Arielle Simoncelli

One woman's fight for her children and community on the school board

Arielle Simoncelli
One woman's fight for her children and community on the school board
Photo courtesy of Ana del Rocío

Photo courtesy of Ana del Rocío

Inspired to take action after the November 2016 Presidential election, Ana del Rocío ran and won her first campaign for public office and is now a member of the David Douglas School Board in Oregon. Ana brings a wealth of knowledge and perspectives to the table, including a background as a teacher, advocate, community-organizer and social justice leader. Below, Ana talks about the joys and challenges of running for office as a single mom, the reality of losing the additional support from the campaign once in office, and more. I hope you enjoy her reflections and consider sharing her story with someone else.

Arielle Simoncelli: What prior experience did you have that led you to feel ready to run for school board?  

Ana del Rocío: I'm a graduate of Emerge Oregon, which was definitely a great source of that hard-skills training. Also in my full-time job I work for the highest-ranking locally-elected Latina in Multnomah County, Jessica Vega Pederson. I also have experience in public education, as a community organizer for education, and as a co-founder of a worker-owned cooperative of translators and interpreters for social justice organizations In that role, I was able to get access to a lot of different spaces with multilingual and very diverse constituencies.

Arielle Simoncelli: What, if any, were your greatest obstacles during your campaign for school board?

Ana del Rocío: I expected to have a lot more trouble with the fundraising and financing portion of the campaign, but I actually had more trouble with, honestly, the emotional and mental load of running a campaign while being a single parent with a full-time job. I'm also on a couple of boards. It's very common, I think, to ask for practical support, to ask for financial support from people. It's not as common going through an experience like this knowing you have to gather backup for emotional and mental health support.

It's so important to have people lined up to have the basic heart to heart conversation with you, re-inspire you, reconnect you with who you are and why you're doing this, and give you that sort of juice for the journey. I had a really hard time with that because I was doing so many things at once. You need to have somebody who knows you and can provide that emotional, soothing role. That's really key.

Photo courtesy of Ana del Rocío

Photo courtesy of Ana del Rocío

Arielle Simoncelli: I am hearing and sharing more and more stories about mothers, especially single mothers, running for office. How did you keep your children engaged in the process?

Ana del Rocío: During the campaign, I obviously had to count on tons of outside support from friends and family to be able to watch my sons while I campaigned, canvassed, and fundraised. My 5-year-old was very aware that mommy was doing something really important. He was able to attend some of the spaces and see me behind podiums and see my photo on my mailers and in the voter's pamphlet. So he understood that there was something, a profound shift happening. That’s what he needed to see after the November election.

I’m also a former educator and I made an informal unit with him on what an election is. There are tons of books out there. There's one called Grace for President that he just loves about this little girl running for Class President. He was able to understand  the importance of having people that look like us leading our own communities - even at that young age, which was really astounding.

Arielle Simoncelli: Thank you for sharing. I bet some other moms thinking of running can use some of your tips and tricks. Was there anything that came as a surprise to you during your campaign?

Ana del Rocío: Oregon is a predominantly White state with an extensive history of being a stern White utopia with exclusionary policies against people of color. Portland, currently in 2017, is known as one of the most progressive cities, a beacon of progress.

I got a ton of support from my Emerge network but beyond that, I found myself alone when it came to dealing with issues of race-based discrimination on the campaign trail. Getting empathy and support from my communities of color was helpful, but there was a lot of silence and a lot of complacency on the part of traditional mainstream White political networks that didn't understand the importance of calling out those types of micro and macro aggressions on the campaign trail.

I presume it’s because they never had the experience themselves. There was just a lack of experience to be able to support very specific needs of a candidate of color in the Whitest city in the US.

Arielle Simoncelli: What fundraising strategies did you use and which ones would you recommend others using?

Ana del Rocío: My fundraising strategy was really about bringing money into my community. You look at, what's called the Obama fundraising strategy which is getting a little bit of money from a lot of people. I did a different version of that and I just got large amounts of money from a small number of donors.

The district that I represent is one of the more economically burdened communities in terms of financial hardship. I didn't want to tax resources that didn't exist. But I did expect their support, asking - can you phone volunteer, can you come canvas with me? When it came to the fundraising and financing aspect of the campaign, that's when I was very intentional about creating coalitions to include people who could afford to financially support my campaign. I wasn't going to call people that I knew were having trouble making money that month.

