How a Denver Politician Is Using Her Experience as a Latinx Woman to Battle Educational Inequity

Angela Cobián
Angela Cobián

At 10 years old, Angela Cobián wanted nothing more than to be a princess. But as the daughter of Mexican immigrants living in Colorado, Cobián's parents had bigger plans for her. The treasurer of the Denver Board of Education and a member of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) — a nonprofit organization that develops civic leaders dedicated to ending the injustice of educational inequity — Cobián is well-versed in the issues that affect the Latinx community. Honored to serve in her home state, she's determined to inspire the next generation and make political offices more representative of their constituents.

"When I was 11, my dad got me really interested in politics. And that's when I shifted my mindset around," Cobián told POPSUGAR. "I realized: 'Oh, I don't want to actually be a princess. I want to be an elected leader,' but I didn't know how to become one because I'm the daughter of Mexican immigrants. I learned English as a second language, and my parents didn't have institutional knowledge regarding how our political or education systems work."

"Students in public schools — especially title one public schools — are historically disenfranchised."

Cobián knows first-hand how important it is to empower children of color, especially if they attend a Title I public school, which tends to have higher concentrations of low-income students. "Students in public schools — especially Title I public schools — are historically disenfranchised," she said. "They need elected leaders who look like them and have experienced school in a way that current students do. It makes officials who come from that background uniquely qualified and impactful at representing their community."

Determined to make a substantial impact on educational inequity early in her career, Cobián turned to LEE to get the training she needed to succeed. "I was in the Latino political leadership program two years after I graduated from college," she shared. "The program gave me an elected campaign boot camp so that I knew how to file for office and run a campaign. Now that I've been elected, LEE has people on staff who do policy research requests to make me more effective in my role. We need an organization like LEE because students — especially Latino, Black, Asian, and indigenous students — need elected representatives who have also personally experienced educational inequity."

Get a look at some of the issues in education Cobián believes are particularly pertinent to Latinx children and the BIPOC community as a whole.

Diversity in School Curriculum

Empowering students of color begins with accurately representing them in the school curriculum. "When you are an elected leader who looks like and has experienced public education in the same way that our students of color have, you know how important it is to have a culturally relevant curriculum that tells you about your own unique histories and stories," explained Cobián.

Cobián reflected upon the time she asked her history teacher what happened to Mexican students during the period of segregation in the American South. Disappointingly, the teacher in question had absolutely no idea.

"It's our job to listen to students who are telling us that our curriculum does not reflect [students of color] or their experiences."

"No history teacher I've ever had was able to answer my question," explained Cobián, who pointed to a lesser-known Supreme Court case that dates back to 1947. "It wasn't until I did my own research that I learned about the Mendez vs. Westminster case, which is the judicial case that gives the NAACP the ability to establish judicial precedent and end the legal segregation of Black and white students in Brown vs. Board of Education."

"Everybody knows about Brown vs. Board of Education," she said. "But nobody talks about the segregation of Mexican students in California and how Sylvia Mendez's family helped integrate Mexican students into white schools."

Her frustrations with how history is taught in the US have made Cobián particularly perceptive to the current lack of representation in school curriculum. When a group of high school students in Northeast Denver banded together to change what was being taught in classrooms, she listened. "The students self-organized to demand that our academics department do an audit of our curriculum and make sure that it was culturally inclusive," she explained. "For elected leaders across the country, it's our job to listen to students who are telling us that our curriculum does not reflect [students of color] or their experiences."

Defunding the Police

Given the political landscape in the US, the conversations about removing police presence are hard to ignore. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, schools with police reported 3.5 more arrests than schools without law enforcement on site. As a result, students of color and children with disabilities are frequently sent into the criminal system. On June 11, the Denver Board of Education unanimously voted to break off its contract with the Denver Police Department by the end of the 2021 school year.

"My role as an elected leader is to think about the future of Latinx students," Cobián said. "How can we support our Latinx and Black students instead of calling the police? The police should be viewed as having to go to the emergency room, right? If we really want to be thoughtful about how we support students, we need to think about preventative measures."

After speaking with Latinx parents in her community, it became clear that schools needed more services beyond the police force. "Defunding the police alone isn't going to solve our problems," she explained. "We actually have to invest in our students at the school by ensuring that students have access to mental health counselors so that they're able to make healthy choices. We need state legislators to work with schools so that not all of that responsibility falls on the public school system alone."

Giving Students Internet Access

If the pandemic has made one thing clear, it's that at-home learning requires a reliable internet connection. For many families, being able to afford high-speed internet along with the rest of their bills is impossible.

"COVID-19 has shown us that the internet is not a luxury," she said. "It needs to be a right. It needs to be something that everyone has access to. And if you have three or four students who are in a household who are supposed to be doing remote learning, and you're on the most basic, affordable internet package, you don't have the bandwidth to be able to do your schoolwork."

"COVID-19 has shown us that the internet is not a luxury."

The fact that internet companies often require a social security number to sign up also presented a huge problem for some of Cobián's constituents, who may not have had them. After some discussion with Comcast amid the pandemic, having a social security number is no longer a requirement in Denver. However, Cobián's work on the matter is far from over.

"There's a coalition of LEE members who are working with community organizations as part of a digital equity coalition," she said. "We want to have a national campaign to demand [that] the internet companies increase the internet speed and make it accessible to our students across the country."

Ensuring Latinx Students Stay in College

Given the devastating financial hardships millions of Americans are facing because of COVID-19, many young adults are considering dropping out of college so they can work to help their families. Others aren't enrolling in the first place to avoid student loan debt and costly tuition fees. As the first person to go to college in her family, Cobián knows the importance of getting a higher education.

"In the last 100 days of this pandemic, I've realized that all of the progress that we have made in college access and college persistence is actually being turned on its head in devolution, and is in a regression," said Cobián. "I have had parents call me and beg me to talk to their son to convince him not to give up on his dream of going to college. I've also had to talk to 18-year-olds and try to convince them to stay in school. Access to higher education is a key lever for social, political, and economic power in the United States."

"All of the progress that we have made in college access and college persistence is actually being turned on its head in devolution."

Cobián is currently doing research and connecting with various resources to ensure her constituents finish college. "I've been working with a policy organization to get some research going to identify how many Latino students are not showing up to campus in the fall as a result of the pandemic," she explained. "My goal is to identify what policy solutions are available to us at the district and state level. I also want to work with our university partners to ensure we develop a strategy that supports our longterm goals — not just college enrollment — but also college persistence and completion."

Why Latinx Students Should Feel Empowered

Having achieved her dream of becoming an elected official, Cobián is determined to help others follow her lead in the name of fair representation. "As a Mexican woman, I have seen other people who are not Latino make decisions about my future, and by extension, making decisions about my community," explained Cobián. "And that is a huge problem because the largest group of people of color in the United States are Latinos."

Pointing to states like Texas and California, where there are large populations of Latinx citizens, Cobián is encouraging students to make their voices heard.

"Just because we have power in numbers doesn't mean that we actually have political power or the ability to act to shape the way that we live with one another in our democratic system," she said. "There's a saying, 'If you don't have a seat at the table, then you're on the menu.' But Shirley Chisholm — the first Black woman to run for president — put it more accurately: 'If you don't have a seat at the table, then bring your own chair.'"