Jamie Tijerina, 31
A scientist for city council? An academic by trade, Jamie Tijerina is running to get Los Angeles City Council to focus on the issues facing young people, from the housing crisis to the environment. She spoke with us about how we can make STEM fields more accessible to young people of color, especially in a city where cost-of-living in ever growing.
What was the best piece of advice you received before you ran for office?
The best piece of advice that I received early on was, “If you feel overwhelmed, you're doing it wrong.” It informed the fact that I should be enjoying this process, and that this should be a positive experience.
Another piece of sound advice I received was, “It's a marathon, not a sprint.” These two pieces of advice actually have complemented each other and made sure that I'm keeping positive, staying energized, not getting overwhelmed, or doing things that will make the process anything other than positive and community-oriented.
When did the lightbulb go off? When did you realize you wanted to run for office?
I don't know if I could pinpoint a specific moment, but knowing that decisions are being made about our futures and need our input is a big part of it. If we're not there, our concerns won’t get addressed - we will be invisible. The system is not set up such that it is easy for folks, especially young people from underrepresented groups, to get involved. It was just this sense of duty that I had to do this, this was what needed to be done, and this was the time to do it.
You're a scientist by trade, you specialized in cytometry. What brought you into a STEM field, and why are you transitioning to government?
I originally started off as a pre-med as many bio kids do. As I went through my program, I started learning about more career paths available to me in the sciences. I graduated during the height of the recession, which meant that entry-level folks who were trying to go into research had a hard time finding work. I searched hard for opportunities and I was fortunate to find work that was related to my degree in biological sciences. I ended up in a core facility, a service lab that provided flow cytometry services. I also had another part-time job offer, in addition to the full-time job offer, on an epidemiology research study about childhood cancer. I accepted both positions and was working 60 hours a week or more.
The research study was different from the core in many ways, including in that I was working on a finite project. So once the project is over, the job is done, the grant money is done, and that's it. Whereas, in a service lab, you're providing a service, so you're funded by various different grants.
In all of that, you see that grant funding is very political. You see that a lot of different aspects are linked to politics and you see how that determines what research can be done. I didn't realize it off the bat, but as time went on I made the connection that issues like the student loan crisis affect who is able to go into the sciences, who is able to stay in the sciences, and continue on the path towards these careers. If we continue as we are, people, especially those of us from underrepresented groups, are not going to be able to stay in academia. That means we won’t have as many chances to do research in our communities, and that we as a society will not be able to generate important data that will help us solve issues like health disparities and more. There are more PhDs right now than there are jobs for them in academia. That’s a huge problem. It takes many years, a lot of money, debt, sacrifice, and time in order to be able to pursue these careers. I think if we don't start talking about these dynamics, we're not going to be able to sustain the study of the sciences in its current form.
The affordable housing crisis is linked with the STEM community, immigrant rights - all these things affect each other. After you get your Ph.D., you may go on to do a post-doc. But in many major cities, like Los Angeles, the first few years’ post-doc stipends are at a level that may actually qualify you for HUD housing, because you fall under the threshold that they set forth. In Los Angeles, it's $54,250. People are not going to be able to sustain this career path if they can't sustain housing in these major research centers. The ripple effect from all of this is that you have a lot of students, students of color, who are being geared towards degrees in STEM and STEAM, but their salaries cannot sustain the cost of living, or sustain student loan payments.
You end up in this dire economic situation. Young people are overwhelmed by it. It becomes really challenging to get involved in service outside of work because you don't have the bandwidth to continue it. It's either survival - do your work, long hours, multiple jobs - or just ignore what's happening not by choice, but because you don't have the time to do the advocacy.
I also brought up immigrant rights because not having a good immigration policy here in the United States, one that is welcoming and inclusive, is hurting our society. Most people who are involved in higher education, who are in the sciences, personally know at least one friend, colleague or another fellow student who has fears about their visa status. It’s pretty widespread, and it's not really discussed enough in academia.