I think a lot of candidates have very large networks but don't know how to parse out which of those individuals are capable of contributing, but I wasn’t going to burden our community, I was going to go and find the resources that existed in abundance.

Photo courtesy of Ana del Rocío

Photo courtesy of Ana del Rocío

Arielle Simoncelli: How did you navigate the endorsement process?

Ana del Rocío: I moved very quickly, very early on the endorsement side which ended up being critical in my race. I was able to identify early on who my biggest supporters needed to be and I was very bold, honestly.

One of the most helpful endorsements that I earned was that of Governor Barbara Roberts. Her endorsement polled the highest of all endorsements on mid elections in Oregon. But I didn't know Barbara Roberts and I didn't know anyone who knew her. I ran into her at an event she was speaking at - I made a beeline to her after her speech and said, "This is who I am, I know that you intend to serve this community, can I have your contact information?" I reached out to her and I laid out my argument and said, "Okay I need your endorsement." And she said, "Yes."

To have a former Governor who's highly respected and highly well-known endorse a school board candidate was really meaningful and really persuasive to a lot of voters.

Arielle Simoncelli: That's incredible. Congrats! Now that you are in the position, how would you describe the environment that you're in?

Ana del Rocío: The environment is very new. I've only had one board meeting so far because there were a couple of months between the election and when I was sworn in. But it is not for the faint of heart, I will say that.

I had been exposed to the world of public education and education policies before, so I had very fair expectations of the level of conflict and the level of passion that drives people in these spaces. But at the same time, because I’m a mother and because I'm at a phase in my professional career where I've amassed a certain level of expertise, attention to detail, and a very critical eye, I'm able to confidently step into these spaces and call out what and who needs to be called out.

I'm also not from Oregon which helps a little bit. There’s a culture in Oregon of being extremely diplomatic and nice, which is awesome, but it also has the challenge of getting in the way of people directly facing conflicts as they arise, and allowing frustrations to build up over time and erupt.

I come in and I can balance that. I respect the niceness and niceties in the culture here, but I also just want to be very frank about calling out things that I see as injustice, things I see that need to be strengthened or improved, and vulnerabilities of our policies. I’m very confident in my own ability to lead.

Arielle Simoncelli: Thank you for sharing that. Are you facing any challenges at the moment?

Ana del Rocío: Yes. My biggest issue right now is capacity. I have a full time job and I'm a working mother. Traditionally, the school boards are volunteer positions. They don't come with staff. A lot of the people on the board are retired and have the time to connect freely. It's a challenge for me. As staff of another elected official, I know how much capacity I'm adding to their work by the work that I do.

For me to not have that support in the work that I do is a challenge. I wish there were a volunteer or intern, or something. I'll probably look into that. But it's just really challenging to have all these commitments and not have administrative or logistical support. It's actually because I did get used to having the campaign support on the campaign trail. Then, all of a sudden, not having anyone in my actual public service role has been difficult.

Photo courtesy of Ana del Rocío

Photo courtesy of Ana del Rocío

Arielle Simoncelli: Thank you, I appreciate that perspective. How do you think you will work through this?

Ana del Rocío: We're lucky in Oregon to have what's called the Oregon Women's Campaign School. They train women that are interested in getting involved in the campaigns either as candidates or as campaign staff. I'm going to ask them for a list of resumes but, again, it's difficult because it's an unpaid position for me, so I don't necessarily have a budget to pay for someone. Which means I'd probably have to hire someone who is new, just getting into the work, and will need to learn.

That would be adding capacity and/or requiring capacity from me, in terms of training them, but I think it's worth it. I would love to have more people involved in my work on the school board so they can see what it's like and consider even running themselves. I want to be able to build up leaders in the future and demystify what it is to be an elected official. Part of that looks like involving people in the work as volunteers or maybe interns for college credit, I don't know. But I would love to pursue that.

Arielle Simoncelli: Amen, I think that's awesome. I would love to follow-up with you once you get this off the ground. I’ve love to see how that movement is going. Before we close, what advice would you like to share with others?

Ana del Rocío: Elected officials are just regular human beings. There's no need to automatically believe that you're disqualified, not good enough, not experienced enough, not old enough, or not rich enough. That doesn't make any sense. Having worked with elected officials, I know that they are actual people with deep flaws as well. The only thing you need to be able to do is know where your flaws exist and be able to reach out and get support, whether it's staff or volunteers, to complement your strengths. There is no reason why you should think that you are not qualified. There's nothing divine about being elected. We're just regular people and I want to make sure that other people can see themselves in this role too.


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