By the Portland Tribune
“Rooted at Reynolds”
Three days before a mock trial competition in 2004, one of the speakers from Reynolds High School was suspended.
Then a junior, Diego Hernandez, jumped right in as a substitute, pulling late nighters to rehearse the opening statement.
“He was amazing — just a natural,” said Rick Stern, a retired business and law teacher at Reynolds. “(Diego) had this depth of character and fit into many different segments of the school.”
After attending six elementary schools and three middle schools, Hernandez felt lucky to land at Reynolds High. It was the first time he wanted to stay in one community and knew he eventually wanted to return.
On July 10, Hernandez took his oath of office as the newly elected Reynolds School Board member for Position 2, a four-year term. At age 26, he is the youngest Reynolds School Board member in recent memory.
Reynolds spokeswoman Andrea Watson said there is no direct record kept on the ages and racial backgrounds of school board members, but it’s likely he’s one of the first Latino school board members in district history.
“We have come a long way since my high school days, but we still have many challenges ahead of us and I want to be a progressive voice in moving us forward,” Hernandez said. “I knew (election night) I had a lot to learn, but I also had a lot to give.
“I may be young, but why is that not the norm?” Hernandez said. “Why is it not a norm that people of my racial demographic and age are involved in a lot of policy making decisions? We’ve got to change that.”
A 2005 Reynolds High graduate, Hernandez is a teacher/mentor with Elevate Oregon, a nonprofit organization that works with at-risk Portland area youths.
Along with serving on the finance and audit committee for Reynolds School District during the 2012-13 school year, Hernandez is board chairman of the nonprofit organization Momentum Alliance and has volunteered in the district, organizing information nights for Latino parents.
“I think it’s a very positive moment for everyone,” said Solen Wilebski, a Reynolds community outreach liaison. “A lot of our students may not see positive role models. To see (Diego’s) face in pictures and see his name is inspiring for them.”
The first of his family
The son of Mexican immigrants, Hernandez was born in Los Angeles and grew up throughout Washington and Oregon with three siblings, one older and two younger.
“I’ve always been told I act or seem older than my age,” Hernandez said. “I had to learn independent values quickly in my life. We were pretty poor, and I didn’t really have a choice.”
He remembers accompanying his mother to clean a district attorney’s house as a child. Throughout the house were newspaper clippings about the man. “See Diego,” she said. “This man is really important.”
He could be like that man.
Hernandez became the first on both sides of the family to attend college, graduating from the University of Oregon in 2010. He went on to receive his master’s degree in social work at Portland State University in 2012.
His community organizing and civic involvement took root at UO, where he served as a student senator and worked on tuition equity at the state level and the Dream Act at the national level.
“I had a single Latino mom who didn’t know how to enroll me for sports or understand my school work and grading,” Hernandez said. “I was able to understand there was maybe a larger, systemic issue with parents not being able to help their students through the education system.”
In a district with struggling graduation rates and almost half of its students belonging to minority groups, Hernandez is focused on bigger picture policy changes addressing disparities among students and the achievement gap.
He wants to ensure the board continues conversations about poverty and race and said the district’s equity policy adopted June 12 is a strong start.
Hernandez also is focused on district-wide unity among students, teachers, administrators, parents and the public.
“I’m impressed with Diego’s vision,” said Kate Winterkorn, a teacher/mentor at Elevate. “He has a lot of big picture views of what he would like for his organization, for the school board, for the community. For someone as young as he is, that’s really admirable and impressive.
“He has a calling for this kind of work — a commitment to social justice and the health and growth of this community.”
Who is Diego Hernandez
Occupation: Teacher/mentor with Elevate Oregon.
Hobbies and interests: Sports, hiking, biking, local and state politics and Oregon Ducks football.
Community involvement/volunteerism: Community organizing and engagement, specifically with Latino parents of the Reynolds School District, and board chairman of a nonprofit organization, Momentum Alliance. Served on the district’s finance and audit committee for the 2012-13 school year.
Education: 2005 Reynolds High School graduate, 2010 University of Oregon graduate (bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies) and 2012 Portland State University graduate (master’s degree in social work).
Latest read: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander.