yourself and how you think a just world should look. It is important to not sit idly by, but rather be a potent agent of change ready to lead the next generation of Americans. You will indeed be leaders in the majority of the American population for the first time in our history, so practice now and be ready to lead later.
There are many great quotes out there, but there is one that truly speaks to my own steadfast conviction, grit, and motivation to work towards a more just society. That quote is by Robert F. Kennedy, who within his own right in several capacities, worked to right the many wrongful injustices that suffocated marginalized groups at that time: “We all struggle to transcend the cruelties and the follies of mankind. That struggle will not be won by standing aloof and pointing a finger; it will be won by action, by men who commit their every resource of mind and body to the education and improvement and help of their fellow man.”
Seize the opportunities and moments where you know you can make a difference for us, and make them worthwhile. Lastly, always remember to persevere because nothing worthwhile is easy.