Rising Stars: Kimberly Sanchez, NextGen Policy

Kimberly Sanchez photo by Scott Duncan

Though Kimberly Yareni Sanchez grew up amid poverty and gang violence, she managed to graduate from college at age 19.

Now just 21, she is an education policy analyst at NextGen, a nonprofit advocating for progressive policy.

“I like it because I feel like I can provide my lived experience and passion to help make policy and improve it for people who grew up like me,” she said.

Her drive has not gone un-noticed. Robin Swanson, a longtime Democratic consultant, called Sanchez “a fierce education policy advocate” who has risen through the ranks quickly. “Definitely keep your eye on this young powerhouse – people are going to want to have her on speed-dial,” she said.

The daughter of immigrants from Guadalajara, Mexico, Sanchez grew up in north Sacramento. Her father, who is a construction worker, and her mother, who is a housekeeper, gave her a good childhood, she said.

At age 14, Sanchez got her first job- working at a flea market in Roseville alongside her aunts who sold clothing and gifts for baptisms, weddings and quinceañeras (celebrations for a girl’s 15th birthday).  She never visited the state capitol until she was a teen-ager and an aunt visited who wanted to see the tourist sites.

Sanchez attended Grant Union High School, where the majority of the students qualify for free lunch and are Hispanic, black or Asian. She attended crowded classes where the teachers had trouble keeping the students’ attention. Many of the teachers were part of programs that forgave their college loans if they taught at a low-income school for a certain number of years, she said.

“We would get a lot of young teachers that were white and didn’t have the same experiences as the students,” she said. “They didn’t try to understand us. They just wanted to get their student loans paid off.”

Sanchez was inspired at age 16 when she took her first political science class at community college and learned about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at age 29 was elected to the House of Representatives.

While Sanchez didn’t personally experience gang violence, she knew many students who did. She also has two cousins who grew up with her because their father went to prison.

Sanchez’s education ramped up when she learned from a friend’s older brother about a new dual enrollment program where she could take free community college classes that would count for college and high school credit at the same time. She also took community college classes in the summer before transferring to University of California at Davis. In the end, she was able to earn bachelor’s degree in political science (with no debt) just two years after graduating high school.

It saddened her to see many of her former classmates in Sacramento floundering. “A lot of people that I grew up with had potential but couldn’t do more because they fell through the cracks,” she said.

That spurred an interest in politics as a way to improve these problems. Sanchez was inspired at age 16 when she took her first political science class at community college and learned about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at age 29 was elected to the House of Representatives.

Sanchez was impressed that Ocasio-Cortez didn’t study political science and was working as a bartender before she achieved political success. “I saw a little bit of myself in her because she was living her life and there were things she experienced that she didn’t like and she wanted to do something about it,” she said. “She ran for her seat and now she’s doing something about it. She wasn’t scared to do it. As a young woman of color, that was inspiring for me.”

Sanchez took a step into politics herself when she was hired as an office assistant for state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. As part of her job, Sanchez reviewed budget requests and would see NextGen’s name on letters. The nonprofit looked interesting so she investigated it further and was delighted when she had a chance to work for the organization.

She loves her job because it involves education, which was her minor, and she is happy to work on projects involving student debt. Since English is a second language for her and she is young, her biggest challenge is using professional English. “I talk a lot in slang,” she said, explaining that she is concerned about what her colleagues think about her when she gives presentations. “I’m worried that I will come off as dumb. I can understand everything but I can’t say it like they do.”

In her off time, she enjoys hiking, weight-lifting, Pilates and spending time with her tight-knit family.  Her grandmother, uncle and brother all live on the same street. “We’re really close and I see them every day,” she said.

In the future, Sanchez would like to devote more time to writing. Her story “Candles” about teen gun violence was published in the online magazine Terrain. She describes her style as “creative nonfiction” and said she ultimately wants to write books.

“I want to write about my experiences and perspectives in a way that’s interesting but doesn’t feel super serious,” she said.

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