Leiva’s story is all about turning tragedy and misfortune into opportunity and hope.
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And at the end of that whole experience, I actually had a conversation with Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez and she was like, “How long have you been teaching?” and I told her, “Oh, this is the beginning of my eighth year.” She goes, “Mama, that’s too long. We need you out here and we need you now.” It was one of those moments of, oh, crap.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
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Okay, so today’s episode is really exciting for me. I’m interviewing Katherine Leiva who goes by Leiva, and Leiva and I crossed paths in 2012 when we were both brand new high school teachers doing Teach for America in Miami, Florida. Leiva taught ESL, English as a second language to English language learners for nearly eight years before deciding to transition out of the classroom and figure out a new career in social impact and advocacy.
Today, Leiva is a senior manager of Leadership Innovation at Radical Partners, and on this episode, she’ll talk about what it was like to make the decision to leave the classroom, a decision that is often very difficult for teachers to make and how she made that choice, what she ended up exploring, and what she gained in the process as she was willing to re-imagine her career.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger: Hey, Leiva, thanks for being on the show today.
Katherine Leiva: Thanks for inviting me, I’m so excited, this is so cool.
Priscilla: Yes, it’s so wonderful to have you here. So, Leiva, why don’t you start us off by sharing a little bit about your personal background, your personal experiences? I know that they informed your career decisions, so yeah, tell us what it was like to grow up in Miami for you.
Leiva: Oh, my goodness, this is such a loaded question. So, I’m going to try to keep it short and sweet, but real. So, a little bit about me. I’m a first generation Nicaraguan American here, born and raised in Miami. Both of my parents were political refugees that were coming from Nicaragua during a state of civil unrest that was happening in the country and is still currently happening today. They came to the US in the 80s, I believe ’86, ’88, don’t quote me, my family might come from me later, but they came in the eighties and I was the first one born here in 1990. I’m the daughter, I’m number six out of seven kids. So, my family is, like, various generations are included. Like, my eldest brother, I think, is about to be 50, so there’s, like, vast generational gaps within us. All of them were born in Nicaragua except for me and my little sister, and we are a mixed status family. So, I’m a citizen, I have people in my family who are naturalized citizens, I have people in my family who hold a green card and are residents, and then I have people in my family who are undocumented until this day. So, because of all of that, I’ve grown up with a very interesting sense of what it means to be an American and what it means to be poor in the US. I grew up in, like, extreme, low poverty here. Both of my parents died when I was very young. My father died when I was nine years old due to hepatitis C. He had an issue with his liver due to being an alcoholic when he was young, and then my mother shortly passed away a couple of years later when I was 14 and she died of diabetes. She actually had a heart attack in her sleep and died at home, so I was very young when I was thrust into adulthood, I moved in with my big sister and her three children, my nieces and nephews that I see them as my siblings, and to this day, my big sister is the only person in my family that I recognize as anyone who’s taken care of me and helped me along on my journey. So, yeah, that’s been my life. I’ve seen Miami through the lenses of growing up, as a daughter of immigrants growing up in a household that was undocumented in poverty. I mean, I’ve seen Miami and some of the darkest possible spaces that I can be in. I tell people all the time, I’m a Miami mutt. I didn’t grow up stable at all. My senior year in high school, actually, I moved 13 different times and each time, because we were evicted, so it’s been rough. It was a really rough upbringing, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I’ve been thinking a lot about it because of this podcast and truly humbled to share this space with you, Priscilla, and have you elevate the voice of people like me, because I feel like there’s not a lot of that. So, that’s me in a nutshell, and I think, I don’t know, it’s all those struggles and hardships that have made me the person that I am and truly ground me into the leader that I’ve become and will continue to be.
Priscilla: Yeah, I mean, Leiva, at this point, you could write a book, there could be a movie, like, there’s just so much that you have overcome and yet somehow, you’re always laughing, you’re just always bubbly and positive, so I always have appreciated that about you, but yeah. So, let’s go a little bit towards high school, like, where did you go to high school? What was that educational experience like? How did that lead you to making it to FSU?
