José Magaña, 28
José Magaña, 28, has dedicated his life to his students. He's taught kindergarteners in San Jose and Los Angeles, served on his city's education commission and works to expand teacher training. And now José wants to show his students that someone who looks like their papi can be an elected official. Yet in his race for San Jose Unified School Board, Jose is the only candidate who has actually taught in the classroom.
If you could get a beer with any politician, who would it be?
I think FDR. Right now we're at an interesting point in history where a lot of the economic policies that he put forward, which everyone thought at first were impossible, but now have shown that they help working people and they do work. I’d love to just to pick his brain about how we can unite people during such a challenging time. I’d love to pick his brain to see how we can move forward and get better and have policies that put people first. I think that's the important part is that he led a government that supported working people first. I’d also want to to give him feedback for some of the policies that marginalized a lot of communities.
Tell me one interesting fact about yourself that has nothing to do with your career or politics?
I like to garden. I grow zucchini and carrots. I spend about 5 to 10 minutes every day and make sure to take that time to garden, and as silly as it sounds, talk to the plants.
I grew up in Central Valley around agriculture, I actually took agriculture as an elective in middle school. My family grows a lot of different vegetables too. So it’s nice to just take a step back and be in tune with nature and just be able to eat food that you grow.
Where do you normally hang out in San José?
Roy’s Cafe. It used to be a gas station, and then they turned it into the local coffee shop. That's kind of where everyone goes to in our neighborhood.
But I would say if I am in downtown San José, I'm probably either be in the South First District or in San Pedro Square where there's a lot of young people who go out there and grab a drink and hear some good music. It’s a great place for families too!
In your own words, what position are you running for? And what exactly what role does that position serving your community?
I'm running for the Area 2 Trustee of the San José Unified School Board. For context, in Santa Clara County, there are 31 school districts. In the city of San José there are 19 districts. San José Unified is the largest unified school district in the Silicon Valley. We impact the decisions that will move the district forward in education. We hire the superintendent and evaluate the superintendent. We deal with negotiations, we dive deep into the budget and approve it. We have $300 plus million dollars for a budget and we represent 30,000 kids. So ultimately, a school board trustee works to create the policy for the district to ensure that the district is able to support teachers so that they can then support their students to get them to the educational outcomes that we want. And at least for me, for them to be prepared to go to college if they choose that route.
What are the potholes in your district? What issues do you feel are being neglected but need to be addressed?
I think the one issue that I'm sure you're going to hear a lot from folks in San José is affordability. In our city, a family of four that makes $90,000 is considered low income, which is crazy if you compare that income level to national levels.
The other big piece is teacher recruitment and retention. A first year in San Jose Unified only makes about $55,000 a year as well. So if you were to take a married couple of first-year teachers, they would just be over the poverty level. To me, that's unacceptable. So for us, we're having an issue hiring teachers, not only because there's a teacher shortage, but because it's really hard to afford to live in our city. I think as a school district, we need to get innovative in ways that we keep our teachers here, whether it's finding ways to create partnerships to expand salary opportunities or to provide grants to teachers to offset credentialing. I actually spoke to the mayor about this issue - there's a lot of federal funding that had been offered to us to create some sort of teacher housing, in conjunction with districts and local governments. Just in terms of where we are today in society, we're going to have to get a little bit more innovative and how we're going to move forward.
That issue of affordability impacts our students as well. It is getting more expensive to educate our students. Our students are facing more challenges and more resources are needed to support all of our students. As a teacher, my students learning was greatly impacted due to factors at home. I remember as a child, one day in the sixth grade the police raided our home, but I still had to go to school that day. I didn't really do much learning that day. And I didn't have any resources in place to help me talk to someone or speak to someone that could help me get through that. So I’m really focused on accessibility, especially in finding ways to create a partnership and opportunities to keep our families and our teachers here in the city.
Was it those experiences that pushed you to join Teach For America after you graduated? Why did you choose public service as opposed to pursuing a policy career in Sacramento or DC?
I became a teacher because of my life experiences. As I was mentioning, my house was raided in the sixth grade. When I was born, my mom was sixteen and my dad, unfortunately, had to make some choices to try to put food on the table for us. There were some consequences because of that. Despite that, my family always pushed to help others, to always be able to give back. My grandmother said there’s always someone that is still more in need that you are that you can help. And I kept asking, what is what is going to make the biggest impact? Is it law school? Is it business school? That's what everyone was pushing me to do, whether it was my mentors or my family. But when I took a class on education and started reflecting on my educational experience, I realized, no, education is actually where I need to be. I ended up teaching kindergarten and first grade. I continued to teach after my two years in the corps, not just in San José but also in south Los Angeles.
