Even when he was a young child, it was clear to everyone who met him that Alessandro Iaia Hernandez was going to give back to his community.
His mother, Gabriela, describes her son as always polite, mature and protective of his peers, and his teachers recognized his tenacity and work ethic early on.
Iaia Hernandez, 18, recently received the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools’ 30 Under 30 Changemakers Award for his impactful work as a Latino community advocate.
The award celebrates the 30th anniversary of the first charter school law, which changed the future of public education. The first such law passed in Minnesota in June 1991. Then, in July 1995, Delaware Gov. Tom Carper signed a law that created the ability for groups comprising parents, teachers and community members to form charter schools in the First State.
The idea was to create a special type of public school outside the district that had the flexibility to cater to the individual needs of the community and students. This jump-started a movement of school innovation that continues to stress the need for flexibility in public schools to meet the needs of every student served.
“Charter schools as part of the public school system have added more choice and innovative practices to the education landscape,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network. “This is not only being seen in our charter schools but in district schools as well.”
A recent graduate of The Charter School of Wilmington (CSW), Iaia Hernandez “has been blazing a path towards social justice,” says Massett, both in his school and his community as the founder of two noteworthy community groups: the Asian Hispanic Empowerment Organization and the Hispanic Outreach Club.
“Alessandro is a community leader who is truly a catalyst for social change,” says Dr. Robert Andrzejewski, CSW’s interim president. “We are looking forward to seeing how he continues to impact change in the years to come.”
“My major accomplishments with my school’s club have been getting a coalition of 80 members actively volunteering and creating more than 10 public health presentations, which can be used to teach important lessons to help improve the quality of life in the Latinx community,” Iaia Hernandez explains. “For my organization, the greatest accomplishment has been doing a talk at a local school where we had more than 400 students listening to our presentation.”
Massett says Iaia Hernandez won his award in the social justice category, and he was spurred to action after witnessing and hearing stories about bias toward his Mexican immigrant mom, especially in comparison to his Italian immigrant father, when he was growing up in Delaware.
Iaia Hernandez says he remembers many episodes of discrimination against his mom. One clear example was when someone hit his mother’s car from behind and the police failed to treat her with respect.
“Although it was not my fault, the officer immediately made assumptions based on my race and gender regarding who was at fault for the accident,” explains his mother, Gabriela. “The assumptions were so strong that the officer did not even want to listen to my story. I felt so mistreated and humiliated because of my accent and because of my Hispanic race. I could truly feel hatred in his voice and in his eyes.” Her son clearly took this incident to heart.
“Alessandro saw what his mother went through and instead of getting angry, holding it in his heart, dismissing it or feeling despair, he created something meaningful and works hard to stop the bias,” Massett says.
The idea of the 30 Under 30 Awards, Massett says, is to “celebrate our youth, their voices, and the fact they are using their voices to help make a change. The National Alliance wanted to support him and amplify his voice and recognize that he is using his story to change everyone else’s, and that is important.”
The winners are young people who have seen a need and are stepping up to either fight back or create opportunities for that need to be filled. “We want to make sure that Alessandro’s voice stays strong and that it is being heard,” explains Massett. “We know that he is part of the generation that’s going to make a vital change.”
Iaia Hernandez says that it is both “rewarding and humbling” to receive this honor on behalf of himself and the school leaders and other students that he worked with on his projects, because it “places value on the fact that my work has made a difference.”
“You do your job, you write up a presentation, you make a speech, but you don’t always feel that your work is instantly making an impact,” explains Iaia Hernandez. “What’s important to me is that it is helping the people around me.”
This fall, Iaia Hernandez will attend Boston University’s Honors College to study political science with minors in international relations and Latin American studies, and has no plans to slow down his community outreach.
In fact, he plans on studying constitutional law, practicing civil rights law and eventually running for political office in Delaware. These ideals were fueled by the diligent work of his classmates, he says: “Being surrounded by people who feel the same passion makes it a lot easier to fight for a cause that many of us people believe in.”
Gabriela and her husband, Alberto, say they’re extremely proud of the young man their son has become. “While he is still very young, he has accomplished a great deal,” she says. “Our son has always been charismatic, a hard worker and an extremely focused person, and I know that will take him far in life. We are very happy and excited about his bright future.”