For this week’s episode, Rebecca sat down with Alejandra Vazquez-Baur, an educator-turned-policy advocate whose work focuses on expanding supports for K–12 immigrant students—especially newcomers—and multilingual students. As Alejandra describes herself: “I am a product of resilient Mexican women. A sister. A dancer. An educator. A visionary.” They talk about the National Newcomer Network Alejandra co-founded as a policy entrepreneur at The Next 100; how she’s bringing her experience in the classroom as a high school math teacher onto the national policy scene; the role of dreaming in her work and her path to claiming her role as a visionary; resilience and how to stay rooted; how music, dance, and movement inform her advocacy work; and lots more.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I go behind the music with visionary leaders working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance we all deserve. I think of it kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy.
And this week, I’m incredibly excited to sit down with Alejandra Vázquez Baur, a former educator turned policy advocate whose work focuses on expanding supports for K-12 immigrant students, especially newcomers and multilingual students. I had the pleasure of getting to meet her through a two-year policy entrepreneurship that she did with The Next100, a startup think tank created by the next generation of policy leaders, which actually lives within The Century Foundation. Alejandra, welcome. I am so excited to have you on the show!
ALEJANDRA VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Thank you so much, Rebecca, for having me. It’s an honor to be here to talk to you, to be on your show, and to talk a little bit about the work.
VALLAS: Oh, I’ve been so excited for this conversation, and I have to just say, it’s been such a pleasure getting to know you and getting to learn about your incredible work while you’ve been at The Next100. And so, it’s really, really exciting to get to have some of the conversations we’ve been having off the air on the air for Off-Kilter. And before we get into it, before we get into your amazing work, as I always do with my guests for this show, I wanna give you the chance to introduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners and to share a little bit about how you come to this work. And I’m gonna quote you as I tee you up for this. Part of your bio over at The Next100 has you describing yourself, “I am a product of resilient Mexican women. A sister. A dancer. An educator. A visionary.” Talk a little bit about your path to The Next100 and to doing policy work.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Thank you so much, Rebecca, for that. And I do just wanna start off saying that my pronouns are she/her/ella. Also, I’m bilingual, so I include the ella part for that reason. I am a light-skinned Latina, dark hair, dark brown hair that’s down right now. I’m wearing clear glasses, little silver hoops, a pink blazer because I’m in my Barbie mode, and I’m just really smiley. And I talk with my hands. So, yeah, I’m just very grateful to be here.
And yeah, I mean, I put those descriptors in my bio on Next100 because Next100 is about bringing your full self to work. And when I’m here and I’m thinking about my policy work, I am a daughter, I am an older sister to two brothers, I am a younger sister. I have multiple step-siblings. I have many cousins, a huge family. I’m a godmother to a sweet little two-and-a-half-year-old. He’s kind of a terror, but he is wonderful. A granddaughter, a descendant to many who came before me, who have emigrated across the world and who have worked and fought for their own rights and for those of my community, those of us who are now benefiting from the efforts that they put in to give us a better life. And so, I continue in that trajectory in their footsteps. And I feel really grateful to have the honor of continuing that legacy. I’m a part of a big matriarchal family. I said that. We have amazing resilient Mexican women. And they are who really have encouraged me and inspired me to do (audio drops) sector work, to do policy and advocacy work. And I’m just so grateful for that example. And all of these things, I talk about my family a lot in this introduction because these are the characteristics, the many identities that I hold. Outside of racial, ethnic, linguistic ability, etc., these characteristics are what ground me in family and community, and those are really central parts of my identity and ground my work, essentially.
So, I’m from New Mexico. I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, kind of a small town, especially compared to New York City, with a very big family like I said. We would go to Mexico to visit family. Sometimes we’d drive to California to see some cousins, and my whole life was just family in northern New Mexico mountains, etc. I have since, I got a scholarship. I was so grateful. I would’ve stayed in-state. I got a scholarship to go to a private school in California. Found my passion for education really by identifying first in high school that our schools were quite segregated even in the Southwest. I went to a Catholic school, and our school was primarily Latino/Hispanic, and so was the public school on the street. And the private schools further away that cost a lot more money were predominantly white. Those were the schools where Harvard and Penn, all these amazing universities were recruiting from. And from our schools, many of us would just go in-state unless we were lucky enough to get a scholarship, which I was, and I’m very grateful.
But I really was so underprepared when I got to Claremont McKenna College, where my peers from the East Coast who went to these private schools had written so many papers and were so prepared for our classes. And I felt really underprepared. And I knew that was the case of a lot of my Black and brown peers around me who were freshmen, first-year students at Claremont McKenna, and who were really confused about why we felt like we were top of our class in our hometowns or in our old high schools, and now had really a lot of catching up to do. And so, I got really involved, passionate about that early on, did a lot of organizing in college, in part starting the first Latino club in my school. And we partnered older students with incoming first-year students to help bridge that gap, to provide resources, and especially for students who do also, like me, come from pretty homogenous communities, primarily Black, predominately Latinx, giving them resources to adjust to the culture shock of a predominately white institution like Claremont McKenna. And all of those things led me into education.
