LAUSD parent/human rights activist Justine Gonzalez, who ended her bid to become the first transgender candidate for office in L..A, citing financial and family pressure, has endorsed LAUSD parent and educator Allison Bajracharya for LAUSD Board District 5 seat. “I am proud to endorse Allison Bajracharya for LAUSD board of education. I believe she has a unique and much needed perspective, as a district parent and educator, that positions her as the best candidate to put students and families first and advocate for the quality education we deserve. She understands the urgency of fighting for that education now," said Gonzalez, who served as President of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and an aide to Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Eric Garcetti.
The lightly edited interview below, part of a series of Q&As with candidates running for the LAUSD Board special election in District 5 on March 5, was conducted before she dropped out of the race. To read about other candidates, click here.
Speak UP: Tell us who you are and why you decided to run for school board.
Justine: My name is Justine Gonzalez. I'm an LAUSD graduate and a new parent in LAUSD. [My daughter] just started pre-K at an LAUSD early education center [in Echo Park.] We’re looking at options for next year for kindergarten. I want what's best for my child, and it's a difficult decision. [My neighborhood school’s] performance is not great. One out of every four of the students in that school are meeting or exceeding math and English standards. That's very concerning. I've lived in the neighborhood across from that school for just over five years now. My block has plenty of families who have gone to both [our neighborhood school] and Gabriella charter.
SU: So you’re applying to Gabriella. Anywhere else?
Justine: I am. I’m a little bit behind in that process. It's like I needed to be on waitlists already. It’s disappointing because it's sort of that shared experience that so many parents have. Can’t it just be simple? Can't my child just [go across the street to the neighborhood school.] It's convenient and perfect, and it should be quality. But I have one neighbor. It took her three years in a row to get her daughter into Gabriella entering the lottery, and it's been a life-changing experience for her daughter in terms of education and her daughter's enjoyment of going to school. I think that's important. Listening to family stories.
SU: What’s your experience been like at your neighborhood school so far?
Justine: My co-parent and I had issues even at the pre-K level with our LAUSD school. Things as simple as wanting to make lunch for our daughter and send her to school with our lunch, and they told us no at first. At an orientation meeting with multiple parents, we were told that it was the school's policy that we can't do that. And I knew that was a lie. I was just looking at the teacher, like, "I know that's not the case. Why would you say that?" Sure enough, the next day she gave me the standardized form that allowed us to waive being a part of the lunch program.
SU: Becoming a parent, did that change your view of education in LA?
Justine: It created a different level of urgency. It's not hyperbole or exaggeration to say the majority of my life, I have been a public school student, whether that's K-12, studying at Pasadena City College and Cal State Northridge. I finished high school at Chatsworth High School, in the West San Fernando Valley. I lived in Silver Lake for about a year and a half before moving to Echo Park so I've been in this general hipster area for seven years.
SU: You’re currently a government and community affairs strategist, and you were the president of the Human Relations Commission. What does that mean?
Justine: I was appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and served from late 2016 to last month. I stepped down when I decided to run. It was a nine-person board charged with the advising city council and mayor on improving intergroup relations across the city, particularly with the community groups and LAPD. Holding internal components of the city accountable, really making sure that we're treating people with dignity and respect and opening up the doors for access to groups that face challenges and real barriers to having a foothold in the city.
I was one of the founding members of the Transgender Advisory Council, a new project that the mayor helped launch. I served on that for about a year. It’s a project underneath the Human Relations Commission that’s helping the trans community build political power in City Hall and making sure departments like LAPD, LAFD have policies that welcome trans people. How are we treating people that interface with us on a needs basis? But also, are we attracting employees? Are we a comfortable enough environment to attract trans people?
SU: And this is personal for you?
Justine: It was very much a personal experience for me. I used to serve Mayor Garcetti in the first year of his administration, and that's when I came out as transgender. I started transitioning in City Hall, and I was like, this place is not very welcoming. This is a progressive city. We have progressive leadership, but it's a city workforce of over like 30,000 to 40,000 folks. I do trainings for different government agencies. One of the questions I usually ask is, “who in this room has ever worked on a project here with a transgender person?” And there’s usually no [one]. Maybe you know someone in your family or maybe you've met someone, but to work with them, it's much more rare.
SU: If you were elected, that would be a historic first in Los Angeles, right?
