Graduate student makes a mark in local politics

While most students were rushing to submit final papers and review for upcoming exams, Alejandra Cortez, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in social work, was working to improve local political participation in her community.

Hometown hero · Alejandra Cortez (above) has long held a passion for revitalizing her local community of Cypress Park. - Courtesy of Alejandra Cortez | Daily Trojan

Hometown hero · Alejandra Cortez (above) has long held a passion for revitalizing her local community of Cypress Park. – Courtesy of Alejandra Cortez | Daily Trojan

That’s just one of the many responsibilities now for the 24-year-old Los Angeles native, who just last month was elected onto the Board of Councilors for the L.A. neighborhood Cypress Park.

As a student of social work, Cortez has long held a desire to return to her neighborhood after graduating and make a positive difference.

“I’ve always had that mentality of going back to my community and changing it — of making it better,” she said.

Only two-and-a-half miles north of Downtown Los Angeles, Cypress Park is a predominantly Latino community with around 11,000 residents.

Its past has been negatively marked by gang-related activity, and Cortez recalled that in one of her social work classes at USC, a visiting LAPD officer showed a map of gang-related hot spots, and one of those areas was her very own Cypress Park.

“I’m sitting in my class going, ‘Wait — that’s where I live,’” Cortez said.

From then on, Cortez realized that her neighborhood required some drastic change. The question of how exactly she was going to do that, however, remained.

Her search ended this year when a friend told Cortez about the local Neighborhood Council, a nine-member board meant to advocate for the surrounding community. Cortez remarked that, like many in the area, she had never heard of it.

“Someone told me about the Neighborhood Council and I didn’t even know about it,” Cortez said. “But I started going to the [Neighborhood Council] meetings and realized it was a good way to start giving back to my community.”

After filing as a candidate, she went door-to-door and business-to-business, encouraging those within Cypress Park to get out and vote. All her hard work eventually paid off — in the April 26th election, Cortez garnered 113 votes, more than any other of the elected councilors.

In her first order of business, Cortez plans to change the trend of apathy toward local politics through encouraging both youth involvement and word-of-mouth campaigning.

“There’s a large population of youth in the community but they’re not aware of the [potential] resources,” she said. “I want to advocate for this community which doesn’t really have a voice.”

It can be easy to forget, however, that Cortez herself is also part of that young demographic. She often finds herself surprised that her dream to give back to the neighborhood has come true so soon.

“I always knew after I graduated that I wanted to give back to my community, but now it’s happened so fast,” Cortez said. “I wasn’t expecting the opportunity to do it so quickly.”

Nevertheless, the young politician is ready to hit the ground running. She has expressed interest in being vice president of the Council and envisions great potential in putting Cypress Park on the map.

“Within my district, a lot of the communities are up and rising,” Cortez said. “They went from being gang-related to the ‘place to be.’ [For Cypress Park] It’s about starting small — cleaning it up, making it more appealing to people, and using resources from within.”

With a two-year term ahead of her, Cortez just might have the time needed to see her vision through.

“It’s definitely a turning point and I’m excited to see where the community can go,” Cortez said.