Was so excited to become a high school teacher. I went through the Teach for America program. I was sent to Miami because I’m bilingual, I speak Spanish, and I also had a math minor. So, they thought, well, she can speak Spanish, she can teach math, so they sent me to Miami. And I was blessed to be assigned to Miami Northwestern Senior High School. I loved my students. I actually really loved teaching math. Can’t tell you how many times some students would say, “Hey, I didn’t know women could do math.” And I was like, “Well, now you know. If I’m the only person who was that image for you of a woman who is doing math, right, who likes it, shockingly”—they’d make fun of me—but “who likes it, then I’m glad, because you are also good at math.” And changing mentalities around that was really important for me.
But while I was there, I also found a lot of challenges in the system. Many of the things that we know, like there, Title I schools don’t have the resources. Many of my students were sharing calculators throughout class. We did not sometimes even have enough desks because they gave me too many students that surpassed the legal limit in the state of Florida that a single class could have. And so, they wouldn’t give me enough desks to seat all my students. That feels like a problem. They didn’t have enough translation and interpretation for a lot of my students who were enrolling during the Trump era, moving to the U.S. for the first time and just didn’t have those resources to ensure that those students and those families felt welcome and were getting what they needed to be able to engage in the school adequately and for the students to get enrolled in the right classes and get the resources that they need. And it was just there were so many disparities in the third largest district in the U.S. that was rated an A district. So, I saw that as a problem. I started doing some local advocacy work, was working with some organizations that lift up student and teacher voices in the community. We would go to school board hearings, and after some conflicts with my school leadership about some of the things that were going on, I decided to leave, and I decided to go into advocacy and policy. And that’s what (audio drops)
VALLAS: I love that story. And I just have to say, as you were describing your experience with teaching and with kids not having enough supplies in school, I mean, part of what was flashing to me is my sister actually also was a Teach for America teacher. And so, it just brings back all the stories I used to hear her sharing about spending her piddly salary trying to just buy the supplies that needed to be in the classroom, right, because there just wasn’t enough. So, we could spend the entire episode talking just about that one component of our underfunded, under-resourced school system.
But I wanna take that trajectory that you just so beautifully laid out and pull on several of those threads as we start to get a little bit more into how that has sent you into the work that you’ve been doing at The Next100 and which I know is gonna continue well beyond The Next100. What you’ve been focused on at The Next100—this startup think tank that is really doing things pretty differently than a lot of other think tanks in a way that I hope we’ll get a chance to talk about throughout this conversation—you’ve been focused on expanding all different types of supports for immigrant students in the K-12 system, and especially newcomer students and multilingual students. You’ve been talking a little bit about the picture for students generally, in the math classroom, as you saw, but help bring that additional layer into the picture. And then that’ll obviously take us to some of the work that you’ve been doing.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Right. Thanks, Rebecca, for that question. I gave the perspective of what it looked like on the ground teaching inside the system in Miami. One thing that I knew as I was seeing that with my students, I also knew that my peers growing up in New Mexico—which also has a large immigrant community, I’m a part of it. I’m a part of a mixed-status family—I had cousins who were moving to Santa Fe when I was growing up. They were also struggling to receive the same supports that those of us who were born in the U.S., even if we were English learners as well, could get because they were not getting the same patience that other students were, that we were getting if we were born there. And so, these, all of these structures are the same ones that I was seeing as a teacher in Miami, Florida, decades later. So, I knew. I mean, just from that, I knew that this was a larger systemic problem and not just a Miami-Dade County problem.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: And since then, of course, part of coming into policy and advocacy was researching where does this come from? How prevalent is this across the country? And pulling some of the stats. Unfortunately, we don’t have perfect data systems to track immigrant youth. Part of my work has been around identifying data and how to safely collect data on newcomer youth because it’s important. If we can’t actually point to the problem, if we don’t collect the data to know where students are, what their, you know, how they’re doing, we can’t actually advocate for better results and resources for them, right? And so, that’s one frustrating thing.
However, since I started here, I’ve been using a lot of proxies or looking at other students who share overlapping identities with newcomer students to help use that data as an example for our youth. So, one example is that English learners during the pandemic, English learners or multilingual learners experienced disproportionate upticks in absenteeism throughout the pandemic. So, it was an increase of 158 percent. So, those students were missing 158 percent more, or experiencing absenteeism 158 percent more than the overall population that was missing 88 percent experiencing during the pandemic, from 2017 to 2021. That’s a big deal. You know that students who don’t speak English were missing school a lot more, perhaps because they weren’t accessing the same information, etc. And that says a lot about the school’s ability to communicate with families that do not speak English, many of whom are newly arrived and immigrant families.
We know that in just in the last couple years, thousands of families have immigrated from Afghanistan, from Ukraine, from the Northern Triangle, and all throughout Latin America. Even this year, there have been thousands and thousands of students coming into the New York City Department of Education: 14,000 just since last August enrolled in New York City Department of Education schools just down the street from where I live. These schools need additional resources, not just financial, but the translation and interpretation tools to support families, like I’ve been saying. Additional desks, additional teachers, additional mental health supports for their families as they transition into school, and trained enrollment folks who can support them. This is true now, as it always has been, because immigration patterns, though they fluctuate, we’ve always experienced immigration in this country, and new students will always be enrolling in school because Plyler v. Doe gives immigrant youth right to an education regardless of citizenship status. It’s in federal law. And so, we have to ensure that our schools have the resources to support the students who are coming and enrolling in our schools, as is their right. And so, that’s why I’m excited about this work. It is difficult.