Leiva: So, one of the biggest gifts that my mother ever gave me was making sure that I attended a magnet high school before she passed away, so my mother died my freshman year in high school, which was rough. I ended up in MAST Academy, I got accepted, and that school completely transformed and changed my life, Priscilla, and I’m saying that because you’ve heard about my senior year, right? I moved 13 times that year. We were homeless, we were transient, we were, like, living on the floors of peoples that we knew and it’s couch surfing, it’s like staying at a friend’s house for a week while my sister tried to figure something out. That was my high school living situation and MAST Academy made sure not only that I graduated, but that I went to college and I thrived there, like, that school literally made it happen because they were invested in me, they knew everything that was going on. My mom died my freshman year and it was like, my mom died on a Saturday, Priscilla, and I went to school on Monday and everything was normal, and then the counselors found out and it was like, oh, hell no, like, they pulled me out of class. They were, like, trying to unravel the years of trauma that I had and I’m just sitting there like smiling, I’m fine. Let me go back to my science class, that’s where I want to be, and because that happened, there was just such an investment in me in what I represented, in what I brought to the school, it was transformative on so many levels, and in my senior year, while everyone’s applying to college, I wasn’t going to go, I don’t have the typical Latina story of you’re going to college and you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer, like, I didn’t have that. I had, hey, you have three jobs, you are income for the household, great. When you graduate high school, let’s get you a full-time. That was my expected life. So, college was never on the table. It was never something we discussed at home. It was never an expectation. It’s just not, college is not something that my family does, and to this day, I’m the only one who’s gone, still. So, really, like, my high school played such a vital role. If it were not for MAST Academy, I don’t think we would be having this conversation right now. My college advisor at school, Ms. Whitby, she literally put her hand on my shoulder. She looked at me in the eyes and she was like, “Leiva, if you stay in Miami, you’re not going to grow the way that you need to grow,” and she was like, “I see so much potential in you. This school sees so much potential in you that you’re not seeing in yourself, and the only way you’re going to see it is if you get away from the life that you live here, and if you get away from your family and just breathe,” and that’s the first time anyone had ever told me that, and I was 17, I was 17 and I had two jobs, like, it was the first time that someone told me to think about myself, and Ms. Whitby, like, she changed my life and I tell her every single chance that I get, we’re friends on Facebook and I shower her with her flowers every single chance, every single opportunity. She said, “I want you to look at UF, which is the University of Florida which is in Gainesville, Florida, which is about six hours away from Miami,” and then she said, “I want you to look at Florida State University, FSU,” which was about eight hours away and she gave me pamphlets for all of them, and she pointed out that Florida State University had the CARE program and the CARE program stands for the Center for Advancement and Retention Enrollment, and it’s pretty much a first-generation low-income program for kids who have never heard, no one in their families has gone to college or do not have the money to go to college and probably don’t have the scores to do extremely well in college if I’m being 100% percent honest, and not only giving them the opportunity to go to an institution like Florida State, but finish with the support needed. So, they actually had a summer bridge program which allows me to go to Florida State the summer right after I graduated, so my graduation was in June, I was in my dorm in July. You only have a month off. You’re there, you get dorm, you get boarding, and you get food, they give you a meal plan, they pay for all of your courses, you get a counselor, you’re there with everyone else who is in the program, which is about 100 other kids from all over the state who share your background and share the struggle, and it’s welcome to college bootcamp 101. So, you’re starting to go to classes and then they give you, like, tutors, and after looking at all of that, I was like, that’s what I want, and I turned in my application in November, I turned in my regular application of Florida State, and then I turned in my application to the CARE program, did all of my essays, got my letters of recommendation, and within a month in December, I was accepted and I knew where I was going at that point, I was going to Florida State, which was such a relief as a senior and going in December, it was amazing.
