Raul Marquez grew up in Northeast Salem, where he attended some of the Salem-Keizer district’s most diverse schools. He was surrounded by other people of color — until he left his neighborhood.
“By the time I began to get involved in the larger Salem community, it was eye-opening to see that these other spaces — especially decision-making spaces — don’t reflect what I was so accustomed to,” Marquez said.
He felt like he didn’t belong, didn’t deserve to be in majority white spaces or even speak to the majority white Salem-Keizer school board.
Now Marquez is ending his first year as a full-time student at Salem’s Willamette University.
At the same time, he’s running to be the first Latino member of the Salem-Keizer school board.
“We haven’t had that voice, that representation that we deserve,” Marquez said.
The Salem-Keizer school district has 42,237 students. More than 40% are Hispanic/Latino. Yet that population has never been represented on the school board.
Marquez isn’t the only Latino candidate running for a school board seat.
Parent and electrician David Salinas is running in a different zone.
“I thought about it a lot before I ran,” Salinas said. “I always think, ‘Is this something I should even be doing? Am I qualified? Is this something I have a chance at?’ There’s a lot of cultural things that keep us from engaging as much as we should.”
Both candidates talk about the district using an equity lens in their work when it comes to programs and resources available to students.
“I feel like my life experience can help with some of the equity and the decisions that they make,” Salinas said.
Marquez draws on his fairly recent experience in Salem-Keizer classrooms.
“I experienced firsthand what it feels like to be in classrooms that are over capacity and under-resourced,” Marquez said.
Effects Of At-Large Elections
Marquez is running against incumbent Marty Heyen. Salinas is facing psychiatrist Satya Chandragiri.
All candidates must campaign around the whole district because Salem-Keizer, like other Oregon districts, is an at-large system.
It means certain communities may never hear from a school board candidate.
“Historically, they have been left out of the process,” Marquez said. “Because of the at-large system, people don’t care to knock on these doors because the reality is they don’t need to invest the time in these parts of town.”
That at-large system can also be an expensive barrier to a successful campaign.
Salinas and Marquez have received door-knocking help from PCUN, the Oregon farmworkers union. Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, said the group wants to get the Latino community in Salem engaged.
“What we’re trying to do is not take anything away from anyone but really bring in a community that for many, many years has been ignored in Salem,” Lopez said.
Lopez and the candidates have heard from community members excited for a chance to see themselves reflected on the school board.
But the truth is that people of color running for elected office don’t always receive that support.
Why More Candidates Of Color Don’t Run
Ana del Rocio ran for and won a seat on the David Douglas School Board in Portland in 2017. But after a year, the demands of the volunteer position combined with the needs of her family and job became too much. She stepped down.
Now, del Rocio is executive director of Color PAC, an organization that helps support and connect candidates of color statewide to local groups.
She said running for elected office as a person of color is difficult.
“I think the barriers have been so concrete and so seemingly insurmountable for so long,” del Rocio said. “Until we had organized programs and organized structures like Color PAC and our partner organizations to recruit and support and train, it really did seem like something that was not possible.”
Del Rocio said people of color don’t run for positions like school board because these time-consuming volunteer positions seem better suited for disconnected, wealthy, usually white politicians.
She wants Color PAC to change that.
“We’re breaking the mold and redefining what a public servant is and looks like,” del Rocio said. “Breaking down the stereotype of the elected official as someone that is separate from us.”
She’s already seeing the impact of the work. She cites policy from previous Color PAC- endorsed candidates focused on education and environmental justice. She mentions a Portland Parks and Recreation board member who made child care accessible at public meetings.
A Lonely Seat At The Table
But even if a person of color is elected, being the only one on a board can be daunting, overwhelming and lonely.
Julie Esparza Brown is the only person of color on the Portland Public Schools board. She decided not to run for reelection this year.
And while two black women are running in a PPS race this time around, the board will remain overwhelmingly white in a district that’s more than 40% students of color.
Esparza Brown spoke about her experience on OPB’s “Think Out Loud.”
“I feel pretty confident that there will be at least one person of color on the board, but it is hard being that sole voice of color,” Esparza Brown said. “I am bothered by that.”
This year, several candidates in races across Oregon are running to be the “only one” on their school board.
But the number of candidates of color running is growing. Color PAC endorsed 24 candidates in Tuesday’s election, nearly three times as many candidates they endorsed two years ago.
Del Rocio said candidates also have support within their cohort of peers involved with Color PAC.
“We have this culture that we’re building,” del Rocio said. “Instead of being those lobsters that pull each other down, we’re opening doors and saying, ‘Come with us and be part of this movement that we’re building together,’ because there’s no way that a few people can do it alone.”