We hear, I come from both a personal and a professional experience of seeing kind of the worst practices. But in terms of the lay of the land, I’ve had the opportunities to see some of the best practices. I’ve been able to visit some schools that have programs targeted towards this population of students, towards newcomers, to help them adjust, get them all the things that they need within their first couple years in the U.S. so they can thrive. And that’s been really special about this opportunity because it’s not just about accountability, holding schools accountable, ensuring, calling them out when they’re doing the wrong thing, it’s also saying where are the best practices happening so that we can replicate those things? And so, I’ve been able to do a lot of that alongside the policy work that encourages more accountability, better data collection, and improved funding to ensure that those places that aren’t doing it well can do it better in the future.
VALLAS: So, I feel like that’s just, that’s such a great segue into one of the pieces of your work that most got me in the first case really, really interested in. I mean, I’m interested in all of The Next100 policy entrepreneurs’ work. Everyone is doing amazing work, and that was true of the last cohort too. We’ve talked with a number of Next100 folks on this podcast at different points over the years because all the work is so important and so cool. But one of the things that first got me super excited to talk with you and to learn more about some of your work is something that you really got off the ground, yes, in partnership with others, but you really have been, I think, as I understand it, the impetus for really launching this. And it’s something called the Newcomers Network. You’ve done a lot of different work at The Next100 over the course of the past couple of years, writing reports, doing research, bringing folks together, highlighting best practices, like you were saying. But would you tell a little bit of the story behind the Newcomers Network and how that fits into solving the problems that you’ve been talking about?
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Of course. Thank you so much for celebrating that and identifying that. I’m really, I think this is something that I’m most proud of in my time at Next100. So, last summer, the summer of 2022, alongside a colleague of mine from Californians Together we co-founded the National Newcomer Network, which is a growing coalition committed to educational equity for newcomer students, so students within their first couple years in U.S. schools K through 12. In the year that we started, our goal was to bring folks together who are invested in newcomer success. So, that’s teachers, that’s community leaders, that’s obviously school district leaders and staff. But also, I mean, thinking, I say community leaders and advocates on purpose because I’ve worked for the last four years with an organization that has the expertise that the schools don’t called ImmSchools. And we directly support immigrant families in New York City, undocumented youth, and ensure that they know their rights. So, there are organizations across the country like ImmSchools that have the expertise, that know the families better than the schools, especially when there’s a lack of trust between the institutions and the families, and they bridge that gap for them. And so, we wanted to ensure we’re including those folks, as well as the researchers, as well as the school leaders and the teachers, right? All of the whole community of people who love and support newcomers and want to improve the systems that provide barriers for them to succeed, that’s who we’re bringing into the conversation. And so, that’s how we founded the National Newcomer Network.
We thought we would have a couple meetings and see what can we do together, and it turned into a coalition. We got investment right away from over 70 people in our first meeting. We’ve maintained that and actually grown in a year to now almost 100 members just in one year. And those are folks who are invested, who are emailing, who are coming to all the meetings, who are saying, “Oh, I’m doing this. Can you put this in your newsletter? We’re seeing this exciting thing happening on the ground.” That has been so special for me to see that it’s actually encouraged me to say, all right, people are invested in this. Therefore, we need to continue to grow this coalition, get the resources we need, so that we can continue to bring folks together to move forward and find solutions. And not just once, but over and over again, push lawmakers, policymakers in D.C. and elsewhere to uphold the right of newcomer youth and get them access to a quality public education.
And so, we have in this coalition, like I said, almost 100 members now, members from over 25 different non-profit organizations, from big organizations like Unidos to the important experts in the communities from small community-based organizations. We meet bimonthly. We share best practices. We align on current events in the immigration and education space, recognizing that issues in both areas impact youth because our youth do not live in a vacuum, and everything around them impact their experiences in our classrooms. And then we’re working on a policy platform that we plan to put out at the end of the year. It’s exciting work. It has pushed me to grow a lot. I think of myself as very organized, but running a coalition of about 100 members, organizations, experts in their fields, and folks who are really busy ‘cause they’re teaching hundreds of students a day, I know that experience, and I know that therefore, I’m just lucky to be in the room. And so, I’m committed to helping to create the space so that we can all continue to work towards our shared mission together. And so, that’s the National Newcomer Network.
VALLAS: Well, just first off, just congratulations. I’m beaming as you’re telling the story of you thought it would be a few meetings, and then it turned into this whole coalition, right?!