Priscilla: Okay, so you graduated from FSU, you joined Teach for America in your hometown of Miami, and you were assigned to teach ESL, which is teaching English as a second language to English language learners, so mostly immigrants, high school students learning English from a variety of different countries. You ended up teaching ESL in Miami for seven years, seven or eight years. What was that like? What was hard about it? What did you love?
Leiva: Oh, my God, honestly, the whole time, this whole experience of teaching ESL is a gift. It is honestly a gift. It is, oh, my God. I am forever indebted to Teach for America due to that because I was so riled up, the mission of one day, one day, all children will have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education. It’s so perfectly crafted, right, to say, “Hey, you’re going to have a chance at this. We’re going to make sure you have at least a chance,” and I was so ready to make that happen and when I got placed in ESL, I remember just having this fear of wait, we are not trained in ESL, right? First of all, we’re not trained in anything, but let alone ESL, right? And the second thing was, I thought I was going to have a community of English teachers, but it’s no, you have a community of ESL teachers and there’s only four of them, right? And you are one of those four. So, it was very much like you are on a ship all on your own, buddy, you got this though, TFA out. That’s what it felt like. So, it was very scary. I remember lesson plans, it was lesson planning and the structure of you need an objective. What are your students going to do today? You need to have activities. How are you going to make sure they learn the thing that they need to learn? Like, that whole structure was new to me. Backwards planning, which is you plan with the end in mind was brand new to me. Girl, come on, I went to college with trash bags. I was not planning with the end in mind. My life has never been planning with the end in mind, so this was a whole new gamut that I was just so, I cannot mess this up, these are ESL children, I can not mess this up, I cannot mess this up, and I remember I am myself up with that fear of I’m going to mess this up in the first day of school. As I was teaching, I was doing my thing, literally, by, I’m not even exaggerating, by my third class that day, I knew that this was the perfect placement for me in the perfect school with the perfect kids and that I was going to knock this out of the park simply because every single child, every single one of them in my class was an immigrant, every single one of them had such a desire to be in that classroom. Every single one of them that spoke Spanish sounded like my mom or my dad, it was eerie. It was just one of those, I don’t know why I’m here, but there’s a reason why I’m here and I will never take that back. I knew by the end of my week, by the end of the first week of school that I was going to stay beyond my second year, I knew it, I knew it. I loved it. Those kids fueled me. They literally lit a fire inside of me. They transformed me as well. They’ve been just a part of my leadership journey as I’ve been a part of theirs. It was hard, but it was so worth it and I would never ever take it back, and I mean, you saw it. I was in the classroom for seven years and all seven, I was an ESL teacher. That is my craft. That is my home, and to be honest, like, teaching the kids was the easy part, like, teaching them what they needed to know, going outside of the norm, right? Because I was always the teacher who went above and beyond for the kids in the sense of the curriculum, right? I wasn’t just going to teach them what the school was asking me to teach, I was also going to teach them about social justice and the ways that immigrants have impacted the world and how we can all make a difference. That was literally my curriculum and what I was structuring, like, yes, I’m going to teach you the main idea as we learn about mass incarceration in my ESL class, which is like, people don’t even expect ESL children to be able to perform, let alone talk about social injustices or anti-Blackness that we have in our communities, and that’s why, like, I had the highest scores every single year, like, back to back because I’m teaching the kids English and things that they want to know and things that they need to know and in something that they’re truly invested in. So, honestly, that was the easiest part.
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Leiva: The hardest part was learning that ESL kids get the short end of the stick in our educational society. It was learning that educational inequity was even harder for my kids and learning that if I didn’t spoke up for my kids, nobody would. So, it was being a teacher by day and an ESL advocate at night is what made it hard when I was constantly getting in trouble constantly, whether it was with my superiors at my school or people at the district, I just never shut up. I really didn’t, to this day, I still don’t, and that was the hardest part.
