By Erica Baires
Growing up as an immigrant from El Salvador in West Oakland during the 1990’s, I experienced events children shouldn’t see. But I also grew up in a community where I felt seen, supported, and protected. As a result, education and local politics have always been intertwined in my day-to-day life.
My earliest vivid memories are those of 1997-98 and helping my neighbor, Bernice, canvas for the superfund site in West Oakland District 3. Before the South Prescott neighborhood became residential it was industrial and this led to a lot of pollution and contamination that was risking our health. I had to be 7 or 8 years old when she started taking me. Initially when Bernice asked my parents for permission to canvass my dad didn’t want me to participate but my mom did. At the time we were undocumented and I had only been in the United States for 6 years. My dad was fearful of us getting involved and that it would lead to us getting deported. My mom didn’t speak much English but she trusted my neighbor. In retrospect, I doubt my mom fully grasped the importance of my canvassing and what it meant for everyone’s quality of life in West Oakland. Our efforts weren’t in vain. After a few years, the EPA was able to launch a 10 million dollar clean-up effort in my South Prescott neighborhood.
My neighbor Bernice was a force to be reckoned with. She always knew who was running for the city council, and school board, and proposed measures on the ballot. She was so committed to our community and she wanted to make sure that she could spread the word, so she’d bring me along as her translator. I remember showing up at houses and she would say her script in English and then tell me to interpret it. It took a lot of tries and my translation skills weren’t that great eventually, she learned to paraphrase for me in smaller words.
Fast forward 24 years and canvassing is still a vital part of my work as a bilingual family organizer at Families in Action for Quality Education. During our Spring Leadership Institute, 40 of our parent, youth, and teacher fellows came out to canvas 4 times in the name of quality education, equity, and access. As I reflected on my first canvassing experience with FIA, I was left with the familiar feeling that I was doing something good for our community as I had with my neighbor Bernice. Some of my favorite experiences have been those heart-to-heart conversations with residents who, like me, don’t have children but believe all children deserve access to quality education.
On our last day of canvassing, I had the pleasure of canvassing with two teachers from Yu Ming Charter School. These teachers are bilingual and I immediately saw the value in having a canvassing team that could speak English, Spanish, and Chinese. It really motivated me to know that if we encountered folks who spoke their dialect we could share information with them. As educators, the Yu Ming teachers have a powerful narrative and it should be heard in every language. Like my neighbor Bernice, I saw the value in language and communication when canvassing.
As a new organizer, I am proud that we finished our canvassing on a strong note and I look forward to canvassing again this summer in July. I hope we can count on the support of our community to spread the word about the power of voting on education issues.
Erica Baires is FIA’s Bilingual Family Organizer
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org