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: [laughs]
VALLAS: I feel like that’s often how this happens, right? You don’t know where something is gonna go, but you’re like, “You know, we should start by getting some people together” because of the power, obviously, of working in collectivity as opposed to solo. Has anything surprised you about the Newcomer Network? I mean, obviously, it’s becoming a thing I think itself is a surprise. But in addition to the ways that it’s pushed you to grow, I’m just I’m feeling called to ask if you feel that there are any surprises that’ve happened along the way or particular lessons you’ve learned through that experience so far.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: I think people will always work hardest for the things they believe most deeply in. So, I feel really grateful that folks have stepped up who are executive directors of their own organizations and run these national or these huge organizations, and they’re saying, “I will commit extra time to help make sure that this thing continues.” That was kind of a surprise to me because I recognize that folks have a lot going on. They have their commitment to their communities, to their work that they’re getting paid for. And this work is not paid, right? It’s…. But we know that people, and that people are tied to work that aligns with their personal missions and their personal values. And I just feel grateful that we’ve found enough people who feel that this work is a part of that personal mission and that personal value. And so, yeah, that has been a big part of the surprise. And as we grow and we’re thinking about our strategic plans for the next couple years, part of that is saying, all right. Who’s all in? How can we support each other? How can we maybe get some funding, so that this could, you know, so we can ensure that we’re all paid for our labor? But it is a labor of love, and we’re all kind of doing it together. And that really surprised me, and I’m also grateful for them.
VALLAS: Well, and we know—
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: We’re building a family sort of here, and I’m so happy.
VALLAS: Building a family. I love that. And I was gonna say it. I didn’t mean to interrupt you that I know that some of the people who listen to this show are folks across philanthropy. So, funders listening, this is definitely a project that needs some resources, as you’ve been hearing.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: [delighted chuckle]
VALLAS: Alejandra, you just used the word “personal mission.” And so, that makes me wanna ask you, and this is something I love asking folks who are leaders in this work—and you certainly are, and you’ve been describing some of the incredible work you’ve been doing even in just such a short period of time working at the national level—do you have a personal mission statement that drives you? And if so, would you be comfortable sharing it and how you came to find it?
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Of course. I think the simplest way to break it down for me is that the best work happens in community. I just, I don’t think we alone can make all that much change if we’re not with others who share those same values and want to move in community. This is just tied to how I grew up. Again, it’s generations of Mexicans, Latinx people, people of color who have fought together in coalition and community for what they need. People bring all their different perspectives together to build the strongest movements. That’s how we’ve always achieved change. And I think for me, I will always do research, and I will write, and I’ll do my work as I see fit. But I think the most, the best part of my career and I hope my life will be where I can find community to push forward on things that we together, not just me, we together really believe in. And that’s what, of course, got me to think about starting the National Newcomer Network and drives that work still. But in many other ways, how I, the way that I see the DEJC and the Bridges Collaborative, all things housed at The Century Foundation, but also coalitions across the country that are making change, they all happen in community with many people. And so, I know I sound like a broken record, but that’s just it’s a part of who I am. It’s how I think about change. And so, my personal mission statement will always be, where do I find community, and how can we move forward together?
VALLAS: Definitely not a broken record, and if you are, I am very happy with that record being broken on that track because it’s one of my favorite to play as well. And DEJC, for folks who are looking for an acronym breakdown, is the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. And folks who are not new to the show are already gonna be very familiar with the Collaborative ‘cause they get to hear it slip into this programing on the regular.
So, Alejandra, staying with you just a little bit as sort of, as a person, right? I wanna dig into sort of what makes you tick a little bit and pull the curtain back a little bit on how you do this work. One of the things that I feel very deeply at this moment in human history and in policy development, we are in a moment—and it’s not just me who feels this. A lot of folks have been starting to use this language, adrienne maree brown and others—this is a moment when we’re in a battle of imaginations. And some visionary thinkers have described that battle of imaginations as being effectively where oppression, right, the oppression economy we live in—if you’re not familiar with that phrase, go listen to our last episodes with Jeremie Greer and Solana Rice and Liberation in a Generation—but this oppression economy that we live in, oppression is what happens when an individual or a whole group of people are living in someone else’s dream instead of being free to dream their own dream. That is how many folks that I consider to be modern-day visionaries are talking and thinking about this moment we find ourselves in of incredible polarization. And by the same token, I feel very strongly, and I know many others in this space as well do as well, we can’t just talk about what we need to tear down, right? We can’t just talk about tearing down systems of oppression because that isn’t actually gonna get us where we want to go. It’s never gonna build that liberation economy that Liberation in a Generation so passionately speaks of. What we need to be doing is actually visioning, visioning forward to what we’re trying to build. And I see you as a visionary. You described yourself in your bio with Next100 as a visionary, and I love that. I love you owning that term. Talk about the role of vision in the work that you do and why vision is so important to how you approach your work as opposed to kind of tinkering around the edges of the status quo.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: I think that’s so important. And I think I learn the most from my students. I’m gonna just start there thinking about an activity I would do a lot with my students at the end of the day, like, we’d finish our math work. They’d turn in their exit ticket, which is their kind of check for understanding for the lesson for the day. And sometimes we’d have a little bit more time, so we’d do a reflection. And I was always most struck by opportunities to ask my students, like, “What change do you see? How could school be better for you? What ways do you envision?” You know, just ask lots of random questions, and their solutions are always the ones that are the most visionary ‘cause they know exactly what the answers are. And I hear a lot of policymakers often seeing those things or hearing interviews of kids saying like, “Oh, we need school to be all different. We don’t need to learn this. We don’t need to learn that. I want, I wanna do this or it should look like this.” And people policing those visions and saying, “Well, that doesn’t sound, that’s not possible or that doesn’t sound like what school is supposed to be,” right? Like, “they don’t know what they’re talking about.” Students have the answers to everything, especially when it comes to education policy and education work. Their visions are what school should be because they’re the ones experiencing it. They’re the ones in the classrooms. They’re the ones who are telling us what’s wrong with our system, even if it’s maybe in words that policymakers don’t understand because they’re so far from the classroom. And that’s kind of how I think of vision and dreaming in work, too. It’s like, the kids inspire us to dream big. This work, we can only make change if we’re dreaming really big.
