Representing his Community
Rafael designs federal policies that work for families and communities
Testifying before the United States Senate Finance Committee on April 23, 2015, Rafael López shared a part of his family’s story. It was a courageous presentation. The Senate was considering Rafael’s nomination by President Obama to serve as the Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. How would the Senators receive his testimony?
Rafael shared personal details of his family’s struggle — from his mother’s journey from Mexico to Watsonville, California to become a migrant farmworker and cannery worker, to surviving domestic violence. He wanted the Senators to have a glimpse of the life experiences that shaped his career in human services and which drive him to work for social justice.
Rafael spoke about his life not to garner sympathy. He spoke as a leader who stays intently rooted in his family and community while tackling the politics, policies, and legislation that affect their lives.
“When I am in a meeting and I’m talking about rules and regulations and policy related to domestic violence, I don’t approach the work from an abstract perspective. I absolutely can recite to you the data and the statistics and the theoretical context in which families struggle. That’s all important. But when I step back, it’s my lived experience in addition to my academic and professional training that grounds and shapes my understanding of the world and the work,” Rafael said.
Rafael is the eldest of four children. As early as elementary school, he worked hard to buy school supplies, clothes for himself and helped take care of his siblings. He was a newspaper boy, a gardener, an apple-sorter on a local farm and worked many roles in restaurants. “My whole life I was surrounded by people who worked very hard and struggled to make ends meet, and that’s what I did too,” Rafael said.
Rafael continued to build his skills and sense of agency, becoming the first in his family to graduate from high school and go to college. He excelled academically and was selected as a teaching assistant for American Studies and Community Studies classes, all while serving as a student organizer of educational campaigns, cultural festivals, and academic recognition ceremonies.
“I learned it, I did it, and sometimes I failed at it. Then I taught it in informal ways, simply spreading the word or supporting my friends and peers by saying ‘we can do this, it’s possible,’” Rafael said.
Rafael brought these lessons and organizing skills to his volunteer work for congressional and state assembly electoral campaigns. At first it was intimidating to walk up to strangers’ doors, and get a door quite literally slammed in his face. But Rafael soon found that he had an ability to connect with his neighbors and to encourage many low-income and Spanish-speaking citizens to vote even though they had never been contacted by a political campaign before. In 1999, a grassroots campaign elected Rafael to the City Council of Watsonville, California. He walked the neighborhoods and met with residents, working day-to-day to include their voices in the decisions of the city.
While on the City Council, Rafael also served as the founding Executive Director of the non-profit, First Five Santa Cruz County. He worked tirelessly to ensure that health and education were prioritized in the first five years of life for all children. His team helped launch a first-ever universal health care program, serving all children in the county. Rafael’s drive and dedication was well-known throughout the region.
“I was once a client of programs administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,” Rafael said in his testimony to the Senate. “While no one program is perfect, I know they change futures, because they changed my family’s.”
In 2004, Rafael left his native Watsonville to attend graduate school at Harvard University, after which he returned to California to serve in government executive roles in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In 2009, Rafael moved east to serve as the President and CEO of The Family League of Baltimore City. There, he worked with community organizations, local and state government to launch new initiatives to reduce infant mortality, expand after school programs and reengage juvenile justice involved youth in school and work. He helped parents connect to substance abuse treatment, mental health services and supportive housing so that they could safely reconnect with their children who had been removed by the court and placed in foster care. He was recruited to serve as an Associate Director for the Annie E. Casey Foundation which focuses nationally on children at risk of poor educational, economic, social and health outcomes.
Rafael’s work in Watsonville, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Baltimore brought him to the attention of the White House. Soon after, Rafael had the opportunity to escort his mother through the West Wing. An underlying focus on public service and justice drives Rafael to make a difference — and to give back to young people who have similar lived experiences and want to make a difference in the world. He wants young people to be propelled by their own passion, to use their own struggle as a platform to take a stand and bring about the change they seek.
“There’s so much room and opportunity to bring about change through active engagement. To not be engaged would be a shame in terms of your total education experience,” Rafael said. “The learning is happening on multiple levels — inside the classroom, outside the classroom, in the dorms, in the apartments, in the community — all driven by your interests, passion, and energy. You can begin to make a difference in the areas you care about.”
Growing up, Rafael was always taught “to work hard no matter what you do.” Rafael embodies a pride in his family and his community that sparks real change.
“I have a responsibility to help others, especially young people, understand that they are powerful,” he said. “To say to others, ‘I’m just like you. You, too, can do this. You have in you the power and potential to do extraordinary things. How can I help you get there? How can I help you understand that you, too, can work at the White House? You, too, can be nominated by the President of the United States and be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. It’s possible.’”