You Deserve a Space, So Take It, Says Gema Quetzal Cardenas, Student Representative of the California State Board of Education

Gema Quetzal Cardenas
Gema Quetzal Cardenas

Last year, Gema Quetzal Cardenas, a high school senior at the Life Academy in East Oakland, California, successfully campaigned to serve as a student representative on the California State Board of Education, this after serving for a year on the local school board. In just a few more weeks, she’ll be graduating and preparing for her studies in political science at Stanford University.

She sat down with this week in Stockton to talk about these experiences during the UnidosUS education conference “Policy to Practice: Serving California’s English Learners.”

Q: Tell us how you got interested in working on education policy at such a young age. 

‘I’m not seeing any change in my community, and I can’t wait for someone else to do that.’

A: I was an English language learner, and growing up in Oakland, I saw a huge population of underserved students—students who are low income, students of color, students with disabilities, migrants—so what I thought was, ‘I’m not seeing any change in my community, and I can’t wait for someone else to do that.’ This is happening throughout California, and the nation, so I decided that I needed to become the change I wanted to see. And then, while I was serving at the local schoolboard, I decided, ‘You know what? I need to run (for state school board).’ The next thing you know, I was going to interviews, speeches, and students were asking me questions.

Q: What did it feel like to win?

A: I didn’t really expect to get it, so it was a really huge surprise when I got the call. They were like “Is this Gema?” And I was like, “Yeah, this is Gema,” and they told me, “We would like to congratulate you. You are appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to become the next student board member on the California State Board of Education.”

At that moment I was shocked because there was one point in elementary school and middle school that I didn’t really see myself being a leader. I didn’t see myself going to college. I knew I needed to get an education, and I needed to go a step forward because my parents didn’t get the same opportunities I had.

When I got that call, it was a huge, eye-opening moment because I was like, “Wow, my family really came up.” It’s just one of those things where it’s like, “Wow, I’m telling my parents that the struggle you had was worth it because although we went through those struggles, I’m doing something that’s going to impact not our family and myself, but the whole community. I really saw it as one of those things where it’s just like ‘I’m an East Oakland girl, I’m a Latina, I’m first generation, and I thought I’d make some change in my community.’”

Q: What’s it like to serve in that role?

A: I’m really happy to be serving more than 6.3 million students. It’s a huge honor, and I want to make sure every student out there—students of color, women, students from places like Oakland know that, ‘Hey you can do it too. It don’t matter where you come from. It’s about your ganas (desire), it’s about your passion, and how you’re gonna use your voice not only for yourself but for the community around you.’

Gema Quetzal Cardenas
Gema Quetzal Cardenas

‘Hey you can do it too. It don’t matter where you come from. It’s about your ganas

Q: What’s up next in your life?

A: Up next is graduation. I’m graduating May 30, and I’m very excited because in late March I was told that I got accepted to Stanford University. That was a huge deal for me because it’s here in the Bay Area, I’ve lived here my whole life, and I get a call from one of the most prestigious universities not only in the country but in the world. I’m really excited because I’m going with a full ride. I don’t have to worry about money. I’m going to be able to study whatever I want, and I get to stay in the Bay Area to continue my community organizing.

Q: What do you think you’ll study?

A: I want to study political science. I would like to become a civil rights lawyer, working in places like the ACLU and working with the local school board. Something I’ve seen is that people don’t know that their rights are being violated, so I feel that an important part of being a civil rights lawyer is not only defending the community but telling the community their rights.

Some of the work I’ve done in high school was immigrant rights. One of the biggest things was the elections of 2016. It was like, ‘You know what? This is going to happen. We need to be ready no matter what happens.’ It was all about telling students and their families about resources. I want to become a civil rights lawyer to educate my community so that we can build our own tools to fight oppression. I want to do things such as immigrant rights, the criminalization of black and brown folks, the death penalty, and education—making sure that all students have an equitable education.

Q: Why do you think education is such a huge part of civil rights?  

A: I think education is a huge part of civil rights because we have so many underserved student groups–English learners, students with disabilities, foster youth—all these different student needs that are unaddressed. The Constitution says that people are supposed to be served equally no matter who you are, so I believe that people deserve that.

I don’t feel the United States is actually valuing education to the level it should be. Tons of students don’t know that they’re supposed to be getting certain resources and that they don’t have them. I see that in my own community, and I want to make sure that I do that work because I feel that when a lot of people think of civil rights, they think about the ACLU, they think about the Supreme Court, but there’s local work to be done. Brown v. Board of Education has not been fully fulfilled, and I want to make sure I do that work to make sure that there’s equitable education for all students out there.

Q: What advice do you have for other students who want to take a lead in their community or have a greater voice in it?

‘We’re scared to take space, but don’t be afraid to take space. You deserve that space.’

A: Some advice that I have is don’t let people tell you no. Make sure adults know who you are. Sometimes you just gotta take space, especially students of color—young women of color. We’re scared to take space, but don’t be afraid to take space. You deserve that space. We’ve been silenced enough, so take it. Don’t wait for someone to give it to you. You just take it at this point, and make sure that you don’t just do things for yourself and your community, that you’re learning to help other communities.

– has made minor edits to this interview for clarity.