By B.L. Wilson
For the past few weeks, as a D.C. Civic Changemaker intern, Kiera Sona, a rising senior at George Washington University, has been teaching middle school students about service learning--how to advocate for themselves and their communities.
“It’s really cool, a great learning experience, chaotic,” Sona said. “Every single day…you have to find new ways to teach and lead.”
Sona spoke with GW Today right before introducing Julie Chavez Rodriguez, a senior adviser and assistant to President Joe Biden and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, to dozens of undergraduate students from around the country gathered in GW’s University Student Center Grand Ballroom Wednesday afternoon. Chavez Rodriguez was invited by the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service and the Emerson Collective Youth Collaborative (ECYC), which trains undergraduates to work with public school students to reflect upon and find solutions to issues they identify in their community.
“It is just so inspiring to be in a room with all of you,” said Chavez Rodriguez, “especially as you are braving service-learning programs in middle schools. You all have so much courage and patience. I don’t know that I could necessarily do that.”
Chavez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of the late labor leader Cesar Chavez, spoke of a lifelong involvement in community organizing and civic engagement beginning as the child of farmworkers in California’s central valley, “…surrounded by people who saw service as a real calling, a way of life.”
She carried the “service bug” with her to college at the University of California, Berkeley, where political activism sometime took precedence over classes. After college, she joined the Cesar Chavez Foundation, becoming a director of programs where she “discovered service learning as a methodology,” she said.
“It was about translating the core values I grew up with into real service projects that improved communities,” Chavez Rodriguez said.
“Then Barack Obama decided to run for president,” said Chavez Rodriguez. “I was like, 'Yay!' A community organizer running for president. I just never thought I would see the day," recalling that early in the campaign people tried to use Obama’s work as a community organizer as a pejorative. “He really elevated the role of organizing and service,” she said.
She served in the Obama administration as special assistant to the president and senior deputy director of public engagement, working with veterans and immigrants, and implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the Affordable Care Act programs. These led to her involvement with then Sen. Kamala Harris’ political campaign in California. Since joining the Biden administration, she has worked to help cities and states implement their shares of the $350 billion American Rescue Plan, including getting people COVID vaccines and reopening schools and businesses that were shut down during the pandemic.
“We solve problems,” she said. “We keep our communities healthy. We educate them. I didn’t expect to get a little emotional. But that’s why I do what I do.”
Benjamin Kane, a rising junior at GW, moderated a Q & A session with Chavez Rodriguez that was joined via Zoom by students from ECYC, the GW Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute and the Futuro Foundation. Students had questions covering a range of issues about the Cesar Chavez Foundation, the impact of being a Latina in the room with powerful people, the influence of her upbringing on her career path and staying motivated.
“Growing up, it was valuable to see people fighting for those who didn’t have a voice,” Chavez Rodriguez said, “farmworkers who are the poorest and least educated and then to empower them, create an opportunity for them to step forward and negotiate with employers, with industries. The power dynamics are pretty intense.”
She said there aren’t many women in the halls of government who look like her. She goes about her work “as my full self, a woman, a Latina, who grew up in California, a die-hard Californian but understanding that I am a representation for others outside of that room, that can see themselves in me.
“Own that power of representation, and [know] that it doesn’t have to be a burden,” she said. “You can still step into the room and represent fully your experiences without having to represent an entire community.”