Aura Vasquez: a Colombian-born immigrant, community leader, fearless social and environmental justice advocate and running to be the first Afro-Latina candidate to represent Los Angeles City Council District 10.
Aura was born and raised in Colombia. As a child growing up in Candelaria, a sugar cane town just outside of Cali, Aura’s parents taught her the values of hard work and belief in oneself. Her mother, Leonor, was a teenage mom who did not graduate high school, but worked hard and opened her own successful beauty salon to help support her family. Aura’s father, Jorge, never attended college, but earned his technical degree and became an accountant and community leader. Jorge started taking Aura to town hall meetings and other community meetings when she was six years old and would ask her, “Aura, what do you think about what we are saying?” Even though she was young, he encouraged her to speak up and share her opinions. Aura’s father taught her about equity, leadership, and how to break down patriarchal barriers. He helped her find her voice and showed her that her opinion matters.
Aura came to the United States with her family in 1996 to escape the bloodshed and violence caused by the drug cartels and the War on Drugs during “la era de violencia,” or the era of violence in Colombia. At age nineteen, Aura was an undocumented student working nights and weekends to put herself through college in New York City. In her last year at Lehman College studying Political Science, Aura joined Congressman Eliot Engel’s office as an intern, exposing her for the first time to how elected officials greatly impact people’s lives.
After graduating college, Aura joined United Way of New York City where she managed the Dropout Prevention Initiative and advocated for students at some of the worst performing schools in the city. Through her advocacy, Aura’s efforts helped to close the achievement gap for students, supporting them to succeed academically, improve standardized test scores, and graduate from high school. In working with students whose greatest struggles were poverty and marginalization, Aura saw firsthand how unequal access to education is often driven by poverty and institutionalized racism. Aura’s early policy roots in education advocacy continue to drive her passion to ensure that all youth have equal access to quality education.
Becoming a Community Organizer
In 2008, first time presidential candidate Barack Obama’s grassroots background inspired Aura to pursue a career in organizing as a way to build community and advocate for change. Aura embarked on a new chapter of her career as an organizer for the Orange County Congregation Community Organization (OCCCO), an affiliate of the PICO Network, the largest faith-based, grassroots organizing network in the country. Aura’s efforts helped change the City of Santa Ana’s policies that targeted immigrants for driving without a license in Orange County.
As one of the most conservative counties in the nation, Orange County allowed law enforcement to impound residents’ cars, simply for being unable to show proof of a driver’s license. Aura led a coalition of community leaders, law enforcement representatives, and elected officials to build bipartisan support for countywide change to impoundment practices. As a result, law enforcement agreed to restrict when they could ask drivers for their licenses and allow people without licenses to call someone to pick up their car, to avoid impoundment. Aura’s efforts supported the push for broader policy change across California, which today allows undocumented residents to obtain drivers licenses.
In seeing the changes her advocacy made to Southern California, Aura decided to impact her own neighborhood. She ran and was elected to the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council (WCKNC) in 2012, where she became the only Latina and only non-Korean American to serve on the board. Aura’s advocacy focused on affordable housing, littering, and parking accessibility in the face of intense urban development. As the chair of the Land Use Committee, Aura established a community benefits policy to make businesses and developers give back to her community and not just profit. She urged the City Planning Commission and Los Angeles City Council to not tear down affordable housing units for expensive new condominiums, which displace long-term residents.
Aura prioritized making the Neighborhood Council more accessible to the great cultural diversity of her community. One Saturday a month, Aura would set up a lemonade stand with a sign saying: “I am your Neighborhood Council Representative, come speak with me!” on the corner of her street. She welcomed residents to talk about issues concerning them and took city officials on neighborhood walks so they could better understand the issues facing the residents she represented.