Priscilla: Because you’re such a fearless advocate for your kids.
Priscilla: When you were going through this journey of every year deciding, okay, I’m going to stay another year, okay, I think I’m going to stay another year, were you thinking, I think I’m going to become a lifelong educator or were you just kind of taking it year by year?
Leiva: So, I knew that I was going to stay at least for my third year because in Florida, when you have a teaching certificate and when you don’t have a degree in education, you get a temporary certificate and that’s good for up to three years. After your third year, you have to have some sort of education credential behind your name, or if not, you’re not allowed to teach anymore, so I knew that I wanted to stay at least those three years, but my second year was when I made the decision that actually, I really like this and I’m not good at it yet. Even though people were like, “You’re amazing,” yada, yada, yada, whatever. It’s like, I know that I’m not as good as I possibly could be, so I decided to enter the Johns Hopkins graduate school program which was a partnership with Teach for America to get my masters in Education to allow me to continue teaching beyond my third year, which is what I did, and once I had that masters under my belt, it was my fourth year, that masters really helped me reflect over my four years of teaching. The fast growth that I had as an educator, not just as an advocate, right, but also in the curriculum, the design for the kids, and I honestly was able to reflect and see that what I loved about teaching and what I miss about teaching to this day is that genuine relationship that you build with children and with that relationship, you use it to teach, and when the light bulbs go off in a child’s brain, it brings me so much joy. To see a kid grapple a concept, that at the beginning of the year, maybe they didn’t even know how to say “door” or “thank you,” and then at the end of the year, they’re talking about social injustices brings me such a joy in my heart, and so every year, I became better and every year that I became better, the more I wanted to do it longer, I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to become an administrator, I just didn’t. I felt like the further away you get from kids, the less impact that you have, and I actually dabbled a bit in coaching. So, I was actually a full-time teacher in the day and then I was a coaching teacher in the evenings for ESL teachers who taught adults at night, and I actually did that for about a year and as I was doing that, it brought me joy and I loved it and it stretched me, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much if I wasn’t teaching during the day. So, that really helped me see that my gift and my passion, and my love was in the classroom and that’s why I actually stayed so long.
Priscilla: Totally. So, I think with the amount of experience that you’ve built up as an educator, as an advocate and someone who has personally lived through a lot of the experiences that our students have gone through, you’re so perfectly well-positioned to do so many different things. You could be a school leader, you could open a school, you could run for office, there’s just so many options for you, and so my question to you is, how did you decide to join Radical Partners as a program manager and how did you decide it was the right time to leave the classroom?
Leiva: I did a lot of reflecting, I did a lot of journaling, a lot of running, a lot of just trying to figure out what all of it meant, and I realized just what you said, Priscilla, there are so many pathways that I can take and I knew that for me, maybe the classroom wasn’t it anymore. Maybe the impact that I was making on 180 kids a year was just not enough, so I got involved with Leaders for Educational Equity. I took a couple of courses that they had and they had a fellowship for emerging political advocates and they were doing it for different sectors, and I was chosen for the LatinX sector, right? So I was an emerging political advocate for LatinX folks around the US and that granted me access to go ahead and be a part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute that happened in September and it truly showed me all the ways that Latinos are kicking ass around the nation. I got to rub elbows with people in Congress. Julian Castro, Joaquin Castro, Velasquez is over in New York, and I also got to meet people who were the heads of Univision but also Humana and seeing how all these sectors came to play to move the “Hispanic agenda” forward in the US and I realized, like, the classroom, isn’t the only avenue, and at the end of that whole experience, I actually had a conversation with Congresswoman Vasquez and she was like, “How long have you been teaching?” and I told her, “Oh, this is the beginning of my eighth year.” She goes, “Mama, that’s too long. We need you out here and we need you now,” and was one of those moments of, oh, crap, that trip, I really thought about it, and I saw they had another fellowship available for teachers who were working full time to be able to give a political insight and voice to nonprofits and for-profits