Meet Jorge Elorza, the new CEO of DFER
He spoke with AL Día about his new role and how Democrats and Republicans differ on education.
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The Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) Board of Directors announced this month Jorge Elorza — former Providence, Rhode Island, mayor — as the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the political advocacy organization.
“It’s my public service taking a different shift,” Elorza said. “I see it as a continuation of the work that I’ve been doing for a long time.”
During the two terms that Elorza served as the Democratic mayor of Rhode Island’s largest city, he took actions to shift social and racial issues, and improve the city’s underperforming school system. He created the city’s Eat, Play, Learn Initiative to expand out-of-school enrichment, and launched the African American Ambassador Group to bring Black leaders into the center of policymaking. Elorza’s efforts also made possible an investment of $400 million into repairing school buildings, and supporting the expansion of public charter schools.
Elorza just finished eight years in the role as mayor, and is now officially committed to changing the narratives about education that have been in the media lately. While GOP worries about culture wars, Elorza highlights the work DFER is presenting real solutions for the challenges students and families face.
ROOTS AND CAREER
Elorza’s parents immigrated from Guatemala in the mid 1970s looking for opportunities. Because of its many textile and jewelry factories, Providence was a hot spot for immigrants at the time — and where the Elorzas settled down. For the first almost 13 years of Elorza’s life, his parents were undocumented and worked in the factories.
They qualified for citizenship during the Reagan’s administration amnesty, becoming citizens in the mid 1980s — which changed their lives forever. Elorza remembers how the new status allowed them to get new and better jobs, with minimum wage and healthcare benefits.
Even though Elorza was never a model kid, as he described himself, his parents always emphasized education. In high school, he found out he was graduating a week prior to the ceremony; and while his friends were celebrating their acceptances into college, he had been rejected from every single one he had applied to. Confused about what to do, but dreaming about achieving greater things, he decided to enroll in the Community College of Rhode Island.
After a year, he got accepted to a Talent Development (TD) program at the University of Rhode Island (URI), an opportunity that shifted his relationship with education forever as he went from barely graduating high school to graduating first in his class at URI.
Elorza moved to New York City after earning his degree to work for a well paid and successful job. However, as plans never go as we expect, one of Elorza’s best friends from his old neighborhood in Providence was murdered in 1999.
“I remember that really hitting me,” he said. “That night I decided that I would quit my job in New York and go back to Providence; I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew I wanted to serve my community somehow.”
New — and unbelievable for high school Elorza — doors were open, as he earned a law degree from Harvard University. Back to Providence, he served in a variety of positions, from attorney to professor and housing court judge until becoming the mayor, in 2015. Although wanting nothing to do with politics, Elorza understood the positive impact he could have in the community.
“I loved every second of it,” he added. “I feel very proud of everything we were able to do.”
Although Elorza believes there are efforts being made to improve education, he thinks that children aren’t being served well by the traditional public schools systems. He personally grew up with people who had the potential to do better, but the lack of opportunity prevented them from doing so.
“Now I see their kids being misserved or underserved by the exact same schools,” Elorza added.
Part of his job’s challenge is to figure out how to bring a sense of urgency to the work that’s being done. He appreciates seeing education play a more prominent role in the media lately, but gets frustrated by the headlines it’s being known for. Culture wars and distracting kinds of issues that Republicans have been exploiting were some of the concerns Elorza highlighted.
“In the world that we live in right now where there are so many distractions and so many issues that capture people’s attention,” he said. “It is a major challenge to make sure that we keep them always focused on what’s best for the children and schools.”
To ensure that education remains at the top of the agenda, DFER focuses on evidence-based practices that are going to improve students’ lives — and Elorza likes to make a clear difference between their approach and the Republican one.
“In this age, with Republicans fighting their cultural wars, they are talking about banning books; when the conversation should be about teaching kids to read books.”