So, one of my favorite activities when I started Next100 was we came up with headlines for our careers and not just for our two years at Next100. It was like, “What is your headline for your work? If in 50 years you achieve everything you want, what’s your headline?” And that sets the tone for the work. Of course, from there you say, okay, what programs align with this? What are the intermediary steps to kind of achieve that vision? But if you have a far goal to reach, you have so much. You recognize there’s so much work to go in there, and you can start backwards planning. But if you say that your vision for a better school system or for a better world that you live in, better access, resources for community is something that is very close, something that is sort of conservative in what you’re asking for, then you’re doing a disservice to everybody who could benefit from the reach that you have. And I just think that helps me. It reminds me.
I think of the kids ‘cause I know I also have that tendency. I am a visionary. And I also, you know, we get burned out. And sometimes I think, okay! Well, these are the things that the system provides, etc. And I am always reminded—and this is why I surround myself with people who are also visionaries—they remind me that we have to keep dreaming bigger. We have to know that we can achieve schools that are equitable. We can find spaces where everyone feels safe and welcome to learn, where students can learn what they want and what they need so that they can thrive, so that they can contribute to the society around them. And having that is helping to direct my path, keeping me focused. The headliner. And so, if anybody else out here is thinking about, okay, what’s my, you know, we all run into roadblocks in our careers. Totally make sense. I’m in a period of transition too. That headliner, that vision is what’s helping me stay the course and saying, okay, what are the different ways that I can achieve that in the end? It could look like a lot of different turns, a lot of different things, but how can we get to that point?
VALLAS: What was your headline?
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: That all—
VALLAS: If you don’t mind my asking. I’m sorry. I’m putting you on spot there, but I’m curious after all that, ‘cause that was beautiful! I’m so curious now what the headline is.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Yeah, I don’t remember word for word, but I know that I said that finally schools have all the resources and everything that they need. Students are happy and can learn as they want. It was something like that specifically focused on newcomers in this case. But I believe that across the board. And I know that I want all students who are historically marginalized in our school system to feel like they get what they need to succeed. And so, I’m excited to keep moving in that direction.
VALLAS: Oh, I love that. And I love, actually, I’m getting chills as I’m processing that headline and students being happy, having everything they need. I mean, and there’s also just there’s such a dimension there that isn’t just about the dollars and cents, right? It isn’t just about do we have the supplies? It’s also about the students’ well-being. It’s also about their emotional well-being. And I know that’s core to how you approach this work. And every time you talk about it, you talk about the supports not just being educational and financial supports, right? It’s also emotional supports. There’s all different other components of that, so I love that.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Yeah.
VALLAS: I can’t wait to read that headline in 50 years, when we’re celebrating all that you and your movement have achieved. The flip side of thinking about a North Star headline like that, of course, is being very aware of what are the collective limiting beliefs that we hold as a society that hold us back from being able to collectively vision that outcome. And so, that’s why I often like to ask folks in the course of these Off-Kilter conversations, if you had to pick one, what is the most toxic or problematic limiting belief that we as a collective at this point in American history, in your opinion, most need to release so that we can build that economy, that society that that headline describes?
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: I mean, that’s a hard question because there are so many things. One of the first things I—
VALLAS: You can pick a few. If you need to pick a few, you can pick a few!
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: [laughs] Yeah. I think the first thing that comes to mind is the bootstraps mentality. I think we know this. Bootstraps mentality means you pick yourself up by the bootstraps. You’re an individual. It’s tied to the American Dream. I think we are coming to a time now where many folks are having to contend with the fact that that’s not true, especially for historically marginalized communities. We know that that’s not true, right? The systems are stacked against many of our communities, many individuals, to be able to achieve that American Dream as it was described years and years and years ago. But I think even liberals, as we think we say we don’t believe in the bootstraps mentality, and yet we continue to hold rigid expectations of those who work in policy, of those who work in education, of those who work in these spaces that are supposed to make the change for society to ensure that we don’t uphold this bootstraps mentality and get the resources to communities. If we have those same rigid expectations of the folks working in this space, then how are we supposed to get rid of economic instability and a toxic society, educational inequities, and all the other issues that are wrong?
