In honor of International Women’s Day, Canal Alliance has chosen to elevate the stories and perspectives of some of the powerful and inspiring women in our community. From policy to education, and advocacy to community policing, Hispanic women are changing the face of leadership in Marin County.
Q & A with Monica Cañas
Member Board of Trustees Larkspur Corte Madera School District
I was born and raised in the Bay Area to immigrant parents from Mexico and El Salvador. I grew up in San Rafael with my five sisters in a home of extreme poverty where college and success were never talked about. At 18, my life suddenly changed when I became pregnant with my first daughter because I finally felt that my life had a purpose. I became inspired to become better and to give my child a life filled with the hopes and opportunities that I didn’t have. I started attending College of Marin, and five tough years and three kids later, I transferred to Dominican University and received my undergraduate degree in business. I currently live in Corte Madera with my three daughters who attend The Cove Elementary School, Hall Middle School, and Redwood High School. My career began in small business management but my real passion was always working directly with the community. I began building that path by getting involved at my daughter’s schools and with small non-profit organizations in Marin. I recently made that full career switch and am now working in community engagement for Common Knowledge Group, and serve on two boards; Larkspur-Corte Madera School District Board of Trustees, and the Marin Latino Leaders Board of Directors.
Canal Alliance: How did you come to your current profession or industry?
Monica Cañas: At such a young age, I observed my mother to always be a giving and compassionate person. She would care for our neighbor’s kids, cook for guests, give people rides and just offer help in anyway possible. She would always tell me “Monica, a donde vallas siempre acomidete,” which means to always offer help wherever I go. As I got older, this behavior came natural to me. When my oldest daughter started kindergarten 2010, I began volunteering and getting involved in any capacity I could in the classrooms and on campus. I served hot lunch, assisted with math and writing stations, read in Spanish during library time, helped organize campus events and fieldtrips, and eventually ended up on the Parent Education Committee. During my 3-year term, I collaborated with school officials and parent volunteers to provide monthly events featuring speakers and topics relevant to middle school aged kids. This was an amazing opportunity for me because not only did I get more experience with event planning, but also because I got to work closely with school staff, principals and parents. They got to know me on a different level and saw the capacity I had within me. I proved to be dedicated, creative, and a hard-worker.
In 2018, a few months before my committee term was ending, I got a call from our district superintendent, Dr. Brett Geithman. He said that there was a vacancy on the school board and was wondering if I had any interest in joining. I could not believe what he was saying, I thought he had the wrong Monica. I didn’t think that it was something I was capable of doing, and that I wasn’t smart enough for the job. However, he reassured me that I was what they were looking for. He was in a district leadership meeting a few days prior with school principals, teachers and other staff, and that my name came up when he asked who would they recommended. He said I was highly spoken about that day, and that they believed I would be a great candidate for serving on the board. To me, that was very comforting and empowering to know, that a district-wide administration where there are no other Latinas or person of color, believed that I was capable for taking on this very important role.
CA: How do you define a leader?
MC: A leader is someone who is not afraid to ask the hard questions, even if it means making others uncomfortable. Someone who brings a different perspective from that of the status quo, and thinks innovatively by introducing new ideas and uncovering blind spots. A good leader advocates for quality education, programs, and equal opportunities for all students regardless of their learning and language disabilities, race, or socio-economic background. A good leader realizes and identifies flaws in the system and helps find solutions so that nobody falls through the cracks. Someone who can make strategic decisions for the district, but will also ultimately impact the well-being of all students. Additionally, good leadership means promoting and fostering a safe, inclusive and welcoming community for all families.
CA: How has your personal history influenced your leadership style?
MC: The struggles and adversities I faced growing up shaped me into what I am today. I did not come from a privileged home so we did not have many opportunities. My mother didn’t have an education or speak English well, and could not afford to put us in sports, activities or enrichment programs. I remember feeling inferior to all the kids in my class because they were all doing these great things. This experience has inspired me to become an ambitious and transformational person. I want my kids and other kids in the community to grow up in a happy and enriching environment filled with hopes and opportunities. I am now on this platform where I can learn more about the opportunities available and find ways to make them accessible to all families. In my role it happens in different ways; by advocating for all students to quality education, thinking creatively for ways to close the achievement gap for Latinx students, English learners and socio-economically disadvantaged, by helping families obtain scholarships for summer camps and after-school programs, coordinating translators at educational events and parent-teacher conferences, looking for resources for extracurricular activities and homework support, by encouraging parents of English-learners to not be afraid to advocate for their children and ask questions, reach out to teachers, get involved in the classrooms, committees and eventually influence policy-making, planning cultural events and activities to bring cultural awareness and build community, and to create an environment where all families feel welcome and inclusive.
CA: Have you had mentors or guides that you have looked up to as you have come into your current role or industry? How have they impacted your outlook on leadership?
MC: As I first started, it was very intimidating as you can imagine being not only a young woman but also a minority in a predominantly white, older community. I had no idea what it was going to be like. Luckily, I was able to get set up with a former board member who offered me advice and guidance on how boards operate. However, there was still an element missing. I needed guidance from someone I could relate to on a deeper level. That’s when I realized it was time to reach out to and reconnect with the San Rafael community I grew up in because that’s where there is an abundance of Latinx leadership. I began attending networking events at the Hispanic Business Chamber and the Marin Latino Leaders. I attended one particular event featuring another Hispanic board member in Marin, Maika Llorens-Gulati, from San Rafael City Schools. Meeting her and learning of all the great things she is doing in her district has definitely been very inspiring for me. She is involved with the students and attends many of the school and community events to show support. She is a role model and an example of great leadership for creating the change we want to see.
Recently, I have also been inspired by and learning a lot from working with Susan Clark, the Founder and Executive Director of Common Knowledge. She is a brilliant speaker and advocate for community-driven design to create the change we want to see in county governments and communities. She believes in the power of inclusive and diverse conversations to give an equal voice when working together to come up with solutions, and the importance of collaboration across sectors and departments to create effective employee and community engagement programs. Her leadership style and beliefs have greatly impacted my leadership on the board and on the district’s English-Learner Advisory Committee. It has inspired me to want to make sure everyone is at the table when having those discussions, regardless of race or socio-economic status, everyone has the equal right to participate, ask questions, get answers and come up with solutions together.
CA: What legacy would you like to create for other Latinas who may look to follow in your footsteps or use your leadership as an example for their own careers?
MC: To be good at something, you must do it with passion. Get involved because you care about the issue at hand, not for status or recognition. Empower yourself with knowledge, passion, and confidence to create impactful leadership that can help and inspire others. Don’t be afraid to ask all the questions necessary to be well-informed and build your confidence. Break the societal walls that exist in a hierarchy by working together to solve issues and come up with solutions. Don’t hesitate to speak what’s on your mind because we all have diverse perspectives and our own brilliant ideas that others may never have thought of.
CA: How does partnering/working with Canal Alliance to advance our mission fit into the legacy that you want to leave in your field?
MC: By helping establish a mentorship/advisory program to help others wanting to advance in their positions or take higher office, by offering advice and answer any questions. I wish there was something like that for myself when I first started!