A few years ago, as Rafael López, then a White House senior policy adviser, addressed an early-education and high-tech crowd in Silicon Valley, he realized the land on which he stood was where his mother and grandfather had once picked fruits and vegetables as farmworkers.
It was, he says, a powerful moment, even for a man whose life story reads like a Cinderella tale of grit and transformation: a boy born into a family that struggled, a man who became a city council member in his hometown, the first in his family to graduate not just from college but from high school, and the oldest son who once protected his mother and siblings from an abusive, alcoholic father and who now heads a $10 billion federal agency that administers, as part of its mission, the nation’s domestic violence prevention programs.
“Sometimes when I’m being introduced at some event, I think, ‘Here’s this kid from Watsonville who has the honor and privilege of representing President Barack Obama’s administration,'” says López (Oakes ’94, American studies), now commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families in Washington, D.C. “I’ve never lost the goosebumps at those moments, and never lost that commitment to my community.”
Born in the farming community of Watsonville to a woman who started working as a domestic at the age of 7, López remembers how “violence shaped every fiber” of his family’s life and how, at his final meeting with his late father, he had him arrested. “That was my last meaningful interaction with him,” López says.
It wasn’t until his 7th-grade summer when he visited UC Santa Cruz for a week-long enrichment program that he had a glimpse of a bigger world—and not just the stunning view of the bay from the classrooms where he sat.
“A judge came in and gave a presentation about justice, and, at that moment, I thought, ‘I want to be a lawyer,'” says López. “A light switch turned on.”
That light switch sent him to Vassar College, UC Santa Cruz, and eventually to Harvard University, where he got his master’s degree in public administration.
In 1999, at the age of 28, he became Watsonville’s youngest city council member. He won a second term while also working as founding executive director of First 5 Santa Cruz County, which helps families get health care, learn parenting skills, and enhance education for their young children.
Eventually, López’s path led him to the White House, where, as a senior policy adviser, he worked on a number of domestic initiatives, including President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program, designed to help young men of color overcome barriers to success.
Now part of the Health and Human Services Department, López has labored to update antiquated rules, improve technology, and support new legislation for programs that provide aid to families and youth in crisis. He and his wife, Rosa Ramírez-López (Oakes ’05, women’s studies), live in Washington, D.C., with their sons Adán Miguel and Mateo Gabriel.
Ask López how his past links to his present and he’ll tell the story of sitting with a group of preschoolers in a program for domestic violence survivors.
“I was sitting on the carpet reading to them, and I thought: I know exactly what they are thinking because I had been there,” he says. “Behind those smiles were children who were scared but with hopes and dreams just like everybody else.”