Oakland teacher pushes back on false “Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps” narrative

Susana is a proud Oakland mom, a dedicated teacher, and the first person in her family to earn a college degree. Her resilience fuels her daily as she emphasizes the impact of a good education and strives to make a difference in her students’ lives.  

Early on, education opened up a world of new opportunities for Susana, so going to school felt like the cherry on top. 

“I always felt like school was a place of solace, a place of comfort and joy… where I could actually be a kid. So, that was one of my introductions to feeling like I was a part of a community being in school,” she remembered. 

Her family moved to California, in 1994, from Michoacán–a state in western Mexico. Susana was a little girl then, but she vividly recalls the first few challenging years of adjusting to her Oakland surroundings. 

“We spent many years living in these very deplorable apartments and we were living with other refugees. I believe they were from Cambodia,” she recalled. “The exposure to different cultures came very soon after our arrival, which made it easier for us to see that there were other people in similar conditions to ourselves.” 

Those early years taught Susana how to make connections in the community around her. Decades later, she now leans on that ability to develop positive interactions and relationships with her 9th and 10th grade English students. 

“I'm working with kids who have similar stories as myself. Me working at the school I'm at was very much intentional because of the demographic comparison,” said Susana.

Though she always loved academics, she didn’t get the chance to join any extracurricular activities or enrichment programs because her mom was a single parent. Susana often had to pitch in at home. She says that’s why she’s passionate about teaching students in similar circumstances. 

“I helped set up a series of field trips during winter break. [The students] were able to take some ice skating and hiking, things that they would not normally do,” she recalled, thinking of the positive feedback from parents and students. “I already have some trips planned out for Spring Break.”

Susana’s commitment to her students’ success is inspiring. She’s already thinking about their career next steps, and how she can continue to impact their lives – even if it’s not in a classroom setting. 

My hope is that I could represent my district and make some change to the way things are done here with Oakland Schools and the state at large,” she said. “I am politically inclined to participate and just give my experience as a background for student success here in the school systems in Oakland.”

Understanding the role that home life can play in a student’s academic success, Susana also makes a point to share resources with their families. 

“Being a teacher, I continue to see that our families need support. I've gone through so many processes myself that I'm able to share them,” Susana explained. “I feel like I'm in a pivotal place to help them access that information as well.” 

Susana gives the kind of support and compassion she wishes her mom would have received when they relocated to the United States. She recalls watching her mom jump through hoops to support their family. 

“Because she was not a U.S. citizen or resident, she never qualified for aid. She has a work permit now after many, many years of navigating through a system that keeps pushing back the finish line, so to speak,” she said. “It's not because she is not a hard worker. It's because it's just not been accessible. The system has always been that most people on the outskirts are at a disadvantage.”

Susana runs her classroom like she runs her household–emphasizing decisions that lead to success. She used some of her monthly cash investments from the Oakland Resilient Families Guaranteed Income Pilot to maintain her home and cover other expenses. 

“I just had a sigh of relief knowing that that was something that I could count on and be mindful of my spending it. But it let me have that freedom to spend it where I need to, as opposed to I can only spend it on this,” she said.   

She feels connected to the UpTogether Approach of investing directly in an individual’s strengths and trusting them to be the expert in their own life. 

“This isn't a handout. It was essentially a tool that is paying for itself. Not necessarily in an output that brings another good, but it does provide. It lets people continue in an upward trend to better themselves, better the quality of life for their children, their families. It definitely did that for me and I'm sure that it's done that for everybody else that's been a part of [UpTogether],” Susana said.  

While she’s thriving, she knows firsthand that many families are getting caught up in cycles of experiencing poverty that can be hard to break. Susana believes politicians and policymakers should stop punishing people who are already having a hard time making ends meet, and start offering real support. 

“People like my family have come to this country in hopes that it will be better, and it has been better in some ways. But having this abstract thinking that if you work hard enough, you can get ahead, it's not always the truth. You can't put the onus completely on the people. The government is meant to service people and it's not doing that. You keep penalizing people who already are lacking in some way. Why not help them? That toxic bootstrap thinking that everybody has to make it out on their own is one of the biggest lies that the American industry has fed us.”

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