Protecting the Environment
Aura has been dedicated to fighting for the environment since she was a child. As an eleven year-old student in Colombia, Aura first learned about the effects of global warming and Ozone-layer destruction in the late 1980s through a children’s television show. Alarmed about what she learned and motivated by her father’s lessons in leadership, Aura requested a meeting with her school principal to urge her school to take action. With support from her school, Aura founded her school’s first environmental club where she educated students about the effects of global warming and urged her classmates to stop using aerosols.
Since moving to Los Angeles, Aura has spearheaded the Climate Movement in disadvantaged communities around the country. In 2013, Aura fought against legislation that would force residents to pay utility companies for revenue lost due to the increased use of solar energy. She led the Sierra Club’s groundbreaking “Beyond Coal” campaign to help Los Angeles eliminate its dependency on coal. In March of 2013, Aura’s work came to fruition when Mayor Villaraigosa announced that Los Angeles will be coal-free by 2025 at an event attended by former vice president Al Gore, Sierra Club executive director Mike Brune, and philanthropist and businessman Tom Steyer. Aura’s efforts will make Los Angeles the largest coal-free city in the United States.
Aura was the driving force in banning single-use plastic bags in Los Angeles. She helped establish the Feed-in Tariffs Initiative in Los Angeles, which is the largest rooftop solar program in the country. She also advocated for passage of SB-350, the Clean Energy Pollution Reduction Act, which requires public utilities to produce 50% of their electricity from clean energy sources by 2030 and reduce greenhouse gas levels to 40% below 1990 levels in California.
Aura has utilized her community organizing efforts to bring thousands of people together for Environmental Justice. First, in 2013 at the “Forward on Climate” Rally in Los Angeles, and later through the People’s Climate March in 2017 in Washington D.C., Aura played a key role in organizing the largest marches in Los Angeles and the country, uniting people driven by the passion to tackle environmental racism, dependency on fossil fuels, and building a 100% renewable energy future. At the marches, Aura spoke about the importance of creating local jobs through investing in a green economy, bringing benefits to communities most affected by high bills and pollution, and working with leaders to fight Climate Change.
In Solidarity with Standing Rock
In November 2016, Aura joined the GreenLatinos delegation to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux to fight TransCanada Corporation’s efforts to build a crude oil pipeline through their community and the Mississippi River. When Aura arrived at the Oceti camp where the protest took place, she was moved by the unity of the nation’s tribes and the generosity of people from around the country who joined and sent aid to the protestors.
After Aura’s first visit, she decided to return again during Thanksgiving with two truckloads of supplies and four other supporters. Aura and her companions arrived at Standing Rock following a full day of driving in snow and freezing weather, only to be greeted by a sad scene. A confrontation with the police led to a young woman almost losing her arm while dozens of others were injured. In the days that followed, Aura participated in daily know-your-rights, civil disobedience, and peaceful protest trainings led by community organizers at the frontlines. Aura also respectfully partook in the daily prayers and water ceremonies held by indigenous community leaders.
The Standing Rock protests reminded Aura of why she was fighting and organizing for environmental justice. At Standing Rock, Aura saw clearly that the current energy paradigm protects and enriches polluters, not the people or the environment. The ultimate decision by elected officials to allow the Dakota Access pipeline to proceed made Aura realize that the fossil fuel industry not only pollutes our air and water but also pollutes American democracy by influencing the political process in order to turn a profit. Her time at Standing Rock further entrenched Aura’s dedication to organizing people to fight for a fossil-free world and a world that does not exploit the land and labor of indigenous people and other communities of color.
Life as a LADWP Commissioner
In 2017, Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Aura Vasquez to the Board of Commissioners for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) in 2017. Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to confirm Aura’s appointment, making her the youngest Commissioner and first immigrant to serve on LADWP. As a Commissioner, Aura helped manage the largest publicly owned utility in the United States, with 9,000 employees who serve 647,000 water customers and 1.4 million electricity ratepayers.