Justine: Yes. And for L.A. city, for the Board of Education. I couldn't find an out trans person who has made it to the ballot, let alone, if I were to make it to the top two in March or win in May. That would be a historic first. There are only about 19 transgender elected officials across the country at this time. We have a few folks on school boards but they're very small [districts, with] student bodies less than 10,000. We have two elected trans officials in California. One is a councilmember in Palm Springs and the other is a judge in Alameda County. And that's it in California.
SU: And we’re a liberal state.
Justine: There's a real distinction there [between] policy [and actual experience] on the ground. It's one thing to say that I have equal rights. It's another to go, does the power system allow access to people who haven't had that those opportunities in the past? So, this is a very transformative experience for me, someone who at a very early age, very fortunately had a lot of experience at LA City Hall and was exposed to these corridors of power. I don't have any sort of a lineage or wealth to bring me into that space.
SU: How did you wind up working with City Hall?
Justine: I was a client at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. I had recently come out, not as trans. I wasn't ready for that yet. I was too afraid, but I was out as bi[sexual]. I was part of youth development programs at that time. And one day, one of the program managers approached me and said, “Hey, the mayor's office is looking for an intern, to help on LGBT outreach and community development,” I was 20. I had raw natural talent in writing and an administrative skill set, but I had no proven record. I didn't finish my degree.
SU: Did you eventually graduate from college?
Justine: I did not. I started that internship. I was very fortunate. This person who treated me with tremendous respect, was like, "You could do this job" and got me a staff position. I was a legislative aide and LGBTQ liaison during the [Antonio] Villaraigosa administration. I was 21, and that first project, coincidentally, was helping work on the first codified policies for LAPD to interact with transgender people. I was not out as trans, but they're like, "You're the closest we have." Eventually the mayor termed out. I was fortunate enough to be brought on by Mayor [Eric] Garcetti's team.
When I came out [as trans] in 2014, [my daughter] Cece was about to be one year old. I decided to leave [the mayor’s office] because it was such a high-pressure job, and I was like, I can't figure this all out and family stuff, too. I took a little bit of time off to spend the time with the baby, figuring out who I am, with family. I'm very fortunate that I could be in that position for four or five months. And re-entering the workforce was a difficult challenge. I'm still young. I have this great experience, but I didn't finish my college degree.
SU: So that held you back?
Justine: I think what held me back was, I needed a safe space. I didn't want to jump back into the fire immediately. I had this time off. I'm feeling better about myself and who I am. So I found an amazing organization, Outfest. That was my first real job outside of politics, my first job back as Justine. I changed my name, formally and legally. I was there for a year, and then I became a staffer at the LGBT Center doing client advocacy and program management work for the transgender and empowerment projects, and the anti-violence project. Working directly with victims of hate violence and discrimination, as well as doing workforce development work with folks who have substantial barriers to accessing housing or [jobs]. Plenty of trans people have college degrees but couldn't get an interview. [I was] helping folks navigate that. The path eventually brought me to Equality California to start to re-emerge in a more political [arena].
Equality California has a PAC to help elect LGBTQ elected officials throughout the state. I worked with them on field organizing, voter engagement work, as well as leadership development work with their Leadership Academy they launched a few years ago. That was incredible. This year, I was ready to do my own thing. [I’m] 29 [now, and] I do trainings for LGBTQ diversity and inclusion, private sector and public sector.
SU: And now you're jumping into the fire as a candidate.
Justine: Actually, I was talking to another candidate about supporting her before the race officially kicked off. Heather Repenning. I used to work directly with her in the mayor's office. It makes it a little awkward, but there's mutual respect.
SU: What made you decide to run instead of backing Heather?
Justine: You know, that [LAUSD] board meeting. I attended on a whim. It was Cece's first day of school, so I was very emotional, and I went after we dropped her off at school. I had all this pent-up energy and was just like, "I need to go see what this Board of Education is like."
SU: You wound up speaking at that meeting against appointing Jackie Goldberg to the seat without giving parents a chance to meet her or weigh in with candidates of their own. Board Members Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna insisted it would have to be Jackie or no one, and parents would just have to go without any representation.
Justine: I was the last person to sign up for that public comment. To be honest, I had a very favorable opinion of Jackie Goldberg. I told my co-parent the day before: "Oh, Jackie Goldberg's on it. She's probably gonna be our representative." But what I heard was very concerning and very troubling to me. There's a lot of division. There were a lot of racial undertones that I didn't appreciate, and the whole meeting, I was just kind of like looking around like, "What is happening? Is this normal?"