I think the best idea is that the whole reason I say this, ‘cause I, of course, believe in The Next100 mission so much that the best ideas come from folks who are directly impacted. The bootstraps mentality impacts those exact folks from being able to access spaces where we can make change. And so, even if we need to change the fact that those barriers exist, to give voice to those most impacted. And if you don’t get rid of those barriers, you don’t actually believe in getting rid of the bootstraps mentality. That’s, you still live and are harmed by that mentality. And that impacts the ability for policy to make real change for real people. And so, I would start there. I mean, again, youths, young people, immigrants, folks of color, disabled folks, we all know the right answers together. And so, getting those folks in the room, getting rid of all the barriers that keep us from those rooms, and changing the room so that we can be that room. The first one.
VALLAS: I love that answer. And I feel like some weeks we could just, we could rename this podcast, like [laughing] Taking Down the Toxic Neoliberal Narratives, right? Because that’s really where it all comes back to.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Mmhmm.
VALLAS: But Alejandra, as you were speaking, and as you were speaking before as well, about what you’ve learned and brought forward from your ancestors and from your lineage, the resilient Mexican women that you were speaking about before, I also wanted to ask—and this is related but is somewhat of a separate direction—I’m curious how spirituality or a sense of larger purpose might fit into your work. A lot of the way that you speak about this work and the collectivity, but also yourself and your role in it makes me suspect that you have a larger purpose-connected worldview that your work fits into. And I’m curious if you feel comfortable talking about that. And in particular, because I find that a lot of times these kinds of conversations are actually somewhat taboo in a mostly secular space, right? So, my own spiritual core is part of what drives me in this work, and I’m curious if that’s something you feel comfortable speaking to.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Yeah. I, in traditional Mexican fashion, was raised Catholic. And like I said, I was put into Catholic schools. My mom said, “I’m sending them to Catholic school.” And so, that was a big part of my upbringing. And in many ways, I think that is a big part of also the culture that I was raised with. They’re intertwined, both Catholicism and big parts of the Mexican culture that I was raised with at least. And so, that huge part of my upbringing is thinking about values as they relate to people more broadly. I think there are themes of justice in there. We also know that the church as an institution is also a problematic institution in some ways. And as I’ve become an adult, I’ve distanced a little bit from the specific church itself but continue, I think, like you said, to ground myself in the values that both that religion and also my culture have taught me, which is again, around community and collective liberation together.
I think that, you know, I still get the texts every day: “Are you going to church on Sunday?” And every time I talk to my grandma, who’s 95 by the way— My abuelita is 95. She lives with my mom. We’re very close. She’s very, very special to me. When we talk on the phone, she’ll still say, “¿Fuiste a iglesia”? “Did you go to church?” [laughs] And I’m not going to church as much. But when I go home, I think it is spiritual to me to be in my community, to be around my family, to be around the folks that, you know, we cook together, and we listen to music together. We share food and language, things that feel so important to us and ground us all. That, to me, is spiritual. Sitting in the room, making tamales with all my cousins and my tías and stuff and listening to Vicente Fernández who was a very famous Mariachi singer from my grandma’s generation, that is spiritual to me.
And for some reason, and I’m still kind of working out this connection, Rebecca, so you’re really, I don’t know if you’re talking to my therapist or something, but for some reason, when I think of those things, that helps me to recenter in the work that I’m doing. It’s all about community. I say this a lot. It’s all about community. And as I get to celebrate those special parts of who I am, the important people who have brought me here, who’ve made the path, who’ve opened the path for me to be able to run and do this work, I can recognize how all the different people that I work with, their own individual languages and cultures and lived experiences that’ve grounded them and encouraged them to do this work, I can, we can relate on that, even if our languages and our experiences are nothing alike. And so, I’m actually going home in a couple weeks. And I’ve been, like I said, talking to my therapist about how excited I am because I’ve missed that. So much of my work is working with individuals who I have close relationships with. And the work, I love the work. And sometimes I need, but sometimes I need home for a little bit to remind me of where I come from to then be like, okay, this is helping me to continue to move forward. These are my roots, and my roots keep, allow me to continue growing and reaching that high-up vision towards the sun that we’re aiming for.
VALLAS: Ah, I’m getting chills while you’re sharing that beautiful visual of rootedness. And I promise [laughing] I’ve not been talking to your therapist!
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: [laughs]
VALLAS: But I love you describing the connecting with your roots and connecting with family as themselves spiritual experiences. I mean, we could have a whole conversation about how the word “spirituality” itself gets so misunderstood sometimes, right? Because it gets equated with organized religion, which for so many of us, including you, as you were describing, can have a complicated history. And yet, there are so many ways to find that center, right, that remembrance that we’re all connected, that we can do on our own terms and in ways that reconnect us to this work. So, I deeply resonate with everything that you just described so beautifully.
Along those lines, I wanna take us back to resilience, because when you were speaking before, when you were introducing yourself and talking a little bit about the road that you’ve walked in this work, you used the word “resilience” several times and in describing your lineage: you’re the product of resilient Mexican women. I’m so curious if you would talk a little bit more about resilience and what that means to you and maybe how that connects to that rootedness you were describing and that centering that you do. And I think that’s gonna take us into a different chunk of this conversation as well about self-care. Resilience, what does that mean to you?
