Every direction Celiza Hernandez turned, there was a superhero staring her in the face. At a two-day workshop for 45 education support professionals (ESPs) held in August at NEA headquarters in Washin...
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Every direction Celiza Hernandez turned, there was a superhero staring her in the face. At a two-day workshop for 45 education support professionals (ESPs) held in August at NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Hernandez could not hardly move without bumping heads with such inspiring figures as Judy Near, Helen Cottongim, and Kathie Axtell, NEA ESPs of the Year in 2012, 2010 and 2009, respectively.
It was like a meeting of The Avengers. But instead of supernatural comic book characters, Hernandez found herself interacting with real-life education heroes like Leonard Almaguer and Jean Fay, 2012 state ESPs of the Year (New Mexico and Massachusetts), and Laura Montgomery, president of the National Council for ESPs (NCESP). Such a gathering was unprecedented.
And anyone who knows Celiza Hernandez knows she fit right in.
“It was an honor to be invited to participate in the training,” says Hernandez, an office manager at Highland Grove Elementary School in Redlands, California. “Anytime you are put in the same category with such admirable people, you know you are with the best and that you are learning from the best.”
Her fellow members of the Redlands Education Support Professionals Association (RESPA) have probably always placed Hernandez in the category of a noble, strong, heroic leader. At RESPA, Hernandez is director of clerical, fiscal, and technical affairs, editor of the local’s newsletter, and chair of the negotiations and by-laws committees. She is also on the state council of the California Teachers Association (CTA), was elected to attend the NEA Representative Assembly two years in a row, and is a 2011 graduate of the prestigious ESP Leaders for Tomorrow program.
“I need to do my part in fighting for education funding and other issues, like gaining a living wage for ESPs,” she says. “To accomplish this requires my political involvement.”
But like a lot of leaders, Hernandez didn’t set out to change the world.
“Political activism was a foreign concept to me until recently,” she says. “I figured things would just have a way of working themselves out.”
Then reality struck in the form of severe state budget cuts causing massive educator layoffs and affecting the academic opportunities of her students at Highland Grove as well as her and her husband’s four children, who range in age from 4 to 9.
“Politics stuck its nose in our (education) business and I had to respond,” says Hernandez, who recently completed NEA’s Pacific Region ESP Organizing for Power training. “The continual attempt by some legislators to undermine our efforts of ensuring that each student receives a fair and equitable education had to be addressed.”
During the November election, Hernandez organized political events and mobilized Association members. With her usual grace and conviction, she devoted countless hours getting people to vote “yes” on Proposition 30 (Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act) and “no” on Proposition 32 (Special Exemptions Act). And it paid off!
The passage of Proposition 30 helped California dodge more than $8 billion worth of education and other public service cuts. The resounding defeat of Proposition 32 was a great victory for unions by not allowing the state to curb the ability of unions to collect political funds.
“We organized a picketing march on a high-traffic corner, we passed out flyers at political events, canvassed neighborhoods, and organized phone banks,” Hernandez says. “ESP’s lend an authentic voice and face to the struggle since nine out of 10 live and work in the district.”
Nationally, about 75 percent of ESPs live, shop, worship and vote in the same school district where they work.
“They aren’t just familiar with the community, they are the community,” says Hernandez, a member of the NEA Family School Community Partnership cadre. “But they must be informed and involved to be effective. That’s where organizing comes in.”
Hernandez says that ESPs who attend school board meetings, lobby legislators, and help to turn out the vote can make all the difference in whether they earn a living wage, receive decent health care coverage, or are able to defeat privatization attempts.
“No matter how you look at it, as ESPs, politics is at the heart of what we do,” she says. “If your heart were to start beating out of synch, would you wait for someone else to come and fix it? Same with political involvement. If politics are beating against the rhythm that keeps you alive, then it’s time to get active and find a solution.”
Hernandez grew up in Puerto Rico until age 10. The family then moved to Redlands where her father served as a pastor and her mother a dental hygienist. Hernandez says she was fortunate to grow up in a multicultural household where family members spoke to her in English and Spanish.
“Speaking Spanish is a huge bonus in communicating with the large Hispanic population that lives in our attendance area,” she says. “My firsthand knowledge of the differences between Mexican and Puerto Rican cultures allows me to be more understanding of how these differences might affect the involvement of parents in their child’s education.”
As a parent herself, Hernandez is tenacious about devoting as much time to her family’s needs as to those of RESPA and Redlands, which she says often overlap.
“Balancing my professional, family and personal activities is not a choice, it’s a responsibility,” she says. “Fortunately, it is all connected and linked in one way or another.”
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