Political advocate and activist
Leah Katz-Hernandez says, "Both of my parents, Ricardo Hernandez [hearing—a former professional interpreter, now a Federal employee] and Lizabeth Katz [deaf—a social worker for a nonprofit agency] are CSUN alumni, but I'm actually the first person in my whole family to go to Gallaudet. My parents taught me to value education and to "give back to the community." Leah, who attended American School for the Deaf, public schools ("not a positive experience"), and graduated from Maryland School for the Deaf, got a good education, and especially enjoyed theater and cheerleading.
She assumed that she'd be going to CSUN too, but felt drawn to Gallaudet. She entered in Fall 2005. As a freshman, she was elected president of the Class of 2009. Then, after Jane Kelleher Fernandes was appointed as Dr. I. King Jordan's successor, the "Unity" protests erupted, and she "felt responsible" for the 280-300 discontented freshmen she was representing. So she got actively involved. “It was a powerful experience for me. I saw a lot. I learned a lot. I did a lot. I learned that there was complexity to many things, about the willingness of certain people to go to extremes to ensure what they want, and I was amazed at the power, energy, and passion of the Deaf community rallying for what we believed was right. Even though the odds were against us, we won, and we made an impact. I realized that I could and did make a difference.”
Although she admired Hillary Clinton, she became an early supporter of Barack Obama. She appreciated The Audacity of Hope, and anxiously followed the primaries. After Obama won the Democratic nomination, she got involved.
Now a senior majoring in Government, she credits her professors Mairin Veith and Dr. Frances Marquez for encouraging her. “I applied to and got accepted into the Washington Center’s Presidential Academic Seminar, an educational/academic program that takes students on an intensive experience on location. I gained greater understanding of the political system from such esteemed lecturers as Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Committee, and Howard Dean, and I was able to meet such people as Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO). I rubbed shoulders with many prominent people in politics and media. It was a very enriching experience."
“I originally set up a blog—DeafCampaign2008.blogspot.com—at the Democratic National Convention, simply to keep family and friends informed. It got attention from BBC and CNN. I was even invited to the CNN Grill, which was a great experience." (Katz-Hernandez's blog is still active as The Deaf Perspective.) “I continued to blog regularly throughout the election season, covering campaign stuff and related Deaf issues. I emphasized volunteerism and voter registration.” A registration drive at Gallaudet University, sponsored by the Government department, netted 150 new voters. “I also brought students to canvass in Virginia. It became my personal goal and passion to get deaf people involved in politics, at the grassroots level—something the Deaf community is good at.
“A day before Barack Obama was inaugurated as the President of the United States of America, I was awarded the Local Grassroots Leadership by the Latino Inaugural Celebration Committee. I was so shocked, I never thought I’d win anything for my actions, but I was truly glad that people had recognized the impact of just one deaf person. I felt that sent an important message—that the Deaf community had a great potential for major political participation and impact.”
Katz-Hernandez met President Obama once, in 2007, when he made a surprise stop at a reception. He asked her about the “Unity” protests, and she explained what they were really about. He told her, “You can have the best cause in the world, but if you don’t frame it right, you lose.”
She believes that the Obama Administration is willing to listen to the Deaf community, but that we have to take the first step.
“I want to work in the government—either on a state or federal level. I would like to enroll in law school or study public policy. My long-term goal is to get the Deaf community into a viable, powerful voting demographic that the politicians want to pay attention to.
“You can bet I’ll be involved with Deaf Youth USA and the 2010 Elections!”