My impression was there was this very real minimization and dismissal of voices from parents, particularly from the southeast, that wanted more inclusion in the process. It wasn't an outright rejection [of Jackie.] There was just a request that we open it up a bit more for community comment, for more involvement. And I appreciated Board Member [Nick] Melvoin’s alternative motion. I wish we could have had the support it needed. When I spoke, I said very plainly, I thought it was a ridiculous argument to say that it was either Jackie Goldberg now or no one ever. I think that was preposterous. And to see that level of dysfunction. It's about doing these political favors, rather than what's best for the district. It didn't have to be all or nothing.
SU: So, did that meeting make you want to run? Did that put the idea in your head?
Justine: So I was like, I just spoke against Jackie Goldberg's appointment. Some people are going to be mad about that. I was approached by some folks during the meeting, who were like, "Wow, we should talk." And I was like, "Oh, that's interesting." There were a few different organizations, and I still wasn't thinking about it at this point. I was just like, "This is crazy. This is madness." I literally was texting Heather at that point going, "Are you ready for this? Because it's crazy.” And someone approached me during the meeting and was like, "You should consider doing this,” and I kind of scoffed. I was like, "Good luck in here. Thank you for being here and doing your public service in this room. I'm leaving. I don't know if I'm coming back."
And then on the walk out, there's one interaction that really stuck with me. I was walking up the block with these two Jackie Goldberg supporters, and one of the women says to me, "I'm from Silver Lake. I don't know who you are." And I'm like, “I'm just a parent.” I was very honest. I really just decided to come here on my own to see what was going to happen and participate, if I could. And her response was, "You think you can just look at an agenda and show up to a meeting?" Talk about a flashback to everything that I've just talked about -- about access to government institutions. It's a public meeting and a public space with a democratically elected board. I would hope that it is welcome that parents could just decide to come in and share their opinion. So, that interaction stuck with me.
We had a little spirited back and forth. I care about equity and access. I think that there are a lot of voices not at the table and being disregarded. And she said something like, but this was good elbow grease. That’s so much the argument of folks who try to push people out of politics and what keeps voter suppression in real effect, even in spaces like this in L.A., which should have more involvement. We're so progressive, and we're so inclusive. The last few elections for this seat, not even 11 percent showed up. And I think that speaks, not to some external factor. That speaks to people's faith in the Board and this institution. If people thought it made a difference, and they thought they were going to be listened to, they’d show up.
SU: Was there a sense of entitlement in that comment from Jackie Goldberg’s people that rubbed you the wrong way?
Justine: There's a checkbox of things you do to have your opinion heard and to gain political leverage. The reality is that a vast majority of the constituents in this Board district don't have the capacity to learn that. When folks are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, struggling to keep food on the table, I don't think government's job is to keep those levers of power in play. I think it needs to adapt to allow people to have more power, more access, more easily for parents who are working one or two jobs, for parents who have language barriers. That's the duty of government at every level. It should not just exist for the sake of whoever can work the system well enough.
So, yeah, I think there's a level of entitlement in folks like that. They feel like they've done the right thing and other people not having a voice is their own fault. And it's a fundamental error. [The idea] that other people, when things do not go their way, [it’s because] they're not smart enough [or don’t work hard enough]. I was like, "Are you trying to say that those families don't know what working hard is?" That's how it came across to me.
SU: So you decided to run?
Justine: I decided. I spoke to some people over a few days, and my family was like, "Yes." My co-parent, my mom, they were like, “This is like what you should be doing." Because not only did I graduate LAUSD and not have the support I needed as a first-generation college student, but I'm worried about my daughter's future. I'm worried about all the students’ futures. As I'm talking to parents, we have this shared experience of the district not being responsive, not setting us up for success. I see that from my experience. There's a huge gap there in terms of how we are treating people -- fundamentally in how the district looks at parents and families. That shocked me in the first few weeks of having conversations with people I respect tremendously but who were like, "Oh, but you're not a teacher."
And I'm like, but the Board right now doesn't have a current LAUSD parent. And that is shocking to me. But what is more shocking to me is the people that I respect who don't think it's all that important. I think that is part of the problem. That's part of parents not being engaged. We need them engaged for the district to succeed, for our kids to not only graduate, but be prepared to succeed in the community college system, the Cal State University system. I carried that shame for years of not finishing. Come to find out, the majority of our graduates are in this situation, where we go to school unprepared. So many of us have to take remedial coursework just to get on track. And so many of us don't finish our degrees.
