This is one of a series of stories in Voices of Monterey Bay’s Youth Civic Engagement Project, a look at how high school students are staying involved in civic organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. More on the series here.
By Ilyne Junuén Castellanos and Michael Ndubisi
Anthony Rocha was still a fresh-faced student at Hartnell College in Salinas when he was elected to the Salinas Union High School District board. Less than two years later, he threw his hat into the ring as a candidate for the Salinas City Council, a position he won in November 2020.
As part of Voices of Monterey Bay’s Youth Civic Engagement project, reporters Ilyne Castellanos and Michael Ndubisi spent an hour on Zoom with Rocha to talk about his trail-blazing route along the politics of Salinas. Castellanos is a student at Hartnell College, while Ndubisi is a senior at North Salinas High School.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ndubisi: We’re curious to know how it is that you balance your student life at UC Santa Cruz and the demands of being a city councilperson?
Rocha: Luckily for me, I have held previous elected office. When I was on the school board for the Salinas Union High School District, I also went to Hartnell College and worked during that time as well, so balancing my various responsibilities is something that’s not new for me. It’s not an easy thing to do, and any young person that wants to go into elected office should be very mindful of that.
Being a student alone has its stresses and has its responsibilities. Many times, you find it to be fulfilling to be in school and in elected office at the same time, depending on what your major is.
For me, my major at Hartnell College was sociology, now, legal studies (at UCSC). So as I’m reading about systemic racism, about how communities of color have been treated historically while being on a school board, I knew voting in favor of ethnic studies was a no-brainer because I didn’t have that understanding when I was in high school. Supporting and moving forward with the ban on pesticides when I was on the school board was something that I felt really strongly about because of what I have learned in school.
On the school board, I was able to put into practice what I was learning in school. On the city council, obviously, there are a lot more responsibilities. I live by my calendar. You have to be very mindful of the things you take on. And you have to learn how to say no sometimes. But my advice to anyone who needs to balance is to limit the things you serve on to the things you’re really passionate about. If you just serve a whole bunch of boards, but you’re half there half the time, then you’re not really doing a service to your constituents.
Ndubisi: You mentioned that you had gone to Hartnell College for a time, I’d love to know what your experience there was. How was that?
Rocha: I was at Hartnell for three years, and I’ll tell you, oftentimes people have a perception that elected officials are academic, top-notch people, and while that may be true for many, for me, that wasn’t the case.
I graduated high school with a 2.0 GPA, and I went to Hartnell College. I had to take math three times, but I did it and I graduated with a 3.0, Not a 4.0. I loved Hartnell because its focus was really on first-generation college students, which is the vast majority of Salinas. I struggled a little bit more, but the support system at Hartnell is amazing, and their mission is in my opinion focused on meeting the needs of the communities they serve.
Ndubisi: How frequently do you find inspiration on certain issues or positions you take by taking classes?
Rocha: It happens quite a bit with the coursework that I’m taking, but also with my lived experiences. I always tell people that I decided to run for office largely because of the discrimination that my family faced growing up. My mother was a single mother who didn’t have a college education. I witnessed the way she was treated compared to others. When we went to stores or when we had to go to ask for help in school and meet with counselors, I saw the way other parents were treated, how my mother was treated this other way.
Castellanos: Considering rising tuition and rising student debt, what role do you see community colleges playing in Salinas? And what do you want to do to support student success?
Rocha: I think we’re moving in the right direction because in Salinas most of the students are first-generation college students. And the good thing about our community is that we have … a lot of educational institutions (nearby). It’s not like in other areas where the school you have to go to is three hours away. You can go to community college in your own area.
Oftentimes students think that when they’re going to community college, somehow it’s a failure because they should be able to go to a four-year university right away.
It’s okay to struggle. It is okay to not be at the top of your class. I think that being honest about those struggles is important in breaking down that stigma.
When I’m asked to speak to students, in order to break down that stigma, I have to say, “Hey, I was able to be on the City Council, 21 years old, and I’m a community college graduate.” That was my story.
Castellanos: What are your motivations and what made you feel ready to run for office at 19?
Rocha: I was 19 when I ran for the Salinas Union High School District Board. And I would say my motivations were largely the way my mother was treated, the way I was treated and the way people who look like me were treated. I grew up in Salinas at a time when we had the most homicides. I was a high schooler and I can tell you it was a scary time. We didn’t know who was next and we didn’t know when it was gonna happen and people our age were being killed.
And it happened to several students within the Salinas Union High School District. We had Carlos Robles at North Salinas High School. We had Juan Perez at Everett Alvarez High School. And from there, I felt as a student at that time that there were not enough investments in prevention and intervention services. There was not a significant investment, in my opinion on making sure students weren’t going down the wrong path in the first place.
I was really active in advocating for more opportunities for young people and I was part of the Agriculture Academy at Everett Alvarez High School. We advocated for another farm, and we were shut down by the board.
My trustee at the time had no interest in hearing what I had to say. And I tried to talk to her after a board meeting, and she totally blew me off and didn’t want to talk to me. At that moment, I said, “I’m going to run for school board.”
When the election came up, it was in 2018. I had been involved already for about a year or so, serving on boards and commissions. I thought to myself, everyone knows me and they are going to support me, they’re gonna be like, “Anthony, you’re stepping up to the plate, how wonderful!”
Well, I started asking people, “Hey, I’m thinking of running for the school board, what do you think?” It was like, they’re looking at me like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Did you hit your head or something? Like you’re a little bit delusional, Mister 19-year-old Commissioner.”
My mission when I ran for school board was to engage young people in the political process, get young people to come out and vote, and see someone who looks like them on the ballot.
