Alumna uses justice studies degree to tackle local politics
Ellie Perez, an alumna of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, was born in Veracruz, Mexico. But since moving to Phoenix with her parents as a toddler, you could say she has had a lifetime of firsts in Arizona.
After getting a work permit through the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2013, she became the first undocumented person to be employed by the city of Phoenix, working as an aide to Councilwoman Kate Gallego.
In 2017, she completed an undergraduate degree in justice studies from the college’s School of Social Transformation and a minor in political science to become the first in her family to graduate from a four-year university. Last year, she cast her ballot as the first-ever DACA superdelegate for the Democratic National Convention.
Perez attended the State of the Union address earlier this month in Washington, D.C., as the guest of Arizona Congressman and former Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton. Being at the event wasn't a culmination for Perez; it was just the beginning.
“I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am today, and there are people who believe in me,” she said. “Being there, I kind of looked back on everything I’ve done, but I also really looked forward, because there are still so many things to do.”
Her immigration status prohibits Perez from voting herself, but that hasn’t stopped her from taking part in the process. She has been a political organizer for city council races in Phoenix and congressional campaigns for state representatives like Stanton.
Perez answered a few questions about her journey to the Capitol, how her studies at ASU helped shape her and where she's headed next.
Question: You have worked on a number of city council campaigns and tenures in Phoenix. What to you is important about participating in local government?
Answer: You’ve got to start with your own backyard. I grew up in Phoenix’s Sunnyslope neighborhood, and there are still areas within our district that are underserved. There are places with debris on the streets, overgrown bushes and streetlights that are out. Growing up there makes you feel like you have no hope. When my mom moved us to 32nd Street and Cactus Street (another area in Phoenix), I realized people call their council people all the time to fix things like that. City council may not be sexy, but they are some of the most important jobs. They fund the public library where I used to do my homework and the parks I used to go to. They fund the Head Start and after-school programs I used to benefit from. Getting involved was about representation, but it was also about having a voice. It was about giving back to the community that has given so much to me.
Q: What initially attracted you to majoring in justice studies and minoring in political science at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences? How did it shape what you do today?
A: I was originally a criminal justice major. I always knew political science was what I wanted to do, but … I went to my adviser and was told justice studies might be a better fit for what I was really interested in. At first, I was skeptical, but then I realized these classes talked about protesting, creating a change locally and defining people by who they are. … It was as if the major was tailor-made for me. I was also able to take all these humanities classes that made you ask questions and opened up a space for hard conversations. I learned from professors like Madelaine Adelman, Gray Cavander and Kathryn Nakagawa, and others.
Q: How would you describe your Sun Devil story?
A: I remember being a little girl and looking at that black shirt with the fork on it. I didn’t know what it meant, I just knew that that’s where everyone went and I wanted to go there, too. Finding out I was undocumented and seeing that may not be an option was a crushing moment. But I also remember my teachers always telling me that education is something no one can take from you, and I used that to keep pushing forward.
Finding out I was admitted to ASU is a moment I won’t forget. It sounds silly, but I made a point of not going to football games, not hiking "A" Mountain, even avoiding Tempe altogether before that happened. It meant something to wait to do all those things until officially becoming a student because it was the epitome of everything that I’d worked for. None of it would have been possible without an entire community behind me, but it was also made possible because of an institution that believes in the potential of people who may not have been born in this country, but love it as if they were.
Q: How did your program and the university help prepare you for success in your field?
A: I walked away from my classes (within the college) with a better understanding that there is intersectionality everywhere — that really helped me talk to constituents. That was something I hadn’t had before. Doing more work in Phoenix is my way of giving back to the institution that allowed me to thrive.
I think ASU created an environment where students feel like it’s OK to ask questions and it’s OK to make mistakes. Those are things that I don’t think any other university could offer me, so it’s not that it’s the only school I applied to, it’s the only one I want to go to. I think it also opened up a door for undocumented students when others did not; sometimes people forget that.
Q: What has been your biggest motivation to succeed professionally?
A: My family. I’m the first person to speak up and tell those of my family members who can vote to do so, because I can’t. I believe it’s up to me to make sure my nephews and nieces have it better than I did, but also that my city is a better place 10 years from now.
Phoenix is where my mother chose to bring me to. Out of all 50 states, she chose Arizona. I want my own children to grow up saying that their mother had a role in making things better for other people. When I go back to a voter’s door and get remembered, that’s huge because people know you are here supporting them. I think that’s the ultimate motivation — being able to help others.
Q: On that note, what is next on your agenda? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
A: Right now I’m working as a campaign adviser for a city council candidate in south Phoenix and am planning to take the LSAT in June. Without comprehensive immigration reform, there really is no pathway to citizenship for me, but if possible I would like to one day run for public office in the same district I grew up in.
At the same time, I have teachers who played an integral role in my success by believing in me. So I’ve also considered teaching. I remember not having a computer and going to the library to do my homework. If I didn’t have options like that growing up, I might not be where I am now. So no matter what, I want to make sure I give back by doing what I can to improve this city for young people today.