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: “Resilience” are such a complicated word. I use that to describe the women in my family because they truly are resilient. And resilience to me means…survival in, I think, the most difficult of terms. I mean, survival, it means like finding solutions. It means— I think we can be resilient as individuals, but resilience also points to leadership. And I think that finding paths forward and moving forward, working through obstacles with others, that’s how I think of resilience, especially when it comes to at least my family, speaking for them. And so, I think obviously that’s a challenging word, as I said, because I wish we didn’t have to be resilient. I wish it was easier. [laughs] I think the women in my family have put up with so much coming to this country, navigating discrimination and racism in California when they first arrived, continuing to navigate systems that harm them both accessing healthcare, as my mom has a really difficult time accessing healthcare, as she lives with many physical disabilities and continues to navigate the health system. As people who are impacted by the criminal justice system. Being resilient is, I think, an effect of these systems that are broken that we’re trying so hard to change. And it’s hard to change them if we don’t have support and strength that comes from the people around us. And so, I describe my family as resilient, recognizing those difficulties and the contradict-, you know, the difficulties of the word and the contradiction there, because I don’t think I could do this work if not for the sacrifices of the resilient women before me.
VALLAS: That’s beautiful. And ah, there’s so many reasons that I wish we had an extra hour for this conversation because of the direction that we’ve headed and how I would really love to dig more into this. But even though we only have just a little bit more time, I do want to stay with this theme for a moment and take this into a portion of the conversation that I’ve committed to making sure is part of every conversation I have on Off-Kilter moving forward. We did a whole series on self-care as political warfare earlier this year. I loved it! I learned so frickin’ much from every single guest that we had on, not just about Audre Lorde and the origins of that concept, but really about how leaders across this movement show up for themselves so that they can continue to show up in this work. I’m curious, using that jumping off point of resilience, if you would talk a little bit about how self-care shows up for you. You’ve obviously mentioned the importance of family and of centering by reconnecting with family. But I’m curious if there’s anything else you wanna share about how you show up for yourself so that you can stay in this work for those 50 years to get to that headline moment that we know is gonna come. So, curious what you wanna share along those lines.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Yeah. So important. Related to the family thing, but I just I build deep connections with people. And I, in terms of a larger community, keep a large community or circle of people that remind me of the different aspects of me that I want to hold onto. So, I have, for example, a friend who just moved to New York City. I’m so grateful. She was a college friend of mine, and we were math majors together. That side of me that was very, you know, loved numbers, and we learned together. We navigated that space as two women in our, two of the only women in our math program at the college. She now lives here. We go on runs together. She reminds me of a person, a phase of myself that is far back, many years back. I’m not connected to that side of me, that sort of numbers-based person anymore who was in college. But she brings that out of me, and it’s so fun to have her near. So, friends like that, people who bring out different characteristics of myself that I don’t always have with me, especially in the work, I love to just give to my friendships and my relationships, even that aren’t family.
I love dancing. I know it says that in my bio, I’m a dancer. It’s true. Somebody asked me the other day, “What’s a moment where you feel so happy?” Movement. I started with traditional Mexican dancing with the big skirts, ballet folklorico. But I did ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, competitive Latin. I’ve taught Latin classes. I did take hip hop once. It was not great. But I was learning movement. And movement, to me, is really important. It makes me feel good. And so, finding spaces where I can dance, whether they’re formal classes or going out to dance salsa, I live in New York. It’s great. I can find spaces to do that.
I love music too. So, going out to dance reguetón on weekends. Reguetón, you can dance. There’s bass. A lot of the artists are around my age, and they’re from all over Latin America. And they are discovering newfound fame, I guess, in the U.S., so they’re playing them at more bars and stuff. And keeping that side of me, you know, there’s so much pressure in the policy space to be a certain version of professionalism. But being, but going out and dancing reguetón and speaking Spanish and Spanglish and wearing cute fits that, I don’t know, make me feel good about myself are a part of who I am and also contribute to the work that I do because I am a whole person that is a reguetónera, that is a salsa dancer, and all these things make me good at my job to an extent! And so, I invest in those sides of me, too.
I go out dancing. I go to concerts. I do these things. And that is self-care. Trying to work through the societal expectations of a Latina woman and trying to fight those stereotypes in the policy space are an ongoing battle that I will always face, and I will continue to run into issues, I think, to push them. But that is who I am, and I try and continue to invest in those as self-care. I read. I read a lot. I have a lot of candles. And so, yeah, that’s me. [laughs]
VALLAS: I love all parts of that. And you totally took that into a place I was gonna take it without me even having to ask the question because I had a suspicion that your being a dancer and how movement shows up for you is connected to and actually informs how you engage in this work. So, I love that you actually wove that together without me even taking you there.
We’re gonna start to run out of time, so I only have time for just a few last questions with you. And so, I wanted to do just a quick lightning round for a couple of those, and then we’ll get to close out by hearing a little bit of where your work is headed in the weeks and months to come. So, two quick questions that I’m curious, but I also really love asking folks who are involved in social justice work. Question number one, what are your superpowers? And I ask that question because I do truly believe that every single person I have on this podcast is some kind of superhero in this space.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Mmhmm.