SU: So, you identify with the challenges of a majority of the LAUSD graduates who leave unprepared and want to change that?
Justine: There needs to be a cultural shift. I visited a school in South Gate, Firestone Academy. Beautiful campus. They're innovating in all sorts of ways, in terms of the space and the choices students have to interact and study and learn. People don't succeed unless you give them that autonomy. That's empowerment. And it takes reworking how we look at our constituents. How we look at students. How we look at parents, to say that they have agency enough to help us build the solutions. It's not prescriptive. I think it's ridiculous for anyone to claim, I have these five policies, and it's going to fix LAUSD. It's like, no, we've ignored so many of our constituents for so long that they need to be given buy-in and respect.
You are capable of finding the solutions with us, not just forcing those changes upon the district's constituents. There needs to be a fundamental reworking of how we do engagement and outreach. Bringing those parents, bringing those kids into the process so they can help build solutions. Things like classroom size, those are things that need to happen. But I don't think we're going to get the shift we need, sort of a transformation of a district from this $7.5 billion dollar body that people just think is a machine that's destined to fail. If there's any commonality talking to constituents and stakeholders across the city, there's just this ambivalence. Like, “Well, the district is big. Like, I guess it can't work.” And we need better than that. We can do better than. I think back to my personal experience. Somehow, I slipped through the cracks. There is a fundamental lack of human connection in making sure our students have the support they need and that parents have an avenue of involvement in the process.
SU: How can we give parents a greater voice and more power in the system?
Justine: So, one, elect a board member who actually is a parent. I think there's going to be a lot of nuts and bolts in terms of what changing outreach looks like. How we recruit for parent engagement bodies, even at the preschool level. For instance, at Cece’s school, they mentioned during enrollment that there was a parent advisory board of some sort. Never heard of it again. We have to realize that the desire and capacity is there for parents. They just need those avenues to be made clear and to be pulled along. That might sound like a bit of work, but it's necessary. I don't think we can do any less.
SU: How will you answer the skeptics who say you have no background in education?
Justine: I don't think the system has worked as it is, and teachers aren't missing from the Board right now. We have people who have very intimate knowledge of how LAUSD works, how it is to teach in a classroom, run a school. What's missing is the parents' voice. It's a very closed power structure.
SU: The politics of it are often described as divided along the lines of the main funders of school board races, which have typically been United Teachers Los Angeles and charters. The parents, however, don't fall into these distinct categories.
Justine: Because parents are on both sides. Students are on both sides. Some parents have kids in both systems. Those were some of the first conversations I had. [People would ask:] “Are you UTLA or CCSA?" And I'm just like, I'm a parent. I didn't ask either group for permission. I didn't ask elected officials for permission. I saw the need, saw where my skills can provide a positive impact. And that was my analysis. This is missing. And I think that's what the Board needs right now. Not this bickering.
SU: Do you think it's possible to serve all kids in all kinds of schools?
Justine: Yes. It has to be possible because UTLA is not going anywhere. CCSA is not going anywhere. We have to just accept that we're on the same team. There's going to be policy differences. But we have to do what's best for the kids. And that is a vision of a district that has a thriving UTLA and a thriving charter division. That's critical. Until we mend this, the Board is going to be doing what it’s been doing, which is inaction in pivotal moments like this one with the appointment, where you see a path. There's a pathway where this could've been done better [with] a more open process. But instead there's sort of this line-in-the-sand attitude. We need someone with the courage to just go, enough is enough. I'm not going to speak ill of either of these parties. We just need to move forward. We just need to do what's best for the kids. Kids need to be the No. 1 priority.
SU: That would be a very refreshing change. I don't think most parents want this kind of division. I do, however, think it's fueled primarily by one side of this that says, if you attend this school, then you're stealing resources from this one, as if it were a zero sum game.
Justine: That conversation needs to be led by parents. Because LAUSD serves parents and kids in both. One in five students in LAUSD is served by charters, so a big chunk of our constituents are charter students. So there’s no stealing. We have to recognize we’re a part of the same body. Rhetoric that divides us further needs to stop.
SU: The district right now is going through a huge financial crisis. The teacher's union is on the verge of a strike. What’s the problem, and how do we fix it?
