For community activist Herman G. Hernandez, it’s in his roots

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Latino Life

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here

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.

Latino Life

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here

“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.

“I’ve been to a lot of public meetings over the last five years — city council meetings, school board meetings, supervisor meetings — and I had never ever seen so many public comments done in Spanish,” said Hernandez.

A college-prep curriculum is something he took for granted while attending El Molino High School. It’s one of the reasons he and his sister, Daniela, are first-generation college graduates in their family. It’s an opportunity their father didn’t have. After graduating in 1970 from a Catholic school in San Francisco, Herman J. Hernandez was not prepared to apply to state universities.

“My parents never asked any questions at the time because they had no idea,” remembers the elder Hernandez. “Their main goal was for me to graduate from high school.”

The push for A-G curriculum for everyone is exactly the kind of activism the elder Hernandez was talking about in the early days of Los Cien, when he and other founding members of the Latino community leadership council would meet in the back of Mary’s Pizza Shack, something his son witnessed firsthand, going to meetings when he was home from college on break.

“When I look at how many years it took me to get to where he’s at, at his age I give him a lot of credit,” said the senior Hernandez, founding member of Los Cien and longtime Guerneville real estate agent. “He’s part of a new generation that comes with energy, that comes with an open mind and comes with inclusivity. So he’s able to work very creatively and very passionately and with heart in serving the whole community.”

Some people occasionally refer to them as “Herman the Younger” and “Herman the Elder” — a nod to the Plinys of ancient Rome. From his mother, Guillelmina, a native of Leon, Mexico, Herman G. learned the Spanish language, a tool he uses every day to bridge cultures. And from his father “he definitely instilled in us that Rotary Club motto — ‘Service Above Self’ — and committing to causes that we believe in,” said the younger Hernandez. “And making sure that if you start something, you see it through to completion.”

So what’s next on his agenda?

“The first value that inspired me to get involved in politics was equal representation for all demographics in California, something we didn’t have back then and we still don’t have now,” he said. “In order to get people to the state level, we have to get them elected to school boards and city councils first.”

Maybe he’ll throw his hat in the ring one day?

“A huge joke I used to tell my friends when I started to think about politics was that I was going to run for president in 2044. And the reason behind that is I started looking at the census projections and in 2043 they’re projecting the majority of the United States will be Latino or Latinx. That’s a joke I still shoot for.”

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