By Tran Tonnu | Communications Coordinator, Soar
This is one interview in the ‘Soar Spotlight’ series
It’s a Thursday afternoon and Karla Vargas is pulling up to Soar’s office. Karla is one of the many young leaders a part of the King County Youth Advisory Council (YAC) and Opportunity Youth United Seattle (OYU Seattle), convened by Soar. The council usually meets in the evening but today she’s helping Makayla Wright, our Youth Voice Organizer, with some tasks at the office.
Karla has been a member of both YAC and OYU Seattle for over a year and plays an instrumental part in Soar’s youth work. She is currently working with Soar to expand our work, creating a youth action council in Auburn. This team will collaborate with the current youth advisory council in Seattle. I sat down with Karla to learn more about her and her organizing work in and out of Soar.
Tran: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Karla: Well the very basic, I’m twenty-two, I have a four-year-old daughter, I came into this country when I was about one-and-a-half to two give and take so I’ve been here all my life. I came from a really bad place, before we lived in the hood of LA (Los Angeles) and in front of our house was a “trap house”, they sold drugs and etc, you would hear gun shots at least once a day. And then we moved up here (Washington) and our life changed completely, I got pregnant in high school but that didn’t stop me and I continued my education and now I’m graduating.
Tran: How did you learn about YAC and OYU?
Karla: I learned about YAC and OYU through Facebook. There was an advertisement on my news feed, and then I contacted Makayla about it. I then did a little bit more research to find out about past events they’ve done, and I was like oh they’re really doing stuff, they’re out in the community, they’re not like every other organizations that just say they’re out in the community, when they really aren’t.
Tran: So I’m curious, what was the reason that led you to searching for opportunities like YAC and OYU?
Karla: Well, I’ve been through some obstacles in my life, like my brother has been formerly incarcerated and he went through the school to prison pipeline kind of situation, my little brother has autism, my family itself is a mixed status family. I understand the obstacles that many people of color face every day. Since no one really helped us face through these obstacles I wanted to find an organization that would help others, so I can help other people like myself and my family to overcome these obstacles.
Tran: Why did you decide to join YAC and OYU?
Karla: The community, we come from different backgrounds and walks of life, I get to learn about different cultures, different people, it’s not just one sided where I would close myself off to just my own community, but instead I get to learn about others. And it’s the work we do, like I said before it’s really all about action, it’s all about putting the money where your mouth is kind of situation. In addition, YAC and OYU have helped prepare me to become a leader not just in my community but in a more diverse community.
Tran: So, I know that you all have done a lot of different projects, is there a project that really resonated with you or you felt really excited about?
Karla: So this past year we gave out turkey dinners during Thanksgiving and it was really impactful to see all these people who couldn’t afford a thanksgiving dinner and being able to give to them and it made me really happy to see other people happy and excited and see their faces when they got these dinners (laughs) it’s awesome. I remember coming home to my mom and telling her about the experience, I cried a little with her because I remember what it was like to not be able to afford a thanksgiving dinner.
Tran: What issues are you passionate about and why?
Karla: An issue I’m passionate about is DACA. It’s an issue that’s very active and current right now. Also, helping people who are lacking resources and helping people who are separated from their families. Anything that have to do with immigration, the ins and out, that’s what I’m passionate about. In addition, I’m very passionate about access to education and being able to provide money to have everyone attend college. As a college student, I know how hard it is to attend school with limited funds especially with a family. Childcare access is also a big one for me, because of my daughter, I’m passionate about making it affordable for children to go to day care. Especially when their parents need it to be able to work and keep a roof over their heads.
Tran: Outside of YAC and OYU what are you involved in?
Karla: Right now, I’m the Vice President of the Pre-Law Society at UWT (University of Washington, Tacoma). We do a lot of things, and just recently we did a big project on the school-to-prison-pipeline and we named it “Kids are Not Criminal.” In addition, we provided resources to people on campus whether that was scholarship, access to internships, or stuff like job opportunities. We are also working on an immigration event call My Tacoma Experience. We are organizing it to provide a free legal clinic as well as to provide awareness on the issues going on right now.
In addition, I am a part of the student advisory board of Seattle Education Access. We serve as the student voice for students a part of the organization, and then we bring their opinions to the rest of the board of directors.
Tran: Regarding the school-to-prison-pipeline work that you’re doing, why do you think that’s particularly important?
Karla: I feel it’s important because it’s an issue that’s happening and no one is talking about it. And it should be talked because there’s a lot of kids that are getting lost in the system. They keep going back because they feel like there is support and everyone is against them. On top of that they lose a lot of time in the classrooms. To me when I look at it it’s like The New Jim Crow, if you’ve read the book. It’s kind of legalized slavery in present day.
We don’t want our children in prison, we want them to keep them out of prison and in school so that once they graduate, they can get a job to contribute to society.
(Karla and her mom at her college graduation, by Karla Vargas)
Tran: Who’s a leader you look up to and why?
Karla: My mother, she’s not from here, she didn’t get a formal education but she’s always reminding me every day to be a better person and not forget about my background. Even with her lack of education and knowledge/resources she’s always willing to help people no matter what. If she has five dollars in her pocket and someone ask her for that five dollars, she’ll give it to that person. She has always been really strong and taught us to keep moving forward, don’t let the past impact the future, she’s been a warrior to all of us.
Tran: Thinking about your mom, what qualities do you think are important for a leader to have?
Karla: Kindness, courage, humbleness, knowledge, strong, respectful, and to be inclusive, the list can go on and on. But one thing is for sure, my mother always taught me that a leader works in silence. When you help someone in particular do not shout it out to the world, keep it to yourself. My mom got me where I am now, she motivated me to keep going in school. I hope one day, I can be half the person she is today.
Tran: I know that you live really far away but continually make the drive to attend YAC meetings, go to school, and stay involve in various community events. What is your biggest motivation?
Karla: My daughter is my biggest motivation. I want to be able to show her no matter the obstacle we have, big or small, we got to be able to overcome it to help other people. If other people back in Mexico walk miles just to help one another, why can’t we, who have cars to get around. Nothing impossible. I believe that a leader makes no excuses to help their community.
And I also want to make a better place for people to live in, because if we don’t who will?
Tran: How do you think we can better support young leaders like you?
Karla: I don’t know you (Soar) do a good job supporting young leaders, you do a good job empowering, training and supporting them. I guess, making sure that young leaders are in places where decision that impact us are being made. Not only should we be able to write or say our opinion and have someone deliver it but have a seat at the table.
Tran: What do you like doing for fun outside of organizing?
Karla: What is that? (laughs)
Tran: What is fun?
Karla: Yeah (laughs) I like hanging out with my daughter, mom and family for sure, and I like deep cleaning.
Tran: Cleaning can be very therapeutic for some people.
Karla: My mom would wake us up every Saturday morning when I lived with her and she would blast her Latino music and make us clean. Since my mom taught me that when I was little, that’s been one of my favorite things to do, just deep clean. I also like going to rodeos.
Karla graduated from the University of Washington, Tacoma with a bachelors in law and policy in spring of 2018. She plans get her doctorate in law in 2023.