a diverse group of students having a discussion

Language skills can benefit us in many ways and in a variety of personal, professional, and academic settings. When language training is implemented, and skills are improved on a community level—especially when used to empower an underserved community with a voice—the impact can be astounding.

In a recent episode of LTI’s “Language Is Your Superpower” podcast, special guest Johanna López shared how her campaign for a seat on her county’s School Board engaged her local Hispanic community, and how both Spanish- and English-speaking campaign volunteers improved their language skills throughout the process.

Johanna López is a member of the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) Board in Florida and the first Latina to attain such a prestigious role via landslide vote in 2018. It was the culmination of a strategic campaign fully managed by her former students coupled with an impeccable career as an educator and advocate for marginalized youth. Ms. López is fully aware that she has been tasked by the community she has served for over two decades to be the eyes, ears, and voice of students, parents, and educators—especially those who look like her and who experience the most disparities. She takes this responsibility very seriously in her continued work championing minority student empowerment with a special focus on English as a Second Language (ESOL), supporting undocumented students, and advocating for the provision of better treatment for teachers and non-instructional staff.

Ms. López planted the seeds of improving individual language skills in the minds of her students long before she became a School Board Member. As a teacher in the Orange County Public Schools system, “when I saw that we have a PTA, a Parent Teacher Association, that doesn’t have any Hispanic persons and they don’t speak Spanish, I started a group called Familias Presentes, Estudiantes Excelentes,” which means, “Involved Parents, Excellent Students.” After Hurricane María impacted the island of Puerto Rico, many Puerto Rican families moved to Florida, and the group grew to “almost 900 parents and students together in the cafeteria. So, I think that was the time that we started empowering the students with their native language, because once they feel more secure and more empowered with their native language, because they feel more comfortable, then, I’m going to say, okay, now you have to learn how important it is to be engaged in the community. And forget about the accent and forget about grammatical mistakes. Try to think in English if you could. If not, try to translate. But it’s going to be harder because you’re going to need more time to express yourself.”

Putting words into action, Ms. López “started practicing in the classroom. I put students in pairs; somebody who is more fluent in English with somebody that is not fluent. So, they started learning from each other with basic conversations.”

A few years later, Ms. López became the first Latina in Orange County to win Teacher of The Year and later decided to campaign for a seat on the County’s School Board. Many of her former students, who had taken part in those classroom conversations, came back to volunteer for her campaign.

Having collectively knocked on over 35,000 doors throughout the campaign, Ms. López’s students knew her talking points in English and Spanish by memory by the time the debates began. While Ms. López had once been the person critiquing her students’ language, she noted that the tables had turned, when “at the end of every debate, we had meetings and [the students would] identify, ‘okay, Lopez. You used the word y (and in Spanish) 40 times. López this is not a plural.’ So, we were growing together through the campaign in improving the English language.”

–> Watch as Johanna recounts a story of a student who overcame her language barrier to advocate for her school

To her surprise, Ms. López also recalls how “the English-speakers that were in my campaign, they wanted to speak Spanish. So, now we have an Anglo person, an English speaker, wanting to know more Spanish and motivated to take Spanish in the school. But we also have the English Language Learners, our ESOL students, wanting to know and improve the English language.”

In closing, Ms. López shared a story of a time at a school board meeting, after she had already won the seat, when the community was fighting to rename one of the schools, and she was shocked to see “one of my former students, who helped me knocking on doors, be one of the speakers in front of the school board … It made me cry,” she said. “And it sounded so perfect. She did not read anything … speaking from the heart, you know? I said, ‘Wow! We are achieving what we wanted to achieve. Having the Hispanic community here in front of the school board members, speaking on behalf of a change … and we did it.’”

Is there a better way to show the power of language skills in a community than when you see the next generation having the tools, the opportunities, and the confidence to make their voices heard?

Tune into the podcast with Johanna López to learn more about her experience.

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