I ran the hardest campaign that I could, knowing what I knew at the time. I knocked on every door in my district that I possibly could. I raised very little money. So my journey was not a traditional one. But it came from the desire to change the narrative as to what a candidate is, and to really engage young people in the political process.
Ndubisi: You had mentioned the prevalence of violence in Salinas when you were in high school. What are your solutions, not only to the issue of violence but to the after-effects of violence, looking back on the history of the city of Salinas?
Rocha: When we talk about what makes the city safer, we have to look at what has made us a safer place. And since 2016, there have been more investments in programs for young people, there have been more investments in prevention and intervention services. So when we talk about the solution, it’s investing in young people. It’s investing in recreational opportunities, prevention opportunities and intervention services.
I served on the board of directors for the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, prior to running for City Council, and prior running for the Salinas Union High School District Board. I worked with the police chief, the city and various nonprofits, and we created this plan to address this.
It’s a multi-pronged approach. So you need to have public safety, but also prevention services and intervention services. If you don’t have one of those adequately funded, you’re not going to have a safe city.
If we want to have a safe community, you have to have investments in housing, infrastructure, you have to deal with food insecurity, and you have to deal with the systemic issues that cause crime to happen. You can’t just turn a blind eye to the fact that people are scared about not being able to pay the rent, people don’t have jobs, people are not able to buy food, because all of those things will lead to crime.
Castellanos: We know how important it is to engage young people and how much influence investing in youth can have. What do you think about engaging students as school board representatives?
Rocha: When you have a school board that is composed of people that the last time they were in the school system was 30 years ago, you’re not serving the people you’re there to serve. And it’s not to say that they’re not caring about students. What I’m saying is, if you don’t have the perspective (of young people), you’re missing a critical component of it.
If you’re going to have a conversation on what food you’re offering in schools, and all the people who are making the decision are not going to be eating that food, then you have a problem. And if you’re making decisions on what parts of the school need to be updated, but you don’t have any young people there who are in the school, that’s also a problem. So I do think that student representatives are something that we should look at.
Castellanos: How can we encourage young people not only to be more involved in politics, but also to become voters and become leaders in their community?
Rocha: Young people’s issues are economic issues; they’re issues that affect everyone in the community. So in terms of what it takes to get young people to get engaged, it’s really letting them know that nothing’s going to change in terms of your situation, unless you make an effort to change that situation, whether it’s being an activist or whether it’s being an elected official.
I think that young people (deserve) a seat at (the table) in every single discussion that we have. Because issues very rarely face just one group. It faces everyone. The problem is, historically, only one group has been vocal in those decisions. And it’s oftentimes wealthy property owners, homeowners (and) people that are either business people or retired that are involved in the decision-making processes. The ones that feel the brunt of whatever’s passed or the unintended consequences are young people and people of color. So I think every issue requires youth involvement whether it’s the budget, housing, infrastructure or community services, all of which touch young people’s lives.
Ndubisi: What is your grand vision for our city of Salinas by the time you finish your term as a city councilperson?
Rocha: I am really focused on making Salinas a city in which everyone can thrive. And that’s very cliché but for me, when I think of what it means to thrive, it’s being able to buy a home, it’s being able to open up a business, or being able to have a family and retire with economic security. That in my opinion falls within this jurisdiction of the City Council: the policies that we approve around housing, the types of developments that we approved, the types of jobs we’re bringing into our community, the types of investments we make into young people. I want to make sure that Salinas is a place people want to stay and not leave when they graduate high school.
The reality is that gentrification is at our doorstep, if not already one foot within the door. We have to be very mindful of that, because we are not San Jose, and we cannot afford to have the housing prices of that area. If we’re not mindful of the types of housing policies we approve, we’re not going to see any sort of economic security or any sort of economic future for us young people.
Ndubisi: I wonder why you decided to run before finishing out your term on the school board, and how it is, as a public official, you reconcile the desire to rise up the ranks as a politician and also commit to serving the communities that have elected you.
Rocha: My decision to run for the Salinas City Council stemmed from my frustrations as a school board member. The reality is that while the Salinas (Union) High School District has its challenges, they did have a $9 million reserve, they had a strong financial situation, and they were giving consistent raises to their employees. What was going to impact Salinas High School District disproportionately was the future developments that were going to happen on Boronda. As a school board member, I had to (decide), do I stay on the school board when it’s moving in the right direction, but going to be impacted by decisions made by the City Council? Or do I take the voices of the school district, the voice of the school board members in the city, and go to the City Council to make sure that we have that strong relationship?
When I made the decision to run (for City Council), it was very intentional. And I wanted to make sure that the school districts had a voice in the City Council.
Whether it was popular or not popular, I was going to step up and advocate for (educators), so many teachers in the Salinas Union High School District that were in the 6th District had my lawn signs. Whether it was custodians, whether it was parents who were engaged in the school system, they were supporting me, because they knew that the Salinas Union High School District and education, in general, was going to have a strong voice in the City Council.
Castellanos: Is there anything you’d just like to add or anything you want to say to all the young people in Salinas?
Rocha: They say that you need someone to ask you to run for office, so to all the young people, I’m asking for you to step up and run for office. Even if you don’t win the first time, it’s okay. Most people don’t win their first elections. But make sure you go out there and you make your voice heard.
I ran in 2018, and I was 19 years old. Many people viewed that as a shattering of the glass ceiling in some ways. Well, when I ran in 2020 there were a lot of (other) young people as well. Certainly, slowly, and surely, we’re changing the narrative of what candidates look like. I was 21, Carla Gonzalez in District 1 is 27, and Orlando (Osornio) in District 4 is 31. That is a drastic change in what candidates look like. And the priorities and the perspectives that are presented are very different. So young people, it’s our time to make our voices heard and make sure that we are not only fighting for young people but fighting for everyone who needs a champion right now.
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