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How One Woman Went From Lunch Lady To Leader Of The U.S.'s Biggest Union

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Photo: Nathaniel Welch.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s story isn’t exactly a rags-to-riches tale in the traditional sense. There was never any fairy godmother waiting in the wings for her.

But that doesn’t mean that there was no magic in her rise.

In her more than 40 years in the education system, Garcia, 61, has gone from lunch lady to the highest-ranking Latina woman in labour — rising through the ranks of education to serve as the president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the United States.

Garcia's launch started in 1989, when she was named teacher of the year in Utah.

“I’m pretty outspoken," she told Refinery29, so when she was given a public platform and asked what she thought of policies surrounding education in her home state of Utah, the chance to speak her mind was a little too tempting.

“I never call people names, but you can let people know that you think the governor is not doing a very good job in some very nice ways,” she said, laughing.

Garcia used that platform and leveraged it into a run (and win) for president of her state teacher’s union at the age of 34, unusually young for such a high-level role. But she didn't rest on her laurels, instead following it up with runs for the national union, moving from the executive committee of the NEA, to secretary-treasurer, then vice president, and finally, to her current role as president since 2014.

If women are going to wait to be encouraged to run for nontraditional roles, you’re going to be waiting a long time.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia
It’s a long road for someone who never even expected to go to college.

“It wasn’t in my family’s experience,” she said.

After high school, Garcia applied for a job at a local school because she liked working with children. She worked as a lunch lady, then a teacher’s aide. One day, a teacher she worked with took her aside and told her she should consider college.

“I was 20 before anybody said [that],” Garcia recalls. “[It] was very wonderful, this teacher that said, ‘Go to college. You’re good at something.’ So I did.”

And she did with a vengeance. Garcia enrolled at the University of Utah, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, and then went for a master's in education. She put herself through college while working minimum wage.

It’s an experience that gave her real insight into the issue of student debt in America. “I was as rock-bottom poor as it comes,” she said of her situation when she chose to go back to school. She funded her education by singing and taking part-time typing jobs. “I was making minimum wage and so was my husband. And we were able to work part-time and put ourselves through college, saving every little dime that we could save,” she said.

But that’s not a path that she thinks is still open to others today.

“Because college was affordable for me, I’m where I am today, instead of being a lunch lady,” she says. “That’s not the case for someone in my position who’s living today what I was living.” She supports better state-level funding of higher education, as well as promoting more accessible loans and scholarships to make college a reality for more students.

She knows a little bit about what it takes to be a politician. In 1998, Garcia ran for a congressional seat in Utah, challenging then-incumbent Merrill Cook.

“The main thing I remember is that I beat her, pretty handily,” Cook, a Republican, told Refinery29 about that race, which Garcia lost 43% to 52%. He’s not surprised that she’s still leading the fight on education.

“She focused on the union aspect a little more than the personal; I was surprised that she didn’t support more dollars to classrooms,” he said. “Didn’t seem to argue with me over the bureaucracy aspects, but clearly someone very committed to quality education, and had no room for any kind of voucher program or privatising of some aspects of education like I had supported in Congress.”

The teacher that she is, Garcia looks at her loss as a learning experience.

“That was another life-changing experience because you have to look beyond your comfort zone of education,” she said.

“A lot of women are not encouraged to do things that are outside the traditional roles,” she said, noting that she rarely needed to be told twice that she would be a good candidate for office — be it heading her local teacher’s union or leading those same teachers on a national level. “I think that if women are going to wait to be encouraged to run for nontraditional roles, you’re going to be waiting a long time,” she said.

Her colleague, Shelly Krajacic of the NEA's executive committee, sees Garcia's experience reflected in the way she leads the union. “For Lily, [her work as a coworker and her work as a leader] almost coincide. She is first and foremost about giving people opportunity and boosting people up," Krajacic told Refinery29. She worked with Garcia on the NEA's push to end No Child Left Behind, and saw her leadership style firsthand. "As women, we don’t always view ourselves in those roles and in those positions, and it takes somebody to [encourage that]. And I think that’s something that Lily, as well as the other officers, take very seriously."

Of course, outspokenness rarely comes without missteps. In 2015, Garcia was condemned for a speech in which she referred to students as "chronically tarded" and "medically annoying." Disability rights advocates criticized her harshly for the words, saying that they demonstrated a “lack of respect” for those with disabilities. Garcia later apologised for her words, saying that it was the combination of a vocal stumble over the word "tardy" and a poorly conceived attempt to be funny, and calling it a "teachable moment."
And Garcia is learning from it. This month, she served as a delegate for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, speaking there on the subject of immigration and its role in many of America's schools. The NEA endorsed Clinton in October 2015, giving her an "A" ranking on education issues as a senator, and awarding her the Friend of Education Award in 1999.

Garcia lauds Clinton’s plan for student debt. She says Clinton impressed her by coming to a meeting and asking leaders what they were hearing from teachers around the country, and contributing their knowledge to building a plan. “She started asking me questions,” Garcia laughed. “That impressed the socks off of me.”

So she was thrilled to be on the convention floor to hear Clinton be named the party's nominee on July 26. Speaking to Refinery29 at The Atlantic's DNC panel, Building Blocks: Changing the Frame on Education, the day after her speech, she emphasised the influence that the first woman president could have on the children and students of the next generation.

"I have a 1-year-old granddaughter," she said, describing what was on her mind as she listened to Clinton's nomination being confirmed. "All I could think of [was], When she gets older, my goal is that when someone goes, ‘And a WOMAN is running for president!’ she’ll go, ‘Yeah?’ Like, what’s the big deal?"

Because, as a teacher, the most important thing to Garcia is still the country's students. She wants to build the confidence in today's children — girls and boys — to be unafraid to raise their hands and be leaders, from the moment they're in nappies. "It’s because you have to believe in yourself before you’ve earned the right to ask anyone else to believe in you,” she said.
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