I Know the Importance of Latino Leadership for California’s Public Schools

Tony Thurmond, Latino Edge   ·   Link to Article

As we continue to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, and to recognize the contributions of Latinos in America and in California, I take a moment to harken back to the sacrifices my ancestors made that helped me to get to where I am today.

My experience is one of blended cultures and traditions. My mother’s parents were born in Colombia and Jamaica and raised their seven children in Panama. My grandparents on my father’s side were the descendants of African slaves who were brought to America and settled in Mississippi and Detroit, Michigan.

My maternal grandparents struggled to make a living cleaning people’s homes. My grandmother and each of her children, including my mother, emigrated to the United States in hopes of finding better opportunities in America. In San Jose, California, my mother became a teacher. My father was a soldier, stationed at the army base at Fort Ord in Monterey where I was born.

No one in my family was ever elected to any office or even ran for an office, so I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity serve as an elected official for almost 12 years as a city councilman, a school board member, and in the California State Assembly. My passion for education is what led me to pursue the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the top education official in the state of California. If elected I would be the first ever Latino and the first ever Afro-Latino elected to this office. At a time when our student body is more than 50% Latino, it would be an honor to work to provide a great quality education for Latino students and all of our students in California.

As a first-generation American, standing on the shoulders of my ancestors who made such great sacrifices for me, it is my hope to be able to pay it forward by continuing to serve and provide other immigrants, Latinos, and all Californians with education and resources they need to live a great life.

I was six years old when my mother lost her battle to cancer. My father did not return to our family after his service in Vietnam – when I met him for the first time as a 39 year old, he told me that the physical and mental scars of war made it difficult for him to reconnect to his family. So with no parents to care for us, my three siblings and I got split up, with my brother and I moving to Philadelphia to be raised by a cousin, another Panamanian immigrant, who we had never met. I would go many years without seeing my other two siblings. 

In Philadelphia, we struggled. We were on every form of public assistance you can imagine. I was a student on the free lunch program. My family used food stamps – I often joke I ate so much government cheese that I thought USDA was a brand name. But these programs helped us to overcome poverty.

Education was extremely important to my cousin, who adopted me as her son. While she worked to get her degree taking night classes at community college, she also made sure my brother and I got a great education. In public school, I found teachers who believed in me and would stay after school to help me eventually get to college. There I would be elected student body president.

After college, I went to graduate school and became a social worker so that I could help the children and families who were like me and my family. I spent 20 years serving at-risk young people, including 12 years working directly in schools where I ran afterschool programs, mentoring programs to support first-generation college students, and provided mental health services in schools. I have taught students at the high school, college, and graduate school levels, including high school students in the juvenile justice system. 

As a state legislator, I’ve made it my focus to use my experiences in social work and education to create laws that help low-income families and students of color in California. I’ve achieved results for all of California’s students, but I am immensely proud of my efforts to increase funding for bilingual education and dual language instruction, support ethnic studies, expand programs for naturalization services, ensure children receive state health insurance regardless of immigration status, and help create a sanctuary state.

As a son raised by immigrants, I will always stand up against ICE raids and make it clear that we should embrace the diversity of our California families. I’ve stood up to President Trump and condemned his plans to separate our immigrant families and to push families into prisons. I oppose private prisons which are profiting off the breaking up and jailing of families. I introduced a bill to tax private prison companies and put the funding from that tax into early education and afterschool programs.

I’ve been given the distinct honor as a state legislator to be the first and only person to serve in the California Legislative Latino Caucus and the California Legislative Black Caucus. This has uniquely positioned me as a leader in the fight for the needs of black and brown people, who can build bridges between communities to ensure that all of our students receive the funding and quality education they need to help close the achievement gap. From reforms I’ve led to move money from incarceration to education, to my work to promote teaching tolerance and combating racism in the classroom, I’m proud to fight for issues that impact black and brown students. 

Together with immigrants, communities of color, and my heroes who have endorsed me – including civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher – I’ll fight for a public education system that provides every student, no matter their heritage, with opportunities in the 21st century economy, if I have the honor of being elected California’s first Latino State Superintendent of Public Instruction.


Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond) is a candidate for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction in the November 6, 2018 election. Learn more about Tony at www.tonythurmond.com and get in touch at tony@tonythurmond.com