In May of 2017, Andrea Valderrama won a seat on the school board for David Douglas School District in Portland, Oregon. Andrea, who was previously appointed to the position to fill a vacant seat in 2016, decided to run in hopes of leaving the district in better shape for her two-year old daughter. When she is not actively participating in her role on the school board, Andrea serves as a policy adviser to Portland Mayor, Ted Wheeler. Check out our interview below for her advice, tips, and strategies about navigating endorsements, fundraising, and managing commitments.
Arielle Simoncelli: What inspired you to run for office?
Andrea Valderrama: Currently, over 50% of students are students of color and over 76 languages spoken and I was surprised that there had never been a person of color to serve on the school board. It was important to me to have someone advocating for people like my daughter and someone advocating for the majority of the students. This isn’t to say that the current board members weren’t doing that, but the lived experience is really key to me. We moved to the district about 5 years ago and once I heard that the appointment was going to be open, I jumped at the opportunity to serve. When I decided to run, there had been a surge of community advocacy and civic engagement and I wanted to continue to do all of the great work I was able to do in my first year on the board.
Arielle Simoncelli: What is your role on the board?
Andrea Valderrama: As a member, we have a few main responsibilities and several sub-priorities. Our main job is to hire and oversee the Superintendent, which was the first item on our first agenda. Another key part of the work we do is approving and overseeing the budget; making sure funds are appropriately allocated and that we are engaging the community in the right way. We are also involved in union negotiations and bargaining for our teachers and other employees as well. And a big role, and sometimes a more fun one, is the policy piece - reviewing, amending, and introducing new policies to ensure the district is really aligned with our mission, vision, and values.
Arielle Simoncelli: What were your greatest obstacles during your run for school board?
Andrea Valderrama: One obstacle for me was really myself. I grew up in a Peruvian household in the California Bay Area with very loud and vivacious personalities and have always thought this was very similar to me, but [during the campaign] I started to recognize how much of an introvert I really am. I was hesitant during a lot in interviews, at the door canvassing, and on fundraising calls. The feedback I received helped me realize that it is important to know that my voice does matter and it’s great to share the ideas that I have. It’s helpful to know your own response and how you handle different settings. I had to overcome the anxiety that I had internalized, along with many generations of people, that “I’m not good enough, you’re not going to be able to do this, why are you here?” talk.
Fundraising was definitely difficult – not only asking for money but planning the time to make the calls. While I set out to make a number of calls in an hour and fundraise $5,000 dollars, it may have been the case that I wasn’t actually able to have those conversations, so I quickly developed a strategy to schedule the calls in advance as much as possible to ensure that I was able to get the one-on-one time with the individual.
Arielle Simoncelli: What strategies did you use to overcome both of those obstacles?
Andrea Valderrama: For the first one, it was more self-reflection, so whatever strategies folks use for getting in the zone and really knowing that it’s ok to run for office and important to do so, and that it’s possible. It seems superficial, but it did take me a while to come to terms with the fact that the time away from my family, impact on my job, and the long hours away from my daughter, were all worth it.
In terms of fundraising, scheduling the calls ahead of time was useful and not being so strict about how much money I raised per day. I gave myself a weekly goal, which helped me reach my goal and allowed some give in case I wasn’t able to make all of the calls during my lunch and helped me not beat myself up about it. It’s time-consuming but the organization is to your benefit.
Arielle Simoncelli: What, if anything, came as a surprise to you during your campaign?
It was surprising how many folks didn’t know what the school board does. It was interesting how much we had to do on the front end to educate people about how critical this role is, what the school board is and isn’t responsible for, and why I wanted to be in this position.
It was also surprising to learn which endorsement interviews were formal and which were not. I had to be flexible and ready to have a conversation in an endorsement interview that is in line with how that committee or panel functions. It was a curveball at times. Sometimes I would prepare remarks, but they wanted me to talk more about something else.
Arielle Simoncelli: How did you handle the endorsement process?
Andrea Valderrama: This was a bit of a hurdle for me a first. You have to reach out to some and some reach out to you. I found out that, at least in Portland, Oregon, there are organizations that take that contact information from the county and send out endorsement questionnaires or hold interviews. So, you have the option to decide if you want to do all of them or be strategic about which endorsements you want to seek. There are certainly some who don’t do that. It depends on who you want to pursue.
The difficulty for me was figuring out who to pursue. This is where Emerge Oregon came into the picture for me. I also looked through other voter pamphlet statements and pulled out the lists of endorsers, and practically followed up with them myself to figure out if they were endorsing in the election cycle or not.
My position is a non-partisan local school board race, but there are some bigger labor unions who may not be willing to endorse in certain races and it’s important to know if they are going through an endorsement process or not. It took a lot of research on the front end, but once I got my list of the key endorsers I was interested in, I was able to move through that process.
Arielle Simoncelli: Now that you’re in the position, how would you describe the environment?
Andrea Valderrama: Serving on the board as the first and only person of color in a district where over 50% of the students are of color has been an incredible experience and an extremely difficult one. It’s been wonderful to be able to pass the policies that I have put forward thus far...but some were met with extreme push back. I think it makes sense that as the only person of color, there’s only one target, especially if I’m championing the legislation. That was a hard environment to navigate and I quickly realized that even though I’m on the board, I’m ultimately only one vote.
While it’s been fantastic to get here, there is this reality that I could have very easily not been able to get anything done. The struggle for me was building relationships with my colleagues. A lot of them were on opposite sides of me in a lot of votes. I realized that I would be serving with them for several years and it was important to build trust and shared priorities in serving the students. During this past election, we were able to get some new school board members, so I’m looking forward to how that will change the dynamic moving forward.
Arielle Simoncelli: What advice do you have for someone considering a run for office?
It’s important to consider the obvious impacts on family and work in order to balance previous commitments with this new and time-consuming commitment. That being said, a lot of people say they don’t know how I do it, and I personally don’t feel like my life is balanced. I may do laundry sometimes, work out a flexible schedule at work, and bring my daughter when I can, so I’m barely balancing and I think that may be true with more folks than we think. It’s important to know that it’s going to be a little hectic and that’s ok. If it doesn’t all line up exactly, that’s ok; it doesn’t mean it’s not the right time.
The other key piece I thought through before I decided to run was whether or not I could actually fundraise the right amount of money. Initially, I asked for pledges to see if people would donate a certain amount if I ran. If I didn’t meet the pledge amount during the initial call-through, it was probably a good indication that I should consider how I would be able to fundraise in other ways. For the most part, folks were pretty excited.
I do encourage others who haven’t thought about engaging civically to think about running and serving...I could use as much reinforcement as possible.