To put it bluntly, Phyllis Barajas’s father hated working as a migrant field worker in Nebraska. It was cold, migrants slept in shacks, and the work was backbreaking. Her family traversed the Midwest, following what she calls “the migrant trail,” which essentially required going wherever there was work in fields and packinghouses. Despite the hardships, Barajas’s father believed their family had sacrificed too much to get to the States, so leaving was not an option.
“Leaving meant failure,” Barajas says. “So this idea that ‘failure isn’t an option’ was deeply ingrained in me. My father said that all the time, and I carry it with me.”
It’s a good thing her family didn’t pack up and make their way back to Mexico, as Barajas would become a Latina trailblazer in the States. She served as the first Latina assistant dean for human resources at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and is a former deputy assistant secretary in the US Department of Education’s offices of elementary, secondary, and bilingual education. Today, Barajas is the founder and CEO of Conexión, a 10-month executive mentoring and leadership program for midcareer Hispanics focusing on leadership competencies, demographics, and networking.
Though so much of her work has involved advocating for Latinos and people of color, Barajas is apprehensive to label herself an activist. According to her, it’s something she “sort of backed into.” The crux of her work, she says, is helping others get as far as they can go and do their best. “The line you can trace through all my work, from education to social work to HR, is helping people be their best self.”
For her father, being his best self, his big dream, meant having a family and owning a house and a truck. He was able to achieve that, and then felt an obligation to help others. “He taught me to give back,” Barajas says. One of her father’s dichos was, “to whom much is given, much is expected,” Barajas recalls.
And give back she did. Her father ingrained in her the importance of education at an early age, so it only made sense that Barajas began her career as a teacher in Omaha.
What she didn’t anticipate was what a pivotal time it would be for a bilingual Latina teacher. Many school districts in the area were being threatened with lawsuits if they didn’t establish a bilingual education program for the growing Hispanic community.
Barajas says she was pulled into the debate and tasked with establishing the first bilingual program in the public schools in Omaha. The CEO says it was her first foray into local politics, and it introduced her to the world of advocacy, politics, and bias.
A colleague of Barajas’s once told her something she never forgot: parents send teachers the best kids they have every day. Hispanic parents drop off their babies at school, Barajas says, trusting la maestra implicitly. Nothing upsets her more than teachers who say students “aren’t ready to learn.”
“Hispanic parents take everything a teacher says to heart, so when a teacher tells them their child is performing poorly, that means Marisol or Julio will be in trouble at home, whereas white parents feel more comfortable saying, ‘What are you going to do to help my child?’” she says.
Sadly, Barajas explains, not much has changed in the education system. The biggest issue when she was teaching is still the biggest issue now: Figuring out how to collectively ensure all students learn to high standards. Having to navigate struggling education systems and, often, outright racism, actually helps the CEO in her approach to challenging issues.
“I learned early on not to ghettoize the conversation,” Barajas says. “A lot of people pushed back against bilingual education, but the bigger conversation being had was access to quality education for all kids. It wasn’t just about bilingual education for Mexican kids. I grew up in Omaha—how much more American can you get? So I always understood the importance of engaging with non-Latinos and mainstream, white audiences. In the end, our children and all our futures are inextricably linked. What happens to them should matter to us all.”
Barajas takes the same approach with Conexión. The former teacher says that many Latinos at large companies get stuck in silos—because while many workplaces talk extensively about diversity, they haven’t cultivated it internally. Her organization was named Conexión for a reason: Barajas makes it her job to facilitate connections between talented, mid-career Latinos ready to take the next step in their careers and organizations looking for the diverse talent that will enable them to compete in the global marketplace. A great deal of that work is done via executive mentorships, in which mid-level Hispanics are teamed up with executive mentors.
“We’ve set up Hispanic professionals with executive mentors who’ve never met or encountered a Hispanic professional in their life,” Barajas says with a laugh. “Our members benefit from the knowledge and experience of being mentored by a highly successful person in their field, and the mentor gets the opportunity to see what Latinos can bring to the table in an eye-opening way.”
The CEO says these connections lead to greater visibility for Hispanic professionals, as well as board seats. More importantly, however, Barajas says it changes perceptions about Latinos. Conexión’s focus on mid-career Latinos is important; the organization’s founder says that it is at this level that the most impactful, positive change can happen.
Barajas’s mission is simple: she wants to help to provide the push that will lead to a healthy number of Hispanics in the C-suite. “If we can do that, everyone will prosper.”