Alexandra Oliver-Davila often tells the youth at Mission Hill’s Sociedad Latina be careful about what they say, because quite often it could come true.
That is the case for Oliver-Davila, who – as a consultant 21 years ago – said she would like to lead the Sociedad Latina organization due to her deep respect for the work they do with young LatinX youth. So it happened – and to her great happiness – that soon enough she was tapped to get that exact position she talked so much about wanting.
“People often asked when I traveled to the various sites I worked at what it is I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be the director of this agency – Sociedad Latina,” she said. “Here I am 21 years later. This is what I said I wanted to do and here I am doing it and feel very blessed. I always said I would never stay anywhere very long in my work life, but I have to say I love it.”
Part of that love she said is that the job has been a time for her to heal. Growing up in New York and Brookline – attending a private school on scholarship that wasn’t very diverse at the time – she said her Latin culture wasn’t celebrated and she experienced racism for the first time in Boston. Coming to Sociedad Latina began to reverse those experiences.
“Coming here as a girl and not speaking English, I was the only one in my classroom,” she said. “One little girl spoke Spanish and she was my translator and she was so annoyed by that. I felt like such a burden. It wasn’t easy. Having that lens for our ELL students, I definitely felt it. I didn’t feel my language and culture were assets. I felt the opposite. Part of working at Sociedad Latina…is like a personal healing. It helped me to heal my soul.”
For the past four years, that journey has also included being a member of the Boston School Committee, shouldering the role of community organizer and public official often in the same sentence. Her role there, however, changed dramatically last month when former Chair Michael Loconto made insensitive remarks to some Asian American parents and ended up resigning. Last month, Oliver-Davila was unanimously elected by her peers to be the new chair, and she said that new role will be a continuation of that healing and learning journey.
“We really want to learn from the incident that happened,” she said. “That’s one thing I really want to make sure we do – that we’re really cognizant. I had a great working relationship with Michael Loconto and stand by all my statements…However, his words were hurtful and I would love to use this as a learning experience. We plan to work with the Director of Equity and students in BPS and treat this like a learning journey.”
She said the healing will begin with retreats this month – one that happened this week – and professional development to better understand what happened and to truly become an anti-racist board. She said she is ready to lead the Committee to that new place.
“We talk a lot about equity and we want to now go beyond equity and learn what that might look like,” she said.
COMING OF AGE ON THE HILL
Oliver-Davila, 52, is of Nicaraguan and Argentinian heritage, but was born in New York. That said, she lived her first years in Mexico and Argentina before returning to New York. She moved to the Boston area in middle school and settled in South Brookline. She said she was very fortunate to have earned a scholarship to Brimmer & May School, where she excelled academically and then went on to Emmanuel College. It was at that time her connections to Mission Hill started to form.
She said she was introduced to late State Rep. Kevin Fitzgerald. She worked in his office and for the Mission Possible summer camp – really getting a foothold in the Boston network through his help.
“I have deep love for Kevin and he was wonderful,” she said. “I worked in his office and worked with Mission Possible Summer Camp. That’s when I decided I wanted to work with young people.”
Fitzgerald also helped her to get her first “real” job at the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain – a youth development organization that is still a treasure to that community just beyond the Back of the Hill. After that, she took on a job at Boston After School & Beyond, where she visited sites all the time throughout the neighborhood – including Sociedad Latina. It was those visits that propelled her to the role of executive director of that organization, which celebrated 50 years on the Hill last year.
She said working on the School Committee, she has learned important lessons about both sides of the podium – that of advocate and that of public official. It has not been an easy shift, she said, noting that as an advocate you want to do everything, but as an official decision maker, you understand there are finite resources and so many consequences to consider.
“Being on the School Committee side is tough because you want to do everything people ask you to do, but with finite resources, you can’t,” she said, noting that one has to consider a good decision for some could be a bad decision for others.
At the same time, her community organizing with young people provides very real and ground-level information that she said she often uses to inform her positions.
“My job is very informed by the youth I work with,” she said. “I get the real deal, on the ground information from them. That’s helpful. We can forget what it’s like to be a young person.”
A NEW CHAIR, SOME NEW CHANGES
Oliver-Davila brings a diverse voice to the chair of the School Committee, though it was recently learned she is not the first Latina to chair the Committee (apparently former Chair Elizabeth Reilinger had a Cuban heritage and served in the early 2000s). But Oliver-Davila also brings the perspective of a parent (she has one daughter) and a former English Language Learner (ELL) student who came to the United States without knowing English.
With that will be some changes, first of all with the value put on language and culture – those being assets in a global economy and not deficits to overcome.
“It’s so important when young people really feel their language, culture, race and ethnicity are seen as an asset,” she said. “We’re living in a global world and economy. It’s a no-brainer. You’re bringing something of value to the table.”
She also wants to focus in on issues, and bring the meetings into check. Some of the meetings over the years, and especially under the COVID Zoom era, have lasted more than seven hours and into the next day. She said one thing she’d like to see is the Committee identify a few goals and work on those things routinely so they can be accountable.
“We cover a lot of things on the School Committee and everything seems urgent and important,” she said. “But it does feel watered down to me because we’re all over the place. We need to focus on one or two things in year one and have a long-term plan. It helps us to be more grounded.”
And naturally, the topic du jour for the Committee is the remote-only learning situation that has been in place since September, with a vast majority of students and teachers trying to conduct school from home via online resources. It has been challenging, she admitted, as the parent of an 11-year-old daughter who is doing remote learning. But she also said she believes the district has done a much-improved job since the emergency learning that took place last spring.
She said getting the technology out to students has been done very well, and having a consistent schedule with teachers on screen is a vast improvement. However, she also said she knows many students and parents want to be back in buildings learning in person.
“I truly understand people’s frustration and truly get it as a parent,” she said.
“I think everybody wants to be back,” she continued. “That’s our goal to be back. It’s going to have to be slow and making sure everything is safe. But I understand and am very aware…I understand parent frustrations.”
Oliver-Davila was re-appointed to the Committee this past January, and will serve the next year as the chair.