Vicki Ben-Yaacov was born in Taiwan and Virginia Alvarez in Mexico, but somehow, they found a common quest — and dream —on Santa Barbara County’s South Coast.
Against the odds, and bucking the system, Ben-Yaacov and Alvarez won election in November to the Goleta Union School District and the Santa Barbara Unified School District boards, respectively.
They are both Democrats, but neither was endorsed by the influential county Democratic Party. They also raised less money than their opponents.
Without party endorsements, with less money and visibility, these two women pulled off upset victories.
Whether it was an anomaly or affirmation, Ben-Yaacov and Alvarez showed that connection to their communities, and not just high-profile endorsements, still makes a difference in local elections.
“I was so inspired by the candidacies of Vicki Ben-Yaacov and Virginia Alvarez, as were many voters, clearly,” said Kate Ford, a Santa Barbara Unified School District board member. “Although their personal stories are somewhat different, they have much in common and reflect a movement across the country of women running for office and winning.
“As immigrants, they both faced the challenges of a new culture and new language, and they successfully navigated the worlds of education and work. Both became impressive bilingual professionals who have families and are very involved in our community.
“Simply, these two women are the real deal.”
Alvarez was sworn in on Friday, and Ben-Yaacov will take her seat on Tuesday.
The two women are the latest in a surprising string of registered Democratic female candidates who won election without county Democratic Party support. They follow Ford, and Kristen Sneddon, who was elected to the Santa Barbara City Council three years ago.
All four shared the same campaign manager and political consultant, Wade Cowper, who has emerged as somewhat of a political maestro behind Democratic candidates not embraced by the formal county party.
Alvarez and Ben-Yaacov did not know each other until the grueling campaign for office began.
In a contest for three open seats, Alvarez placed third, knocking out incumbent Jacqueline Reid, and behind top vote-getters Laura Capps and Wendy Sims-Moten.
Ben-Yaacov placed second, behind incumbent Sholeh Jahangir, in a race for two open seats.
Alvarez Understood Immigrant Experience
In Alvarez’s case, she won a seat over Reid, who was endorsed by the Democratic Party.
Alvarez never interviewed for the endorsement. She did not think she would get the support of the group, which also backed Capps and Sims-Moten.
“To some degree, this experience was similar to being a newcomer in a new country or school, where you don’t even speak the language,” Alvarez said. “I entered a game where the opponents had the previous year’s title, were already on third base, had the proper sports equipment and trainers, while I was just learning how to hold a bat.”
But as an immigrant, Alvarez was used to battling the odds.
She came to the United States with her parents as a child, and spoke only Spanish at the time. She attended McKinley Elementary, La Cumbre Junior High and San Marcos High schools, as well as Santa Barbara City College.
Her experience helps her connect with the Santa Barbara community, including Latino residents.
“Life is our best teacher,” Alvarez said. “This is not theory, or a script. I lived it.”
She said she’s experienced similar situations as many of the district’s students. She identifies with them, so she brings compassion and patience.
“I started in fifth grade at McKinley school here in Santa Barbara,” she said. “What I had going for me was that even though I did not speak English, I was literate in Spanish. I knew how to fluently read and write, and I loved math. This strong foundation catapulted me to acquire a new language.
“I see this as one of the biggest challenges faced by many current students; they do not have this foundation.”
She said she understands how difficult it is for some students to meet the academic standards, and how they get discouraged because it is impossible to catch up and keep up at the same time.
“Also, their parents might be in survival mode,” Alvarez said. “They are working as much as they can to keep afloat. Besides the language barrier, they are not savvy about the educational system, nor do they know how or why to advocate for their kids.
“This is reality for many of our district families.”
Alvarez, a human resources manager, said these experiences and perspectives helped her resonate with voters, and that the party’s endorsement was not necessary for her win.
“I did not seek any political party’s endorsement,” Alvarez said. “I kept true to the fact, and the law, that school board races are supposed to be non-partisan. In my mind, candidates are to focus on how they are going to add value to the board and contribute to a better education outcome for all students.”
Her campaign brought many people together whom she grew up with in the community.