trying to make social impact in the region. So, I applied to that fellowship and I was accepted, and when I was accepted, it was a policy and advocacy fellow, so I became a national policy and advocacy fellow right after that and my placement was at Radical Partners. So, Radical Partners is a social impact accelerator here in Miami that invest in leaders that are growing the city through social impact, that engages locals in decisions that are made by the government and by the community every single day, and that works with collective partnerships in order for us to move closer to a stronger and better community, and in that fellowship, I started to help out with different programs that they have. 100 Great Ideas is this awesome program where for one week, there’s a Facebook group that’s open to anyone in Miami to go ahead and contribute their ideas and their solutions to a problem that we have in the region, and this year that I was a fellow, the problem with climate change, and you have people from all walks of life just giving solutions on how to fix the problems that we’re seeing in our communities – the massive flooding, the heat index is just rising every single day, right? Like, the fact that low-income communities are on higher ground and therefore are now being gentrified is a climate change issue, so you saw all aspects of Miami contributing to this, and then after that week, it’s closed, it’s consolidated, it’s written up in a report and it’s handed over to our political powers here in Miami and saying, “Hey, Leiva from zip code 33138 believes that this is a solution that can be implemented in order to elevate the voices of the community,” and as I was working on that project, a month in, I was offered a full-time job. They were just like, “Listen, you are doing phenomenal work here. Everything is great. We can’t see us functioning without you moving forward. Do you want to be a program manager?” and that was in October and I told them the soonest I could join them would be January in order to prepare my students for their exams in January. I wanted to teach until December to prepare them and see them off, and that’s how I landed at Radical Partners.
Priscilla: Wow, that’s so cool. I had no idea that Lee was actually an instrumental part of that for you.
Leiva: Absolutely, yeah.
Priscilla: Yeah. Tell me some of the cool projects that you’ve worked on or are working on and how have you transferred your skillset as a teacher over to do those things?
Leiva: I was hired to be the program manager for the strategic planning summit which is pretty much 50% of nonprofits right now don’t have a strategic plan, and if they do have one, they paid about anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 for that plan and they don’t implement it because they didn’t make it themselves. So, literally, our former executive director, Rebecca Fishman Lipsey came up to me and she’s like, “This is a problem that we have. I want you to solve it in any way that you want over the next year.” So, I literally created a curriculum to help people understand the strategic planning process. I had to teach the strategic planning process to myself first which almost every teacher knows that’s a skill that we have, you teach yourself before you teach the kids, so I had to teach it to myself and then I broke it up into bite size pieces. I created a whole forum. This program started with just me, Priscilla, like, me in a room with a whiteboard going crazy. That was literally it to what it is now, and just to see that my teaching skills were able to be meshed together with helping a community and seeing that the organizations that are receiving this help are the same organizations that are helping my kids in the classroom today is, like, such a different level of fulfillment that I’ve never had before. So now, I’m working on projects that involve philanthropists who want to make the educational leadership arena in Miami better. I’m now currently developing a professional development for principals in my city, in the same school district that I taught at, in the same district, so to see it all work full circle has just been, for lack of a better word, delicious, to see that, like, I can, like, truly be an advocate in this different arena and continue to hone and make everything about the kids first, has been just outstanding that I can continue to do that outside of the classroom. To me, it’s just been a realization journey that holy crap, I’m still having an impact in this very different way.
Priscilla: I love that. I love seeing you thrive and still be aligned with your mission and do it in a different way, right? Like, teaching was one way to do that but there are so many different ways to have an impact and make a difference in people’s lives. So, thank you, Leiva, thank you for sharing your incredible story with us.
Leiva: Oh, thank you. Thank you for giving me the space. Thank you for allowing me to reflect and truly enjoy this time, and I can’t wait, I can’t wait to see what comes out of all of this.
Priscilla:Thanks for tuning in to the Early Career Moves podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review.
Talk to you next week.