Justine: Dealing with the strike is sort of understanding the rank and file and what it must be like for public servants. Teachers are on the front lines of a profession that is not valued as highly as other public service professions. That's real. That is historic, a national problem, a societal problem. These are the folks who are helping raise our children, teaching our children. I see them with utmost respect as public servants, but I think the district and UTLA have to come [to an agreement]. What is needed is to push Sacramento for more money. Bottom line. We need to do that. This state should be a leader in public education spending. This district should have the resources it needs to serve all its children. We can't sacrifice children's education. We have to push for that change.
SU: Do you think a local strike in LAUSD will prompt the state to do anything? Most of the other strikes around the country were statewide walkouts.
Justine: I don't want to pretend like I know what's going to happen. I don't think any of us knows. But I think there is a way for UTLA and the district to come to terms now and avoid a strike and work together. Work together to push Sacramento. That's the path forward. I don't think we should be resorting to these last-ditch efforts, like, we're going to burn the house down if we don't get what we need. But I do realize there's legitimacy to that feeling for the folks who have been organizing, for folks who have been working in this space for so long.
SU: There are two competing visions of the budget. The district says, “Look, we have this fixed pot of money. If we meet all these demands, we'll go bankrupt and we'll get taken over by the state.” And UTLA is basically saying, “no we don't believe you, you're hiding money. Or you have $1.8 billion in reserves.” Then LAUSD points out that we're spending $500 million more every year than we're taking in. So within three years, which is the required time where they have to show a balanced budget, it's gone. So if we use one-time money for ongoing raises, we run out. Do you accept the district's financial numbers?
Justine: I do. I do believe the county approaching the Board and saying as much is all the proof we need. I don't think the district is in a position to hide money that it could spend to make everybody happier. I don't agree with that analysis. Again, I think the path forward that's best for teachers, for students, for families is us working together. We're on the same team. We [all] want [more funding], and we need it. I think together organizing on that endeavor could be very powerful, and forcing Sacramento to listen to a unified body or Board. Because right now, if the political assessment is, “Hey we’ll cause enough of an uproar that it forces the state to do something,” that's not a position of power.
Right now, the consensus on the ground, I'm sorry, for the average parent, for the average person, is that the district is failing. It has been failing for a long time. You can't fail for that long and go, “well, if you just give us a bit more money.” It has to be a unified plan. There has to be political will, goodwill to move forward. I respect the union and what it wants to do. I respect the district and what it needs to do in terms of satisfying its requirements, being solvent and not being taken over. I care very much about local control. Some people have told me, well maybe it should just be taken over. I don't think that's going to help. It will make us even look even more like a failure.
SU: We have parent members whose kids get stuck with ineffective teachers, and it's one of the top reasons people leave the district. Do you have thoughts on ways we could improve teacher quality?
Justine: I've been talking to parents, and I've heard that concern. That process needs to be reevaluated and changed. Again, we need to start listening to parent voices in that space. I understand the contract is convoluted and hard, but it's not enough for us to say, “Well, too bad.” That's why we're losing student enrollment. We have to have a public process, where parents can introduce proposals. I would love that. I would love for there to be levers of power for parents to bring change.
SU: Recently, LAUSD had a presentation on LGBTQ youth and the large number who have contemplated self-harm, even though LAUSD is considered a leader on this issue.
Justine: Again, there's that disparity between policy and lived reality for constituents. At that board meeting, I remember there was a woman who stood up and said, "Hey, my daughter was bullied. No one ever did anything, and no one followed up on it." I've seen that happen in so many government body spaces. It's like we talk a good talk about inclusion, about responsiveness, but there are too many stories on the ground of families that have been hurt and ignored. I still remember and hope that someone followed up.
SU: She's one of our members, actually.
Justine: OK, thank you for being there. But look at that. You need nonprofits to engage the parents because the district doesn't. Which is embarrassing and silly.
SU: Is there anything else you want to say about what needs to change? Or why people should vote for you?
Justine: It's just been such an honor and privilege to interact with folks in this space. There's so much potential for the district, for us to change the way it works, and to make it a healthy, positive process. Changing this process to have more access for parents is important to me. For me, being working class, too, someone asked me, “Do you have an investment to start with?” I'm like, no. I'm not rich. I don't have thousands of dollars to start my campaign. For me, it's dialing for dollars, fundraising events, doing all of that, and I think that access needs to be there. It needs to be a part of it. It's disheartening, that sort of big money side of it, where it's like, if you're not going to raise $300,000, why are you doing this? That’s insane. How do we expect the district to change for the better if that is how you gain access to power? So I'm looking forward to transforming how we do elections in this district, with this race.