Ten-year-old Noelita Lugo was overjoyed to join her big sister in class at the University of Houston. As the youngest child of two working parents, she often spent time with her two older siblings because they were her baby sitters.
As a fifth grader, it was the moment she sat alongside her big sister in a large auditorium among dozens of college students that she decided she would one day graduate from college. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she would become the first in her family to achieve that goal.
“I don’t see my success as something I did on my own,” Lugo said. “I see it as something that has happened because there have been people in my life who have inspired me, opened up doors or encouraged me to believe in myself.”
Lugo not only obtained bachelor’s degrees in English and psychology in only three years, but she also obtained her Master of Science in Social Work degree from the Steve Hicks School in 2009, while working for the Office of the Attorney General. With many personal and professional achievements, she never predicted she would run for, and join the Austin ISD Board of Trustees, District 8 at Large.
It’s time to run
As the bread winner of a multi-generational household that includes her family’s 80-year-old matriarch, Lugo works full-time as a management consultant for Public Knowledge. She currently leaves virtual learning for her daughter and two sons to her husband Steven Salazar, who’s a stay-at-home father. Still, Lugo seldom gets a break.
In 2018, Lugo and her husband were heavily involved in their eldest son’s education as AISD parents, volunteers and members of the Parent Teacher Association at Pease Elementary, Texas’ oldest elementary school. Lugo began to hear other parents discuss their challenges and struggles with getting diagnoses, assessments and special education for children who had difficulty reading or just needed additional support.
Lugo began to wonder if parents were experiencing these issues across the district, so she joined the PTAs executive board to learn more. She began to gain a high level understanding of issues with the public school system, such as the lack of funding, the everyday pressures teachers experience and challenges with standardized testing.
In 2019, when Lugo’s son entered third grade, his school and 12 other Austin schools faced school closures so funds could be reallocated from those campuses to other programs. Lugo immediately went into high gear. She co-founded Save Austin Schools, a coalition of parents, students and teachers who worked to advocate against school closures.
“Most of the schools had a high percentage of low-income students,” she said. “Many of those schools had a higher than average percentage of students who were receiving special education services and again most of those schools were located in neighborhoods with a greater percentage of Black and Hispanic families.”
This disparity drove Lugo to become increasingly engaged. The coalition of parents, teachers and community members grew and with it a broader understanding of needs. And with understanding the community’s needs came a drive to understand how she could best influence change.
“I wanted to understand why a city that professes to be progressive and equity-minded can have an obvious disconnect between the values it espouses and the public policies that it puts in place,” Lugo said.
She joined additional public education advocacy groups and coalitions, such as East Austin Coalition for Quality Education, and began meeting with dual-language-education advocates. Through these organizations, Lugo was brought into meetings with like-minded individuals striving to make a difference within AISD.
She developed a friendship with a coalition member who established herself as a potential candidate for AISD Trustee, a volunteer position with the school board who helps set the vision, decide the budget and establish policies for AISD. Lugo believed this person was a qualified candidate who could make a difference. And then in one meeting, the potential candidate broke the news to Lugo that she wasn’t running after all.
“At that moment, I said ‘well then I’m going to run,’” Lugo said. “And so I did.”
Campaigning as a social worker
Lugo decided to take a chance and enter the race in June 2020. By August, she had filed the required paperwork to run for trustee, but she had no idea how to actually run a successful campaign.
“A lot of it was tough at the beginning,” Lugo said. “It was one thing after another. I had no baseline other than what I knew as a voter. I had never worked on a campaign.”
Her campaign wasn’t an ordinary campaign either; it was almost completely virtual because of the pandemic. She hired a campaign manager who helped her develop a strategy for outreach, fundraising and educating voters on how to complete their mail-in ballots.
Lugo’s platform was simple. She wanted every child to have an equal opportunity to succeed in the classroom and in life, regardless of socio-economic status, learning abilities, exceptionalities and race or identity. She took a clear stance on a variety of issues such as campus operations during Covid-19, clear communication among the district, parents, caregivers and the community, investing in Black and Brown students and teachers and more. She secured several endorsements including Education Austin, The Austin Chronicle, Austin Environmental Democrats and South Austin Democrats early on.
During the campaign, Lugo’s toddler daughter came to be known as her running mate. She’d often sleep in Lugo’s lap during forums and Lugo would nurse her as she made fundraising and outreach calls.
Although running for office was a first-time experience for Lugo, one thing gave her the confidence, credibility and respect needed to attract voters: her social work degree.
“My social work training had a lot to do with my ability to bring a different way of communicating to the campaign trail,” Lugo said. “We are specifically trained to start where the person is. We work with that person or community and it’s about sustained collaboration, it’s about honoring autonomy, it’s about recognizing historical injustices and the interconnection between the problems we see and the unintentional impacts of public policies, especially on communities of color.”
Lugo’s campaign is a testament to her belief that social workers should hold elected office because they view social justice as part and parcel of public policy.
As someone who identifies as both indigenous and Latino (Otomi and Mexican), Lugo was among a diverse pool of candidates for the role that included Jared D. Breckenridge, Mike Herschenfeld, and Leticia Moreno Caballero.
In the November 2020 elections, Lugo received 29.8% of votes while Caballero led the group with not enough votes to win the election outright at 45.82%. Herschenfeld and Breckenridge didn’t earn a place in the runoff, earning 12.88% and 11.5% of votes respectively.
“I’d been praying that if this is where I was meant to be, then please allow me to be there and help me win.” Lugo said. “If I’m not supposed to be in this position and will serve a better purpose by not being on the school board, then help me accept that. I want to be of service wherever I need to be.”
Lugo’s strategy for the runoff was to raise awareness about the board election and to focus on leveraging the network she’d developed throughout the year. With a limited budget, her campaign relied heavily on volunteers. It was tough to keep volunteers engaged in the general election because of state races but the runoff allowed more of them to become engaged in Lugo’s campaign and it paid off. Lugo received 52.15% of votes in the Dec. 15 runoff defeating Caballero for Austin ISD’s open at-large seat.
“I was shocked that I was able to do this,” she said. “I’m not a political person. I don’t have political ties. My mother worked in food prep and my father worked as a postal clerk. This kind of thing doesn’t happen often, so I was completely shocked and humbled.”
Looking toward the future
As a newly inducted trustee, Lugo is currently learning the ins and outs of her new position. Her top priorities are finding ways for AISD to improve special education and dual language programming and continuing virtual learning after the pandemic for classes that can’t be offered at every campus. Ultimately Lugo hopes by this time next year, she’ll be able to say the board worked together to bring long-term solutions to some of the problems in the district that were magnified as a result of the pandemic.
“I think with the pandemic one thing we’ve seen is when systems are forced to change they actually can be pretty quick at changing,” she said. “There are these entrenched decisions that have been made for decades and there are systems in place that weren’t designed to change. All I want to do during my time on this earth is do something that will make things a little bit better, or a whole lot better than where things were before.”
By Montinique Monroe.