By Maria Luisa Torres
Special to the San Fernando Valley Sun
Long-time San Fernando resident Juanita Garcia is the legal adoptive parent of three grandsons, all of whom have varying levels of developmental disabilities. Prior to the pandemic, her youngest grandson, now 17, became the target of bullying in middle school, and the cruel treatment he encountered while there, followed him to high school.
“It was so horrible, and the experience still affects him today – he still has to attend virtual school because he can’t even walk outside the front door without having an anxiety attack,” said Garcia sadly. “I reported the bullying, and they never did anything – never. It’s so hurtful that the district and the administrators do absolutely nothing.”
Many parents with questions or problems related to their children’s education can find it difficult to receive help – especially for immigrant parents facing the added obstacles of language barriers or living in underserved communities.
Parents like Garcia, too often, have felt ignored or simply “invisible” to teachers and school administrators. Even when the problems they have are about treatment or safety at school, they can hit walls.
Fortunately, Garcia over the last year has found support, solidarity, and solutions by participating in a small and relatively new but effective San Fernando Valley and A-based group.
New Voices Are Being Heard
Our Voice-Nuestra Voz: Communities for Quality Education is a bilingual advocacy group for parents, community, and education leaders. The core group is primarily Spanish-speaking parents who want to be active participants in their children’s education.
It’s a free platform that allows parents to talk and exchange information. The strength of the group is the dialogue that often brings recommendations to cut through the long waits and bureaucracy that may be imposed at their home schools. The group primarily focuses on local public schools from pre-K to grade 12, but also has a companion page on Instagram that provides information for current and future college students.
The next time Garcia faced another obstacle dealing with her grandson’s school, Nuestra Voz – Our Voice made all the difference. When her grandson was supposed to transition from his on-site school to an online program, weeks and weeks passed without a call back from the district, which was supposed to provide a start date and all necessary instructions. Unfortunately, Garcia found her limited English made it more difficult for her to get answers.
Evelyn Aleman, the founder of Nuestra Voz called the district on Garcia’s behalf and connected her with the right people. Shortly afterward Garcia’s grandson was signed up for the online classes and received the support that he needed.
Aleman is a strong advocate who believes that schools should be accountable and receptive to parents’ concerns whether they speak English, Spanish or any other language.
“I am amazed by Nuestra Voz – by how well the group is managed, and by the participation of the parents,” said Garcia. “In this group, we are encouraged to talk about everything we really feel and experience… It’s a program where everybody participates with their opinions, with their advice; it’s a place where we can talk freely without fear.”
Aleman, a Reseda resident, launched Nuestra Voz – Our Voiceduring the early stages of the pandemic when she found herself literally struggling to breathe due to COVID-19, while simultaneously trying to help her younger daughter navigate the challenges posed by the distance learning protocols required when students were mandated to stay home.
“Even though I’m very resourceful and I know a lot of people, I just couldn’t get the support that my child needed,” she said.
That experience made her wonder and worry about how other parents with greater challenges were faring. “That’s the reason I launched Our Voice,” she said.
Even though the restraints of the pandemic have been lifted, members of the group communicate primarily online to facilitate participation from parents from the San Fernando Valley and all areas of LA County. This is helpful, especially for busy working parents and those with limited mobility or lack of transportation.
Our Voice presents an hour-long Zoom meeting every Friday at 4 p.m. featuring different guest speakers each week. Presentations are streamed publicly via Facebook Live and address important timely topics, such as bullying, gang prevention and intervention, multilingual education, and the growing fentanyl crisis plaguing many LA schools. Participants share their personal experiences and are encouraged to ask questions.
Presentation topics often extend beyond school – such as having law enforcement officials discuss community policing – or may not directly impact students themselves, such as providing community resources for older adults. Because many students reside in multigenerational homes or are being raised by grandparents or older guardians, sharing resources to support all family members can strengthen entire households, said Aleman.
Bridging Language Gap
Following each FB Live meeting, regular Our Voice group members remain connected for a second hour for private conversation and brainstorming among its most active and lively participants, to delve deeper into the day’s topic or address specific member concerns. Both the public and private meetings are conducted entirely in Spanish.