What are the main issues that you want to focus on in City Hall? What issues do you feel are going ignored?
The economic crisis that we have amongst young people is completely being ignored. I brought up affordable housing before, and when we talk about gentrification and displacement, a big piece that is ignored is the perspective of millennials, young people, Gen-Z, and how the student loan crisis is silently fueling displacement and gentrification.
Kids who grew up in our neighborhoods in Los Angeles, like I did, may either stay in the community for college or go away for college. They often want to come back to their communities and can't because the housing is not affordable, and the wages that the jobs locally provide are unsustainable. They end up being displaced and have to move either outside of the city of Los Angeles, or even stay outside of the state.
The cost of living is unaffordable, and the job market is not there. The student loan balances and default rates in our communities in Council District 14 are some of the highest in the entire city of Los Angeles. These statistics are correlated with weak job markets and they're correlated by race due to structural racism within the system.
We need to have a real conversation about that and find ways to address this locally because federally, not enough is being done. There are rules in place that make it nearly impossible to discharge this debt through bankruptcy. There are few ways to refinance these loans at the lowest of interest rates without using equity from real estate and many young people don’t have the means to get into homeownership to begin with. As it stands at this moment, there's just no end in sight to get out of this without meaningful policy decisions at all levels.
Meanwhile, we're guiding kids toward jobs in STEM fields - but where are the livable wage jobs for them in their neighborhoods when they come out? If you don't create that job infrastructure for them, they're going to be stuck with massive amounts of student debt and no way to pay it back in any sort of reasonable time. No way to be able to stay in the neighborhood, no way to be able to help their families financially, and even just be able to sustain a basic standard of living. So talking about that in the context of gentrification, displacement, and what the future of Los Angeles is going to look like is critical and urgent.
We must also talk about how to best create the housing that's needed. Our population is growing at a rate of 1 to 2% faster than the housing stock. Dire statistics that have come out about the rates of homelessness in Los Angeles, but sadly it is not a surprise to hear when there is such a disparity between population growth and housing growth, and when we are facing so many other issues like stagnant wages, student loans, health disparities, and climate change.
What environmental issues are you hoping to tackle in the city?
One of the many environmental issues that I want to tackle initially city-wide is the lack of sufficiently robust public transportation. This interconnects with the issue of our job market as well as climate change. Council District 14 has some of the highest levels of traffic pollution in the state, and high levels of traffic pollution are known to adversely affect academic outcomes for kids in schools.
The average commute in Los Angeles is 8.8 miles from home to work. In majority-minority communities, these commutes are even longer. The Eastside is largely bisected by major highways and freeways, and a lot of that is a result of the legacy of redlining in the 20th century. We need to make sure that we have equitable resources and livable wage jobs within short distances of our homes in our neighborhoods and ensure that we aren’t making it harder or more expensive for people who are financially struggling to get to their workplaces, especially if those happen to be far away. I believe that decreases in public transit ridership are a result of fear on behalf of riders that they're not going to be able to get to their workplaces on time due to routes not creating the access they need and not running with sufficient frequency.
“People will be glad that you did it. They'll be happy that you are caring enough to do this for your community.”
I also want to ensure that we have sufficient safe greenspaces in our neighborhoods and that we are taking steps to address existing environmental contamination and hazards, especially those that are a result of environmental prejudice.
We as a city must acknowledge that the scenarios that got us to our current climate and environmental crisis are complex. They may require complex solutions, but understanding the dynamics of how we arrived at this point is critical.
What's the best piece of advice you would give to a young person who's considering a run for office?
If you feel that it's your time to do it, that you have something to offer to the conversation, that entering the race will ensure that people are not ignored, and you're able to bring attention to issues that are really hurting people that no one's talking about, then do it. Don’t be afraid - even if that's easier said than done. People will be glad that you did it. They'll be happy that you are caring enough to do this for your community.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.