Shortly after graduating from Sacramento State, Elsie Guerrero ’11 (Government) was working in a special needs classroom at a south Sacramento elementary school when a young boy came up to her at recess. Referring to one of his special needs classmates with autism, the boy asked why she acted the way she did.
Guerrero soon left her job with the school to begin working in political advocacy, but that moment – and the other misunderstandings about disability and even abuse that she witnessed – stayed with her for several years.
“I missed my kids,” she says. “I decided to write a children’s book to show people how amazing these kids are.” How Eli and Emily Become Friends, a book about autism inspired by that recess encounter, was published in 2016. Since then, Guerrero has published seven additional books about children with autism, dyslexia, cerebral palsy and other disabilities, helping kids and parents better understand and accept their peers with disabilities.
“One book led to two books, to three books, and the next thing you know I have people sharing their stories with me,” Guerrero says. “My stories are inspired by real people.”
Today, she lives in Washington, D.C., working for a nonprofit political advocacy organization that focuses on immigration, voter rights, inequality and other issues. Her ultimate goal is to return home to Sacramento to open her own firm advocating for children with special needs and the Latinx community.
Guerrero, the first and still only member of her family to attend college, originally enrolled at a private Bay Area university but struggled financially. After two years, she came back to Sacramento and started at Sacramento State, where she began to thrive. She participated in Associated Students Inc. and the Sacramento Semester program, which provided her the chance to intern with a state assembly member as well as with a lobbying firm. And at a time when state budget cuts meant tuition was rising, she had plenty of opportunity to flex her advocacy muscles through protests and other forms of activism.
“It was good time to be a college student as a government major. You got to get your feet wet and get involved in politics, government and campaigning,” she says. “I got to see and experience the kind of work I wanted to do. Being able to be in (the Sacramento Semester) program opened doors for me.”
After Sacramento State, Guerrero in 2013 earned a master’s degree in public administration from Golden Gate University and, in 2015, another master’s in public affairs and practical politics from the University of San Francisco. During grad school, she interned with United Cerebral Palsy working on policies surrounding disability rights, before returning to working with children with special needs from 2016-2018. In June, she began working in Washington for Democracy Initiative, an issues-based campaign organization.
All the while, she continued publishing her children’s books and has been featured on Telemundo, NBC Latino, Hispanic Pro, and various blogs. Three more books, centered around Latinx issues, will be published later this year during Hispanic Heritage Month. The reaction to her books, she says, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“A lot of the response has been, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about that,’ ” Guerrero says. “People find it informative. Kids say, ‘Oh, I got to learn a little more about autism.’ ”
Learning about other individuals who are different from them is important to a child’s development, says Courtney Overton, a speech language pathologist who has read Eli and Emily to her students, but it’s also crucial that children with disabilities see themselves represented in books and other media they consume.
“I always give the example, not only for kids with disabilities but also for children of color, that when you see a photograph and you’re taking a group photo, immediately you look for yourself in that group photo because you’re always looking for someone that you can identify with,” Overton says. “When you translate that into education, it’s important for students with disabilities and students of color to see people in literature who look like them and to see educators who look like them, so that they can understand that they’re not alone.”
Overton met Guerrero when both volunteered at an event for high schoolers to help them learn more about applying for college, another of Guerrero’s passions. As if she isn’t kept busy enough through her advocacy work and writing, Guerrero also co-founded and runs Advancing Latinas into Leadership, or ALL, a mentoring program for D.C.-area Latina high school students. The organization provides help with college preparation, awards scholarships and connects students with Latina professionals for mentorship.
So far, she says, all of the young women involved in the program have gone on to college.
“I always said that the moment I think I’m becoming successful, I want to give back and I want to give back to those with similar backgrounds to myself and share the knowledge I wish I had when I was in high school.”
To learn more about Guerrero’s books and advocacy work, visit elsieguerrero.com.