“It took my life back to my childhood years,” Alvarez said. “People I had gone to elementary, junior high and high school with reached out when they heard I was running. Also, former co-workers, supervisors, teachers, my kids’ friends, their parents, my siblings and their friends, and current and former school board members whom work or have worked for, all embraced my candidacy and supported me.
“It was an overwhelming show of community support that surfaced my strong community ties.”
She encourages other candidates in her situation in the future to be authentic and trust their intuition when deciding to run.
“Don’t be persuaded or derailed by any naysayer who might try to discourage you or devalue you,” Alvarez said. “The sincerity will come through, just like it did in 2020, and I am here to help any way I may.”
Gail Teton-Landis, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, said the organization congratulates Alvarez and Ben-Yaacov.
She noted that Alvarez received a questionnaire, but then no longer wanted to be considered for an endorsement.
“We didn’t have the opportunity to interview her,” Teton-Landis said.
The party did interview Ben-Yaacov, but instead endorsed Patricia “Max” Rorty for the Goleta school board seat.
“Vicki Ben-Yaacov and Max Rorty both brought unique experiences and strengths for us to consider,” Teton-Landis said. “We ultimately endorsed Max based on her mediation skills, and her mental health experience, which we felt would be a great asset for students, teachers and parent during this difficult time.
“Clearly the voters considered Vicki’s attributes as stronger, and it is good that we have so many talented people who want to serve our community.”
Ben-Yaacov Knew Goleta School Issues
Ben-Yaacov’s story is perhaps even more stark.
She raised $8,000 for her campaign while Rorty raised nearly $24,000.
Ben-Yaacov grew up in Taiwan, where she said schools were very competitive, and “getting into the best college was the only thing that mattered.”
When she came to the United States, she met many Taiwanese Americans and other Asian Americans, and “I found that this mentality hadn’t changed at all.”
She was 21 when she arrived, and stayed with a family friend in Los Angeles before coming to UC Santa Barbara. She said every person they introduced her to either went to Stanford University, UC Berkeley, MIT, or Caltech.
“There was so much pressure to get into top universities among the Asian community,” Ben-Yaacov said. “People seemed to be defined by the schools they attended. “
But that’s not how Ben-Yaacov was wired.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel inspired at all,” she said. “Most of us didn’t choose what we really love to do. We were just put on this path by our parents, by our society, because this was the ‘obvious path’ to a good life. To some extent, they were right, but not everyone fit into this narrow path, and there has to be a better way to do this.”
So she wanted to approach education in an entirely different way.
“I believe that a good education is not just to provide academic success, but also to inspire the next generation, to build their character and resiliency, to show them different paths so that they can choose for themselves,” Ben-Yaacov said. “If we build more paths for our students, we are going to see more success stories. And when we can lift up the bottom, we can build a better society.”
She remembers that when she arrived at UCSB, she had trouble striking up conversation with other students.
“I found that I couldn’t join a group conversation with native speakers,” she said. “I remember sitting at the lunch table with a group of Americans, and I could understand most words they were saying, but I couldn’t understand anything. That was a big culture shock for me. It took me about two years to overcome this.”
She said she improved her skills and developed her confidence after finding a group of local and international students. They shared their culture and food, she said, and it became one of the best experiences of her life. That experience has motivated her to help others.
“I want to make our schools as welcoming as possible,” said Ben-Yaacov, who has two children in the district. “I don’t want any student to come to school and feel like they don’t belong there. I want to see us celebrating our diverse culture, and I want to make sure the students are proud of their heritages and our schools are inclusive and compassionate to all students.”
Ben-Yaacov, an engineer, was wildly popular in Goleta during her campaign. Many children used chalk to write her name on the streets to support her.
The Goleta district staff members knew her from her years of advocacy in the district, pushing for more recycling, healthier food options, and ways to connect STEM programs to practical learning. Still, she was not the favored candidate of the Democratic Party.
“I think it is unfortunate that even school board elections have become political,” Ben-Yaacov said. “This is a nonpartisan seat.”
She believes that she has a lot to offer, even if she is not a traditional candidate.
“I hope they are willing to look at the political outsiders more often,” Ben-Yaacov said. “The Democratic Party’s message is about being inclusive, and including people that are outside of their circle but share their values is how they can get in touch with people in the community.
“No political party should take their voters for granted. They have to continue to get in touch with people and learn about what the communities need.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.