Laura Casas is President of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Board of Trustees and has been a member of the board since 2005. Initially appointed and then subsequently re-elected in 2007 and 2012. Casas holds a law degree from Santa Clara University, and B.A. in Political Science from California State University, Northridge.
Casas, who immigrated with her family from Mexico at the age of one, has served on the boards of Children Now, a national children’s advocacy organization and ALearn, a Silicon Valley organization dedicated to college readiness of underrepresented students. For the past decade, she has been an official mentor to students under The Puente Project; an academic preparation program focused on college success. In addition, she co-founded a transitional home for domestic violence victims in Los Angeles.
Who was your political mentor – someone who guided and supported you – someone who prepared you for public service. What kind of advice did they give you that was the most important/useful to you?
Many people supported me throughout my academic career. While I was in Middle School, my government teacher, Mr. Chernow said: “If you witness injustice and are silent, you become part of the problem.” I have never forgotten these words and have worked, to not be silent. The turning point to finally prepare and make the decision to go to college was my History professor, Mr. Howard Lapin, he asked me after class, “Laura have you ever thought of college?” He then told me to go to the Counseling Office and request a change of my curriculum for more advanced college preparatory classes. Once in the Counseling Office, my counselor remarked, “Laura, why make life hard on yourself? Why don’t you just take it easy?” The counselor did not want to change my classes. In other words, he did not care if I were to prepare for college or not. I went back to Mr. Lapin, my history professor, and informed him what was said. Mr. Lapin was visibly furious, and I followed him back to the counseling office. The door slammed, and they both started to yell at each other. Mr. Lapin succeeded in getting me enrolled in college preparatory classes. This single act changed my whole life. It was at this point that I saw that if you fight for what is right, you can obtain it!
Once in CSUN, my political mentor were professors in the Chicano Studies Department, which included Dr. Rudy Acuna, who wrote: “Occupied America.” Professors can change student lives. Members of the department enriched my political awakening.
Law School was a huge challenge. I moved far away from home with no transportation. My mother gave me her old clunky car. The few Chicanos and Chicanas got together with African Americans and formed study groups which helped us get through the rigorous law school material. Real bond and friendships developed which I still cherish today. Having an education has given me a voice at the table, that my voice counts and the confidence to communicate effectively.
What was the one thing no one told you about being an elected official that you wish you’d known before you were elected?
You are going to laugh at this one because my first election I decided not to use yard signs. I decided not to use them because I thought no one pays attention and they are a waste of paper. Well, the problem with that was people would say to me “Laura, I would love to donate to your campaign, but I do not have any money. But, I will take a yard sign.” The lesson is, always have yard signs in a campaign for elected office.
Once elected, no one told me that there would be a transformation of how people perceive you and the office you hold. You are an elected official. There is an aura of respect, and your words and actions matter a great deal.
Describe a project you spearheaded or supported that you’re proud of. Why was it successful and what did you learn from it that helped you be a better policymaker?
I was the lone board member against a major development in Silicon Valley. A partnership was formed among Foothill-De Anza Community College District, NASA and the University of California Santa Cruz. This partnership would build housing, an education and business center on Moffett Field, a former naval base. In the Silicon Valley, we have severe shortages of housing. That the site was over a toxic plume of water which leaked dangerous gases to the surface. These gases including trichloroethylene, when inhaled are proven to cause cancer and severe development problems especially among children and pregnant women. The proposed housing had some protections such as protective barriers between the ground surface and construction. What if there was a failure of these protection barriers? There were no remedies in place to protect the homeowner or occupants in case there was a confirmed leak. Who would buy the housing? It would have been uninformed working class Latinos, Whites, and African Americans. The site would take years to build. I was fighting for the children not yet born. I was completely against the development of housing on this site.
The partnership never developed the site. The developer agreed to build only if the Federal government secured matching funds. It will never be known if my raising a raucous had anything to do with not obtaining matching funds. The partnership dissolved. I am proud of my voice that gave voice to others not yet born.
As an elected official you must balance your job, your duties as an elected official and family obligations, not to mention trying to find personal time for yourself. How do you balance all these duties and obligations?
Keeping an intentional balance between work and family is key. My favorite phrase that I say to my children and students is “anything to an extreme is bad.” I do think that women can work and have a career and be good mothers. I feel It’s the quality of time with your kids, not the quantity of time.
Interviewed by Sergio Garcia Escobar, Political Science Major, California State University, Long Beach