An Interview with Lupita Alcala
by Mariana Garcia Medina
In honor of Women’s History Month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lupita Cortez Alcalá, current Director of Education Policy and Outcomes within WestEd's Early Childhood Integrated Systems and Policies team. Lupita has over 20 years of experience championing better educational outcomes for Californians. She was also the first Latina Chief Deputy Superintendent for the California Department of Education, as well as former chair of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.
We spoke about her experience as a Latina professional, dealing with challenges and being open to vulnerability, and the importance of representation and uplifting women.
Mariana: In your current role as Director of Education Policy and Outcomes at WestEd, what does your work look like, and what motivated you to do what you do?
Lupita: I am interested in expanding access and opportunity in early learning, K-12, and higher education. I just finished working on the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care, and what was exciting about it is that it focused on improving systems to allow for better access and opportunities for families to have a great early learning experience.
There have been many programs to support the educational needs of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Over time, however, these systems and program requirements have become complicated and difficult to administer and utilize. In addition, over time the demographics have shifted to serve a lot more children of color, dual-language learners, and children with disabilities, and so the work we did on this new Master Plan provided recommendations to build an integrated streamlined system that would not only allow for families to access care, but also provide a quality education, and improve workforce skills and experiences providers and caregivers need to support and provide great care and learning to children and families.
The Master Plan also included recommendations about data infrastructure and the integration of information that is needed to streamline eligibility, so if families are income-eligible for one program that may be eligible for multiple programs, and the facilities needed to expand and to provide options for families.
It was a neat opportunity because I also worked with well-respected and valued policymakers and we were able to come together and agree on a set of recommendations that were then presented to the governor.
That is what motivates me, providing a set of recommendations to the State that hopefully will be acted on by the legislature and Governor that will improve the experiences of children and families that need it the most.
If you think it’s the right thing to do, then it’s the right thing to do, for yourself and for all those that come after you.
Mariana: When facing challenges in your professional life, how do you overcome them?
Lupita: Challenges fit into three buckets: they can either be self-inflicted, with other professionals and colleagues, or the work itself. But they all actually have similar solutions. What I do is seek advice from others who have the content expertise, experience, and knowledge. By asking, you put yourself in a vulnerable position by putting yourself out there and admitting you need help. Sometimes we think we will be judged when we ask for help, that others will not think we are as smart or as capable, but you only hurt yourself by not seeking that assistance. It’s okay to ask for help. You only learn by reaching out and seeking assistance, mentorship, and professional advice, or simply talking it through. Sometimes you just really need to compartmentalize the issue, task, or situation that is concerning, stressful, or causing a challenge; dialogue helps.
Above all, you have to respect yourself. Value yourself and what you have to offer. Know that there will be gaps in your knowledge and experience, and you will need to fill those in by seeking help or advice. I always find people willing to be helpful if you put yourself out there and ask.
Mariana: As women of color, we often have to be careful about how we present ourselves in a professional setting to ensure we are taken seriously. How have you navigated this in your professional life, and how has it translated to your current role?
Lupita: Professionally, as a woman, I have to be very direct and honest while carrying myself in a professional manner that communicates: I am here to do the work, I have expertise and knowledge, and I want to collaborate. But also, we have our personalities, and I’m here to enjoy the experience, where I can be friendly and be myself. However, because I have been a young woman of color in many spaces, I’ve often had to assert myself to be respected and valued for my knowledge and skill. It’s a balance.
Mariana: Women are fierce advocates, but sometimes we forget to advocate for ourselves. How have you advocated for yourself, and what advice do you have for women doing the same?
I think we have always been doing advocacy on some level. We are raised to be advocates for our families, as immigrants and English-language learners, we help them navigate the U.S. systems. So we learn to be advocates early on. Personally, I have had a long-life passion to advocate for access and opportunity for students of color and first-generation students--and of course, women, mujeres.
But when it comes to ourselves, we do not know how to do that on a personal scale because sometimes we think we are asking for too much. I had a friend tell me once: you have to respect yourself enough to ask for what you believe your worth and value is, and that means putting yourself out there and asking for that promotion or applying for that job.
Once in my career, I had an experience where I realized there was a salary differential in a position I was in, with another that was similar in responsibility but didn’t supervise as many staff as I did. I asked for the same salary and fortunately, my boss supported me in my making the request and I received the pay increase.
It’s important to know when there is an inequity, recognize it, recognize your own value, and make a strong case or argument for why that should be rectified and do so. Ask for it. Do not be afraid or concerned over what someone will think. If you think it’s the right thing to do, then it’s the right thing to do, for yourself and for all those that come after you. Because in truth, if you do not ask, you will not advance.
Know that there will be gaps in your knowledge and experience, and you will need to fill those in by seeking help or advice.
Mariana: The Biden administration just revived the White House Gender Policy Council, previously the White House Council on Women and Girls. As a former chair of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, are there any issues that you'd like to see become a priority there? Any lessons from California's own efforts?
Lupita: Geena Davis, the actor has the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and also served as Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women and Girls and one of the things she said was, “If you see it, you can be it”. I fully believe that we need representation in appointments to state, local, and national committees along with task forces, boards, and corporate boards. And obviously, we need equal pay and compensation.
We need access and opportunity to careers, coursework, and learning environments that women are not traditionally exposed to because they are considered male-dominated fields. We need to find creative ways to allow women and girls to experience educational career opportunities in a way that would be more appealing. I am a big advocate for STEAM education, but many girls and women do not go into those fields because they are male-dominated. Sometimes it’s about how to better market it and better communicate it, how to signal diversity in course names, and make spaces more inclusive and welcoming for women and girls.
There are a lot of focus groups on how to attract women via branding, why not brand those courses and opportunities? By changing a few tactics, we can increase the number of women and women of color in those fields, and changing the demographics will go a long way. We also need to mandate gender equality in those fields and hire women faculty in science, math, and engineering so women feel represented and comfortable in those spaces.
I believe our daughters and granddaughters will reach many more opportunities in male-dominated fields if we provide the conditions for them to feel welcome in the first place, to know that it is where they belong, that it is their space too.
Mariana: How have you been celebrating Women’s History Month?
Lupita: What I’ve chosen to do in honor of Women’s History Month is sharing as much as I can about my own experiences, both professional and personal. And sharing how to support other women, particularly women of color, to navigate professional spaces, as well as connecting them to more people and resources.
It’s my personal mission to help as many women as I can, and—for women of color and Latinas—to be a mentor to help them navigate a system that is difficult for many, such as getting an education. I’m very committed to supporting other women of color and I have spent this month doing a lot of talking with and mentorship of Latinas.
I consider it my duty and my imperative to be supportive of other Latinas and women of color to ensure that whatever I’ve learned and experienced, I can pass it along.
Lupita Cortez Alcalá is the current Director of Education Policy and Outcomes at WestEd. Most recently, she served as the first Latina Chief Deputy Superintendent for the California Department of Education. She has also been Executive Director of the California Student Aid Commission, becoming a prominent voice in the statewide discussion on college affordability and financial aid reform, and previously served as member and chair of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.
Her career has focused on promoting and implementing programs for early education, English learners, migrant students, career pathways, Linked Learning, workforce, and STEAM. Alcalá holds a BA in Political Science from UC San Diego, and an MEd from Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can follow her on Twitter.