That’s a big reason why I’m running for school board. I’m the only candidate that has taught in the classroom. I’m the only one who has worked in education technology and directly coached teachers and principals. I hope to put my experience to use so we can look at ways we can provide better training for our teachers. Because that's literally what I’ve done in the last three years in education technology is consulting districts on how to better support their teachers.
I got into education because of my life experiences, and specifically, early education because of the impact on the families that we have. In many cases, I’m the first touch for them in the system, and I want them to know that the system works for them, not vice versa. But also knowing that at the same time that we're going to have to work together to serve all of our students.
Delving into that. What types of initiatives do you want to create to support teachers? Beyond providing everyday school supplies, in what ways can we better train our teachers?
First, everyone learns and gathers information in different ways. And for some reason, we think that that type of learning goes away once we become an adult. So in my work for the last three years, I've been supporting districts to provide individual plans for each teacher. When it comes to training, what I hear from teachers and just looking at resources as well, the district is short staffed. There's a lot of teachers in the district is a lot of different needs, but we don’t have the resources that we need to make a lot of these things happen.
Additionally, I'd like to do is start what we call an advocacy committee, where we actually come together with teachers, district leaders, and parents to advocate not just in Sacramento, but advocate locally on how we can get more resources for our children and staff. This advocacy work can also help us partner with community groups to identify what we really need for our teachers and classrooms. I talked to a lot of business leaders and say, “I love to help. I hear different responses from different people, what do we really need?” Many groups do want to help. it's just a matter of getting everyone together to actually figure out what is needed.
As a former teacher, I don't want to micromanage at all, but more provide a perspective that says, “I know this impacts teachers from my experience, or this impacts families this way, because of my experience as well.”
So in what ways do you think we can best outreach to families and the community and get them involved in their local schools and really can create that bridge?
I think we have to go to them. My mother worked a lot, my grandparents worked a lot, many times it's hard for folks to come to community events. We have to actually go to the community to make it easier for folks. As a trustee, I want to host more community events where you can come to ask questions, provide feedback, tell me what’s happening. There's going to be obviously some situations that I can't deal with doesn't have to be dealt with at the school site level. But I think we need to be actually out there. This means going to the schools and being available for parents. And the school district is starting to see the need of that as well. And for those who still can not attend, I want to utilize social media to help us reach out to the community.
The reason why I'm excited about that because many times everyone only really hears about the negative things that happen in the district. In our area, the newspapers like to pick up all the juicy stuff, but many times they don't really get to talk about the great things are happening at schools. And so I think that's another job as a trustee is to be able to be out there in the community to say, “Look at the great things happening.”
We're doing great things. Of course, we can do better. But I want the community to check out the great things that were already doing so that we can continue these efforts.
Also, I speak Spanish and if we look at the student population, and in my trustee area specifically, there's not one school that’s less than 70% Latinx community. So being able to actually communicate with folks is important and is needed. I hope to put that experience to the test. As a teacher, I was basically a community organizer. I did home visits parent meetings, parent workshops. I want to bring that kind of grassroots mentality as well to the table.
Yes, I believe I read you were the only Latinx person running in your race?
Yeah, I'm currently the only person of color running in the race, which has been interesting as well.
Why do you think that is? In a district that has a large population of people of color, why do so few POCs run for these seats?
Well, to be honest with you, it's really expensive. It's $3,000 just for the ballot statement. To me, that makes it so hard to run and it is wrong. I was a teacher so I don’t have a lot of personal money to be spending.
Two, many of us have a lot of other challenges. I was the first person in my family to go to college, I didn't know how to even get that going. Now trying to figure out how to run for office, there are times where I’d be lost without my friends and advisors. It is hard to be building a ship as you are sailing it.
Three, politics is an intimidating space. There have been many situations where I've walked into rooms where I'm the only young person, or the only person of color or one of a few. That’s can be a little intimidating. Being young is a reason why many folks write you off as a candidate as well. You hear “Wait your turn,” or “You should keep volunteering.”
But what I'm really excited about, is that our age group is starting to step up. I think we're realizing that we do belong in this political space, and not only belong in this space, but that we should be making these decisions at the table. Because our voice matters.
When I stood in front of my students, I was sending a message to them every day that they can do this. That someone that looks like their papi or tio could be their teacher. That they could grow up to be a teacher.
For kids to be able to see a young Latinx guy at the board, not just because I’m young, not just because I’m Latinx, but because I’m experienced too, that excites others. A lot of our young folks aren't just running to have a title. I have lots of friends out here that are young that are running too and it's great when we go seek endorsements, people are taking us more seriously because we actually have the work to back it up. It is intimidating but I think things are starting to change or at least we're starting to lay the foundation that makes sure that it's actually expected and we need more people of color.
