Mia Hernandez, DeAnza Student Government Leader, on Bringing Equity to Decision Making
Mia Hernandez is no stranger to community activism. Both of her parents, in fact, exposed her to the struggle for social and economic justice from a young age. “My Mom was a teacher and involved in educational equity work and my Dad was a Brown Beret and was part of Chicano community organizing,” Mia pointed out. “So I knew these concepts but I thought they were personal to my family. I didn’t have that greater picture.”
The social justice issues she learned about from her parents, however, weren’t always reflected in her classes in high school. “The things my parents told me about weren’t talked about or broken down. I was involved in the Service Club but that was more charity based – we raised money to buy clean water for people who didn’t have it instead of asking: ‘So what are the issues that cause them to not have access to water?’”
“I got involved because of my passion for the work, but stayed for the community because the community is who inspired me and kept me going.”
One of her first experiences with collective activism came her freshmen year of college at DeAnza during a campus struggle to raise the minimum wage. Through that work, she met Cynthia Kaufman, Director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action (formerly the Institute for Community and Civic Engagement)
“I became a Peer Mentor with Latino Empowerment at De Anza (LEAD), a program and student club,” Mia reflected. “We worked on issues like bringing Fair Trade items to the book store and creating a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Center, which now exists.”
Upon Cynthia’s urging, Mia decided to enroll in the remaining classes she needed to complete the Leadership and Social Change (LSC) Certificate Program. “Everyone in the LSC program had this amazing experience and had opinions about things,” Mia said of her experiences with the program. “It was a space you could learn and grow no matter where you came from. I got involved because of my passion for the work but stayed for the community because the community is who inspired me and kept me going.”
Soon, Mia was finding opportunities to connect what she was learning in LSC to her work as a student leader in the wider DeAnza community. “In the past, student government had been made up predominantly of people who were privileged and there to build their resumes and their power,” she said. “It was not representing everybody. So about three years ago, a few of us involved with LSC and LEAD put together a coalition called Revolution for Equity.” This grouping, Mia pointed out, reflected the diversity of their constituents more closely, and they succeeded in electing 20 of their members to the De Anza Associated Student Body (DASB).
“We’ve moved away from, ‘Ok, everybody, don’t forget to recycle!’ to including students in the process of figuring out how to be sustainable.”
The next year, Mia herself was elected as a Senator, where she found opportunity to hone her new leadership skills. “We put everything we learned about coalitions through LEAD and Certificate program into practice.” Mia said. “Everybody’s voice mattered in the planning to create a collective layer of values that we wanted to take with us to the DASB. We didn’t just want DASB to represent students, we wanted to include them in the process. I took inspiration from the Certificate Program, where you know that everybody has experience and something to bring to the table. That point was really important to bring to the DASB.”
One change Mia and her colleagues fought for included foregrounding the idea of equity in student government decision making. “DASB has a budget of $1.4 million to allocate for students programs,” she noted. “We asked: How do we allocate this in a way that is equitable? So instead of just saying all programs get the same amount, we looked at which programs had been underfunded in the past and which students had less access to resources than others. When programs like LEAD first started, it was a huge fight to get them funded because the DASB didn’t see their importance.”
Mia sees DASB’s new focus on equity as a way to ensure that worthy projects receive the funding and attention they deserve. For instance, Mia is now head of the Environmental Sustainability Committee, and is chairing the committee with a more “justice-oriented” approach. “We’ve moved away from ‘OK, everybody, don’t forget to recycle!’ to including students in the process of figuring out how to be sustainable.”
Last year, for instance, the Committee set up a $30,000 Eco Fund for student-led sustainability projects. Last quarter, they funded their first two projects: a Monarch Educational Butterfly Garden that connects students to the broader eco-system and involves DeAnza students in educating young students that come for field trips; and a Water Policy Project, a joint effort between political science and environmental science professors and students looking at who owns water, how it’s regulated, and how the water crises is an environmental justice issues involving race. This year, they’re actively reaching out to students to help them develop an idea for a campaign or project and apply for funding.
“I know now that wherever I go next, I can create the community I want to be part of. That’s not something I thought was possible before.”
So what’s next for Mia? In the short term, she’s getting ready to transfer schools to UC Santa Cruz in the fall as a Community Studies major, and has been awarded the Pister Scholarship for the service work she has done within her communities.
“I’m and really excited to see what happens next,” Mia said of her next steps. “The Certificate Program gave me opportunities to travel, work with other people, and work on amazing projects with concrete outcomes. It’s been incredibly inspiring and reinforced my belief that learning from one another and working in community is one of the most powerful things you can do to effect change. I know now that wherever I go next, I can create the community I want to be part of. That’s not something I thought was possible before.”
As for her long-term plans? Don’t be surprised if you come across some campaign buttons with her name on it in the near future. “I do eventually hope to run for office,” Mia said, “and I hope to bring that type of coalition building and grassroots organizing to my campaign and whatever policy making I might be involved in.”