For community activist Herman G. Hernandez, it's in his roots
Growing up in Guerneville, Herman G. Hernandez learned to volunteer at an early age.
“My father would take my sister and I to all of the Rotary events,” he said. “I remember flipping pancakes at pancake breakfasts, taking tickets and busing tables at the crab feed, picking up garbage in the river cleanups.”
Today, he’s taking it a step further, bridging the gap not only between Latino and traditionally white communities, but also between the corporate white-collar world and grassroots social activism.
As a community activist, Hernandez fights against inequities in the system. The best example so far may be his work last year leading the charge to require that all Santa Rosa high school students are automatically placed in a college-prep curriculum satisfying California state university requirements. The idea is that no high school graduate should be denied college admission simply because they didn’t take the right courses in high school.
As a PG&E public affairs representative for the past 10 months, his role is primarily community engagement, making sure people are aware of new wildfire safety programs, vegetation management and the possibility of “proactively de-energizing power” to prevent future fires.
It means he often shows up to public events wearing both hats. “Sometimes it’s hard to know who I’m there to represent, and usually I just do it as myself,” said Hernandez, 32. “So it’s like, yeah, I work for PG&E and I can connect you to any resources there or answer any issues. But I also do all of these other things here in the community.”
When he started with PG&E last June, “I did get people concerned that I was working for a corporation, especially since it was seven months after what was then the largest wildfire in state history.”
But he overcame any backlash, he said, by continuing to focus on the needs of the community.
“There are different ways to move the needle on an issue you care about, and one of those is the traditional outside-the-system activist role and another one is working within the existing power structure, and I think that is primarily the way Herman has approached his advocacy work,” said Jen Klose, Santa Rosa City Schools School Board president, who worked with Hernandez on the push for college-prep curriculum for everyone.
As a Sonoma County Office of Education board member, elected in 2014, Hernandez began to notice that large numbers of high school graduates, many of them Latino, could not apply to state universities because they had not completed mandatory college-prep classes.
“I was getting calls and emails from parents saying, ‘My kid is in her junior year with a 3.8 or 4.0 GPA, but she can’t apply to go to a four-year college.’”
Doing research, he found that in 2004, only 10% of Latino high school seniors in Sonoma County graduated with A-G curriculum and were eligible to apply for state universities. Unbeknownst to many parents, some children were being placed in a noncollege-prep track as incoming freshmen.
Jose Martinez, the president of DELAC (District English Learners Advisory Committee) for Santa Rosa City Schools, had been aware of the problem for several years, but had not figured out a solution. He first met Hernandez at a Los Cien meeting and had no idea he was on the SCOE Board. Once they began talking about the inequities in the school system and how Latino high school students seemed disproportionately affected, they began to formulate a plan to mobilize parents to stand up for their children.
“Herman saw a lot of disadvantages when he was going to school in Sonoma County, especially for people of color, and he wants to change that,” Martinez said. “I think he makes a good connection with the community and people trust him to do the right thing.”
From Klose, Herman learned that the issue had come up for vote before the Santa Rosa school board agenda in 2014 and was defeated in a 5-2 vote.
After Los Cien held forums on the subject and it began to gain momentum in the community, Klose moved to put the issue back on the school board agenda. Hernandez and Martinez were able to get dozens of parents to write speeches and deliver them in three standing-room-only school board meetings at Santa Rosa City Hall. The goal was simple: To make A-G an automatic designation for every student. As an incoming freshman, you would have to opt out, rather than opt in. Napa and Sonoma Valley school districts had already implemented the policy. Why not Santa Rosa?
The final Santa Rosa school board meeting on the subject lasted until 11 p.m. on April 25, 2018, before the board voted ?5-2 in favor of A-G for all.