During her tenure, Aura focused primarily on making LADWP more accessible, equitable, and transparent. In the 117 years that LADWP has existed, Aura is the only Commissioner to host community “Office Hours” and have an open door policy. Once a month, Aura met with customers and stakeholders, who shared their ideas, concerns, and suggestions for improvement. She left each meeting more knowledgeable and motivated to use her status as Commissioner to make clean water and power more accessible for Angelenos.
Aura embedded equity into her work as Commissioner by educating the community on the Department’s Equity Metrics Data Initiative (EMDI). The EDMI is a tool that helps LADWP ensure equitable access to public resources such as water access and solar energy distribution, helps redistribute public resources through customer incentive programs, department purchases, and partnerships with minority-owned businesses, and measures the Department’s success at hiring and promoting a diverse staff. As Commissioner, Aura promoted and expanded the EDMI and used it to champion the Shared Solar program, which aims to bring solar energy to Los Angeles renters. Aura’s equity-driven efforts also enabled her to secure robust funding for energy efficiency programs that created union jobs and benefited LADWP’s most vulnerable customers by helping with lowering their bill.
Aura’s goal for a 100% renewable energy future in Los Angeles has been her North Star. As an LADWP Commissioner, she helped bring funding for electric vehicle infrastructure to communities with low access to such technology, including Crenshaw, Watts, and the San Fernando Valley. In her last months as a Commissioner, Aura fought fiercely to retire three coastal gas plants in Los Angeles neighborhoods and replace them with renewable energy. In March 2019, Mayor Eric Garcetti instructed the LADWP to repower the Scattergood, Harbor, and Haynes generating stations with renewable energy only. This decision will flood the Los Angeles economy with green local jobs, protect residents’ health, and support the City’s goal to be a national leader in the fight against Climate Change.
Agent of Change
While Aura has been a fearless grassroots advocate for those without a voice, she has also helped businesses reduce their environmental footprint. Aura has worked for Johnson Controls International, the Fortune 500 company that invented the thermostat, to reduce energy costs for customers and reinvest the savings into infrastructure improvements. Aura’s work with Johnson Controls enabled her to implement the environmental policies she has championed on the ground into the business practices of a major corporation. Aura also founded her own consulting company, Vasquez Solutions, where she merges her experience as organizer, social justice advocate, sustainability expert, and policy advisor to help her clients solve complex issues. Vasquez Solutions enables its clients to incorporate environmental sustainability practices while working in partnership with the community to build an equitable world.
Aura has traveled across the country in partnership with organizations including the New Organizing Institute and the National Democratic Training Committee training everyday people on how to run for office and effectively organize communities. Aura was an instrumental part of the 2018 #BlueWave due to her work coaching Democrats on communications, social media strategy, and field organizing. Her efforts helped elect hundreds of new Democrats and flip the U.S. House to a Democratic majority. In her own education as an organizer, Aura has studied under Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, who designed Barack Obama’s successful neighborhood organizing initiative. Aura’s organizing efforts outside of California include working with Indiana public school teachers to help them fight for salary raises and train Democrats interested in running for office in West Virginia, Missouri, Texas, and Louisiana.
A fighter for fairness, Aura addressed thousands of people at the Women’s March in 2019 with a celebratory message on how far women have come. She also shared with the crowd: “We have a long way to go and we are making strides.” She is proud to be part of the wave of women shaping politics at the local and national levels and will do even more when elected to serve Los Angeles District 10.
Aura is the voice you need in Los Angeles City Hall. She is a fearless advocate who has faced down developers and other entrenched political interests to halt the displacement of long-term residents, make clean energy and water more accessible to everyone, and find humane solutions to Los Angeles’s homelessness crisis. Aura has the vision and skill to bring innovation, economic prosperity, and much-desired infrastructure improvements to build a District 10 and City of Los Angeles where everyone can thrive.
In Her Spare Time...
In her free time, Aura explores the outdoors, loves to dance, and grows vegetables in her garden. She is committed to working together with you to effectively use City funds, make City Hall accessible and transparent for all, and bring much-needed resources to our neighborhoods.