VALLAS: So, what are your, what do you consider to be your superpowers? And that might include resilience, which we were talking about before, but anything else you want to name?
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Building space, building community. I care a lot about making sure everybody feels comfortable, and that’s from teaching to work environments, I think really served me well. So, if we can consider that a superpower, I think I would call that a superpower for me.
VALLAS: That is 100 percent a superpower! And it, I would say, is pretty nicely tracking with the Newcomer Network that you described. So, sounds right. And then question number two, what’s your walk-up song?
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Whoo! I’m gonna give you two because I just, I have moods. [laughs] The salsera in me, the dancer, any song by Marc Anthony. But particular in my head right now, I’m thinking of Vivir Mi Vida. That song plays, and it just feels like I get tingles in my body. I’m like, oooh! I just wanna move. I’m so excited. So, Vivir Mi Vida, or Mamiii, which is a song by Karol G and Becky G, both reguetóneras. One is Mexican, the other one is Colombian. I’m obsessed with both of them because they’re both pushing against stereotypes that only men can do reguetón, and they talk about their experiences, etc. in the lyrics. It’s very empowering, and I just love the song. I love them, and so that would be my other one.
VALLAS: I love both of those answers, and I just wanna give full disclosure. One of our fabulous producers, Kings Floyd, had the amazing idea, and so has had stepped up and volunteered to take the songs that each Off-Kilter guest answers with what is their walk-up song and actually put it into a playlist. So, by naming those two songs, it’s gonna end up in the playlist, and folks are gonna get to benefit from both of those, both of those jams. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that.
So, Alejandra, in our last few minutes, I’m gonna ask one last question, and then I’m gonna give you the chance to plug whatever’s coming up for you. And so, my last question to you really, I think, connects to many of the different themes we’ve been pulling on threads from throughout this conversation. But it’s inspired by a mentor of mine who said to me recently—and so, I’ve brought this into Off-Kilter in a few different contexts—that mentor said to me some words that really stuck with me in a way that I continue to think about deeply, almost, I would say probably every day doing this work. And those words were that, “living in this time in human history is either an affliction or an assignment,” and this obviously connects to that larger purpose and resilience conversation we were having before. But I’m curious, what advice do you have for advocates in this work who are looking to accept the assignment, and potentially given that as much as you may feel like you’re a newer leader in this work, you’re starting to already, before you know it, become something of an elder with all of the experience that you’ve been developing. So, I’m curious if you have advice for maybe newer advocates who are just starting out and trying to figure out where is their place in this work.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: That’s such an important question. I think the first thing is think deeply about what you care about. How are you an advocate if you’re not, if you don’t know what your mission is, what your headliner is, right? What are you here for? What is your connection to that issue? You’re not helping if you’re being a savior, right, if you think of yourself in that way. What is your connection to the work? How are you connected to the communities impacted? How are you continuing to seek to learn more about the different perspectives? ‘Cause even again, if we come with lived experience, we don’t, our experience does not define that experience of everybody. How are you connecting with others to learn about their experiences? And that should be a constant as an advocate on your path. So, thinking about deeply what is at your core, what are the issues you care about? How are you connecting with others who care about those issues and working with them to move forward? I think thinking about those things.
And I think the last, the second or last thing I wanna say is the traditional path doesn’t work for everybody. I was saying earlier about the mission statement, having that will help you kind of figure out your path. And the path doesn’t have to look like, “Okay, I wanna be an advocate. Therefore, I’m gonna go to college, get this degree, go to law school, work in this space,” etc. It could look like a number of different things, and it doesn’t require any specific degrees. In fact, I think the closer you are to your communities, the better that the work is. And so, whatever path takes you closer to that headliner, think about all the different ways that you could reach it and be okay with it looking really different. I wanna celebrate people who are following their own intuition. And we’re trying to break down those barriers and make sure that those paths look different, that we celebrate those different paths. So, I encourage you to think about that.
VALLAS: You’re making my heart sing with that answer. And we’re gonna run out of time, so Alejandra, in 30 seconds, is there anything you wanna plug about what’s coming next in your work or anything you wanna send folks to if they’re interested in learning more?
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Next steps: Figuring out exactly my next title. We’re working on that at this moment. But I was accepted to the Obama Foundation’s USA Leaders program, so I am a part of the inaugural cohort of Obama leaders in the U.S.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: A hundred folks across the country leading their communities.
VALLAS: Congratulations!!! Yay!
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Thank you! There I will be continuing to connect with leaders who are values based, do values-based work, and centering their communities, working specifically on National Newcomer Network, and getting the support of the Obama Foundation, of the Obamas and policy leaders across the country. I’m really excited for that opportunity. And if you’re interested in the National Newcomer Network, check us out on The Next100.org. There’s information there about how to join. We welcome everybody who’s committed to newcomer success. And those are my two plugs. Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor.
VALLAS: And we’ll have links in show notes for folks who wanna connect. Alejandra Vázquez Baur, policy entrepreneur with The Next100, and more to come on her professional front. Alejandra, thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time for this conversation. I know I really, really, really enjoyed it.
VÁZQUEZ BAUR: Thanks, Rebecca. Appreciate it. [theme music returns]
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.