To help further bridge the language gap, bilingual group members sometimes provide direct support – as Aleman did when she contacted the school district for Garcia – and they also help write letters in English on behalf of parents when they feel that their concerns or questions are not being addressed at the school site or district level.
“We also write letters on behalf of the entire group when we feel we need to collectively advocate for a specific policy, such as when schools wanted to open in spring 2021, but COVID rates were still too high and the Latino community was concerned,” said Aleman.
Parents are also encouraged to film their own one-minute advocacy videos in Spanish on their cell phones, which they upload to the group’s social media platforms. Then bilingual group members and student fellows translate the scripts into English, which they add to the bottom of each video, and tag the superintendent and board members.
According to Aleman, every issue that parents face can ultimately help fellow group members.
“Once Our Voice hears of a parent’s issue, we encourage them to return to the group to share the outcome so that other parents can learn from the experience,” she said. “Our Voice has created a space for these parents to amplify their challenges, their experiences, and their voices so that other people who may not be as familiar with their lived experiences can get an idea of what their struggles are, and why we need to help them.”
Heidy Galicia, a single mother of four children from Huntington Park, describes the group as instrumental in bringing together parents “to learn from each other and support one another.” To date, Our Voice has approximately 20 regular members, but the group’s Facebook page currently has more than 1,000 followers.
As an advocate for special needs students, Galicia – whose eldest son Mauricio is autistic – routinely shares her own “experiences and strategies about how to help our children with their education and fight for their rights.” With the support of Our Voice, Mauricio is being mentored by group fellows and is Our Voice’s first high school volunteer.
“Nuestra Voz gives us the resources to be able to continue fighting against both academic and social adversities,” said Galicia.
Roots of Advocacy
Aleman has raised her family in the San Fernando Valley although she was born in Hollywood and raised west of Downtown LA by immigrant parents from El Salvador. She grew up attending Catholic schools, but she had neighbors and family members who went to public schools and she noticed the difference in their education.
“I didn’t go to public schools, but I believe in public school education – I believe in the power of it,” she said, recalling that she knew from a young age that she would someday send her own children to public schools – which is precisely what she did.
Aleman has two young adult daughters, one who recently graduated from college, and one who started college last month. They both attended LAUSD schools in the valley and were very successfully enrolled in magnet programs where they thrived.
Having the experience of what it took to have her own daughters enrolled in the best that public education could offer to them near their valley home combined with her strong belief in community involvement was more motivation for the inception of Our Voice.
“I have always leaned towards service,” she said. Embracing that concept, as a young woman she had hoped to become a teacher and attended Cal State University LA, where she majored in English. She began working as a teacher’s assistant for the Los Angeles Unified School District during a time of major calamities – the AIDS epidemic, widespread drug usage, and gang violence, and the LA riots to name a few.
Although Aleman initially loved working with children as a T.A., bearing witness to the pervasive lack of equity in the quality of education was deeply disheartening, she said.
“Some teachers did amazing work and I thought they were great human beings, and some teachers really struggled and … that was problematic,” she recalled. When the LA teachers’ strike happened, for Aleman that wound up being the determining factor in her choice to leave the profession, in particular the “heartbreak” she experienced seeing the negative ramifications for a teacher who crossed the picket line – “for the children” she explained to Aleman – and was ultimately shunned by colleagues for her choice.
“That sacrifice she made was so impactful that it always stayed with me,” she recalled. Aleman decided to switch her career path to public relations and public policy, but “always focusing on quality-of-life issues – things that are going to improve the well-being of my community every step of the way, and I’m very passionate about that.”
For Aleman, Our Voice will always have very special personal significance.
“I see my parents in these parents … I see them in this work – it’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ to them, to their memory, because of all the sacrifices they made for me. … this is why I do this work,” said Aleman. “I also do it because of the children, because I think of those little second graders who struggled when I was a teacher’s assistant. I just want to see more families succeed, because if more families succeed, we all succeed.”
For more information about Our Voice-Nuestra Voz: Communities for Quality Education, go to: