Teresa Acuña MC/MPA 2017 is focused on providing solutions and affecting future generations of policymakers.

By Mari Megias
October 26, 2017

Teresa Acuña MC/MPA 2017 is passionate about making democracy work for everyone. That's why, after graduating from the Kennedy School with her mid-career masters in 2017, she decided to join the School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, where she is the associate director of the Democratic Governance program.

Teresa Acuña MC/MPA 2017

“When I look at what government’s role in society is, I see it can be either the greatest impediment or the greatest opportunity to help a generation move forward and achieve,” she says. “I love the potential democracy offers.” After graduation, she wanted to “channel my energy to not only provide the solutions, but to affect future generations of policymakers and the individuals who will be part of this change that I want to see. And what better place to do it here at Harvard Kennedy School, especially the Ash Center? Some of the most innovative thought leadership is happening here, and I want to tie it back to the practitioners who are actually in power to put it to use. I want to take the research and the learnings from the Kennedy School to the world.”

In September, for instance, she spearheaded an event on campus with Guillaume Liegey MPA 2010 and Brune Poirson MC/MPA 2017, who were both involved in the historic elections in France that swept Emmanuel Macron into the presidency and the party he had established just one year earlier, En Marche!, into power. Liegey is the founder of the European political data firm Liegey Muller Pons, and Poirson assumed office last summer as a member of France’s National Assembly from En Marche.

“At a time when populism is growing into a global phenomenon, many of us are intrigued by what happened in France,” Acuña says. “Audience members walked away from the event understanding what is possible when the popular energy is engaged through democratic methods of campaigning. Through organizing, communicating and canvassing, the En Marche! party held the line against populism and created an interesting case study on how democracies are shaped.”

She notes that Ash livestreams its larger events so alumni from anywhere in the world can tune in. “Our alumni are practitioners who are leaders in their communities, and there’s a lot of information we can give them and they can also contribute so much to the HKS community,” she says. “They provide real-world context. We want to know what we can do to inspire them in their everyday work to advance the common goal of rejuvenating democracy.”

The daughter of immigrants from Mexico, Acuña grew up in a working-class neighborhood in San Bernardino, California. In college at San Diego State, she became active in the immigrant rights movement, and, after graduation, she joined a law firm with a large immigrant clientele.  “I worked with victims of domestic violence, which opened my eyes as to how immigration status could have a negative impact and be used as a control mechanism. But I started thinking that while there’s a lot to be said for helping individuals case by case, I was more drawn to working on the large, systemic changes that need to happen.”

This desire led her to apply for a competitive fellowship in the California state senate, where she worked for state Senator Gilbert Cedillo on issues close to her heart, such as the legislation granting undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses. This policy, which acknowledges that driving is a necessity for Californians to make a living, puts road safety before politics. After working in state government, she went to work on Capitol Hill as a legislative director, before coming to the Kennedy School to learn how to be more effective in her public policy work.

During her time as a student, when she was a Sheila C. Johnson Fellow at the School’s Center for Public Leadership, she relished connecting with the “huge community of leaders from all over the world.” Now, as a staff member, she says the hardest part of her job today is not getting wrapped up in all her many interests. “Because the democracy umbrella is incredibly big, staying focused is really necessary.”

She says the Ash Center is at the forefront of discussions on how to make democracy work. “We are creating a Harvard-wide community on democracy,” she says. “I love that I bring the lens of a first-generation Latina and first-generation college graduate to my work. This is really important because many of us live in an intersectional world, and I want to make sure these voices are included.”