At a young age, Kelly Garcia learned from her mother to be politically active
By the time School Committee Chair Kelly Garcia was elected to the Committee six years ago, she had already attended hundreds of hours of school-related meetings going back to when she was as young as 6.
That’s because her mother, Socorro Vega, was constantly fighting for educational rights in Chelsea while Boston University had control over the schools. They attended meeting after meeting – Garcia’s small hand in tow as her mother entered the library, a school or City Hall.
And it has shaped her sense of duty to the community, now ready to lead the School Committee a second year in what will go down as the hardest years in a generation to administer public education.
“Our vote counts and our city counts and our population is reflected in our elected officials, and representation truly does matter,” she said. “I was questioning whether I would run again and my mom pushed me to run again. I wasn’t so sure but my mom reminded me of how hard she fought for education. She was a parent organizer many years ago. She organized hundreds of parents to go to School Committee meetings and fight for quality education and in those days meetings weren’t translated and parents weren’t even allowed to be in the building. Now, I’m 27 and the School Committee chair, and my mom attends these meetings. She says it is the fruits of her labors. This position is a long-term commitment for myself and my family.”
Garcia, who was married to a Chelsea Police officer late last year, was one of five children in a family where activism and community service is more an expectation than a choice (her aunt is Gladys Vega of La Colaborativa and her cousin is City Councilor Melinda Vega Maldonado). She attended the Shurtleff School, the Hooks School, Clark Avenue Middle School and then Excel Academy Charter High School. After that, she attended Holy Cross University and got her Master’s in Education from Boston University. She is a teacher as her profession and is now in her third term on the School Committee. Her father, Roberto Garcia, was an auto mechanic when she was growing up, but her mother was a activist.
Garcia said her mother’s activism back in the day has certainly inspired her as a teacher and a Committee member. In fact, it was instilled in her, she said, and she really did listen to a lot of the things said at the meetings when she was young.
“She worked two jobs, was a single mom and attended meetings at night with me,” said Garcia, who described her mom as a “firecracker” at meetings. “She brought me to meetings and fought hard and all along she was teaching me. Now, I am in a position to do the things she fought for and I have been inspired to continue her work to make sure students of Chelsea are treated with dignity and respect – advocating for a better education and guidance counselors.”
Garcia said her mother moved to Chelsea at a young age from Puerto Rico to attain a better life. She believed in education, but Garcia said those at Chelsea High School didn’t believe in her mother. In fact, they discouraged her from succeeding.
“When she was at Chelsea High her guidance counselor told her that she wasn’t going to go anywhere in life and it would be a surprise if she could graduate high school,” said Garcia. “That is the fire that fuels me now day in and day out, and it fueled her fire too. My mother did graduate high school, but didn’t go to college. She always felt if she had a different guidance counselor, or if people around her believed in her, things could have been different for her.”
And if she couldn’t get there herself, then Vega was going to fight to make sure her children did.
And that is how it played out in real life.
Garcia was the first in her family to go to college and graduate college, she said, and it was a culture shock going from Washington Avenue in Chelsea to the campus of Holy Cross.
“It definitely was a culture shock,” she said. “I was from a diverse community and we were used to living daily with the neighbors blasting Salsa music next door all day. I didn’t know that didn’t happen everywhere. However, to see my mom and dad’s dedication, it made me feel I deserved to be there and was capable.”
On the School Committee and in her classroom, that experience of coming from Chelsea and succeeding in a foreign academic world is something she wants to bring to her students and those that attend CPS. In fact, that could be the most important thing she does as a member of the Committee.
“I want all my students and all the students in this district to know anything is possible,” she said. “Just because you don’t look like the rest of the people in the classroom doesn’t mean you don’t belong in that classroom.”
Beyond that message, there is plenty of business to tackle in the coming year, including how to improve remote schooling, how to keep students/families safe and how to eventually return to in-person schooling.
“Right now our priority goal is student safety,” she said. “Unfortunately, our cases in Chelsea are still a bit high and we have not decided whether or not to return to school. We’re keeping an eye on our rates. At the beginning of the pandemic, (Supt.) Almi and I decided not to open school. In other districts, it’s this continuous back and forth or ‘Let’s Open,’ and then ‘Let’s Close.’ Our students deserve stability. Online isn’t perfect, but it gives stability.”
Some of her other focuses for the School Committee this year will be advocating for the Student Opportunity Act funding (which is coming potentially for the first time this year), being vigilant about COVID-19 and what lies ahead, pushing the diversity/equity/inclusion agenda, and recruiting more paraprofessionals into the teacher pathway program.