In addition to your work in the classroom, you’re also on the Library and Early Education Commission. Most people don’t know about their local commissions and how they can join. Can you explain how to get on a commission? And what do you do?
I actually I had no idea about what commissions really did either. When I heard about them I was really intrigued. So in San José there are two different routes that you can go. One, there's an application process where you apply and after interviewing you can move forward. But many times, what ends up happening is folks end up getting appointed by city councilmember or by the mayor.
In my case, I did apply, I didn't get it. But then an opening came up and because of my work in the community, my name was actually nominated for that position. So thankfully, because of that, I was able to be nominated and appointed by the city. Many people do end up getting appointed, but usually by a city council member based off the relationships that they have or based off the work that they've done that in the community.
Now what we do ranges from year to year, and it has been kind of quiet in the past. This past year and a half we have been extremely active as a commission. My fellow commissioners and I have taken it upon ourselves to truly advocate for library and education issues in our city. And as I mentioned, it's nearly impossible to afford to live here. And we believe that the library should be fully affordable. And what we meant by that is our city has eliminated late fees for children for the city of San José for all our libraries this year, and we are hoping to one day advocate to eliminate all the late fees period for any user of the library.I believe that the library system is a great resource and a great foundation of who we are the country. According to research and my experience, literacy is a foundational building block towards success.
Additionally, we're advocating to increase access to new STEM technology for the community. For example, the communities I represent actually don't have access to as much STEM technology like 3D printing, even basic technology like computers. We’ve advocated more money towards that. Also more partnerships. The library is collaborating with the city to work to involve the library and commission more with education. I’m on a sub-committee looking at creating standards for groups that work in early education issues in the city.
In essence, what we do is we make recommendations to the city and hope that they approve it, and we advocate and talk to them to support some of the issues we've put forward.
Who have been your greatest mentors?
I am so blessed to have so many different mentors. I have a political mentor. I have an educational mentor. I have folks I can just talk to.
My political mentor is my best friend. I met him at UC Santa Barbara - Charlie Arreola. He was the co-best man at my wedding. He's my brother. And what I love about him is he keeps me real to who I am. If I start to get off track, he always says stops me and asks “What do you think? What do you feel? Because that's what matters. It's what you think and what you stand by.” And for me, that's super important to have someone political remind me that my story and opinions matter.
When it comes to education, I still talk to the principal from my high school who worked to keep me on the right track. He’s the one that actually told me that one day had become a teacher. But he's always kept in contact, he even went to my wedding. He’s the one that always reminds me that we signed up to do our work to help kids and everything that we do at the end of the day should be on how we can help children. If we lose sight of that, that we should not be working in education.
Lastly, my mom and my wife are my anchors when it comes to life. My mother had me when she was 16 and now she’s a strong business owner who is thriving. My wife is an educator and she's not involved in politics. We met in the classroom teaching, and she works with kids more. And anytime I talk to her about things, she always the one that reminds you, “Remember, at the end of the day, it's always about kids.” She's good at making sure that I'm focused on kids, and not letting the political things distract me or get in the way.
What advice would you give other young Democrats considering a run for office?
I would give two pieces of advice. First, I know every young person will, unfortunately, run into this encounter. I have run into to actually, just a couple days ago. I did an endorsement interview recently and they asked me, “People are saying you're the most inexperienced candidate. Why you're running? Why should you even be running?”
I was personally offended. I called people out and said, you're only asking me that because I'm young. I had to actually remind them that I was the most experienced candidate in the race. Maybe you’re right, I haven’t worked in government for years. But I’m proud that I’m the only one that's been a teacher, I'm the only one that's coached teachers and principals. I'm the only one that's on the library commission. Our party leadership has asked for more young candidates to step up. I’m not sure what else to do.
Many will discourage you and tell you no. As I tell other young candidates, don't take no for an answer. And you're going to hear no, you're going to hear why it's not a good idea why you should wait your turn, why there are more people that are more experienced or better fit to run for office that you. What I say is - no, don't take that.
If you want to run, then you run. You run on the issues that are important to you. And you give it all. You just don't take no.
Because if you take the first no, you just shut down that door. You're gonna hear it over and over and over and over again. And that's exactly why more young people should be running.
Last, if you can, get involved early and build relationships with people. Get to know the issues, work with the people that are out and about. I’m not saying become a part of the establishment per se, but just get to know the people that you're hoping to work within the future. Regardless if you agree with all issues or not, try to lay the foundation just because you're going to need to know people. Relationships not only will help you with your election, but it will help you to do the work you are hoping to accomplish.