In 2013 Katherine Archuleta was appointed by President Obama to be the first Latina to lead the US Office of Personnel Management. Overseeing the human resources management of the entire federal government, Katherine was responsible for the recruitment, hiring, development and support of federal workers throughout the country. She began her career as a school teacher in Denver, and worked in local government for Denver Mayors Federico Pena and John Hickenlooper. She served as Chief of Staff to two US Department Cabinet Secretaries: Transportation and Labor and as National Political Director for a President Obama’s presidential campaign in 2012.
Tell us a bit about your family and your upbringing.
My family came from the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. Since the late 1500s the culture and values of the San Luis Valley were passed down from generation to generation of Garcias and Archuletas and I am proud to be part of the legacy of Hispanic families who were the first settlers in the region. My mom and dad made sure that we kept the importance of family as a strong value that is shared throughout the valley. The most common question asked in Antonito,
CO, is “who is your family”.
When my sister sustained a terrible injury, my parents moved their family to Denver - setting in motion for me to be the first member of my family born outside of the Valley. For the early part of my life we lived in the North Lincoln homes - which was housing provided for Denver’s lowest income Hispanic families. My parents spoke Spanish in our home but were adamant about making sure that we learned English quickly - at that time in Denver no support was given to those who didn’t speak English and, in fact, many students like my brothers and sister were reprimanded for not doing so.
Even though my dad didn’t have a job when he brought his family to Denver, he found work as a carpet layer and tile setter. A man whose car he bumped into liked the man whom he met exchanging license numbers and offered him a job that eventually my dad turned into a small business that supported our family for many years.
It was a really interesting time to live in Denver as racial lines were drawn much more in Denver then in the Valley. Latinos lived on the West side, Italians and Irish lived on the North side. It seemed to be real self-segregation. I grew up on the West side of town and later moved to Aurora, which at the time seemed like a remote, different place.
Even though we had left the Valley, our family continued to keep our deep Hispanic culture and traditions. Every year we have a family chili festival, where we all gather to peel and roast green chile. At Christmas we gather again to make the best biscochitos! We all cherish the memories of big family dinners with my mom’s sopapillas as the dessert. Keeping traditions going keeps my family connected and together, no matter where we go or what we do.
You worked in DPS for some time and then worked with Federico Pena as a Senior Advisor. How did that transition transpire and what made you decide to make the change?
When I first met Federico, he was a lawyer for MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund) and worked with an organization called the Chicano Education Project. Federico was a strong and visible advocate for Spanish-speaking students and we worked together for several years to ensure that students were taught in their first language while they were learning English. He was a leader for the Latino community on education justice and rights and we quickly became friends. Later when he first ran for public office as a state legislator, I jumped on board to support his campaigns.
In 1982, Federico stopped by my husband’s and my home and shared with us that he was considering running for Mayor and wanted to know what we thought. Many people thought he was the right candidate to lead the City forward and we were just as enthusiastic. When he decided to run, my husband encouraged me to quit my job and work on Federico’s 1983 campaign. I took on the glorious job of working as his scheduler - some say the worst job on any campaign - and I agree. However, the reward was that I got to know all the people who wanted to know him! Federico was elected in 1983 and Denver has grown since then to become one of the country’s most attractive cities to live in because of the vision he created. The times I spent working with him for the next 8 years were the turning point in my career because of the experiences he shared with his whole team in helping to rebuild and re-energize Denver to the city it is today.
Tell us some about the challenges of being the first Latina to lead the US Office of Personnel Management?
It was the challenge that every Latina in government faces, then and now. I was one of the few. I found myself in rooms of high responsibility; in meetings and offices as the only woman and the only woman of color. It’s common to experience imposter syndrome in those types of situations: to question whether you really belong in the room. I did learn, however, that I could stand toe to toe with others - I just had to believe in what my experiences had taught me, what my skills gave me, and how my values would guide me.
There was room for me at the table, but the issue of being the only woman of color in the room was always present. However, it was an incredible time and I cherish those moments. Walking away from my job at the Office of Personnel Management was a tough decision for me but I am grateful for the support that I had earned from all my colleagues in the federal government and especially for the support the President gave me throughout my tenure.
You recently co-founded Dimension Strategies, a firm which helps its clients with various issues including understanding women voters and Latino issues. What issues do you see that you hope your firm can help address?
Dimensions Strategies is a women-owned small consulting firm that does strategic planning for large organizations , government and nonprofits. It allows me to use my skills and experience and to take advantage of what I learned from working in highly charged, fast moving political environments. We help organizations plan their way forward for the next 2-3 years. And while that may seem a short period of time, for many organizations it becomes quite complicated. The issues many of our clients confront often involve issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion - not just for their clients but for themselves. They want to address these issues as they move their visions and missions forward. We help them balance mission and values with successful programs and sound fiscal management. It is exciting to work with our clients as they map their strategies for success through teamwork, shared vision, and directed determination - all things I learned while serving with some incredible elected leaders.
You are known to understand the barriers that women face today. How have you been able to inspire and help other women become leaders?
I am very dedicated to helping other women become leaders. I do a lot of mentoring and public speaking encouraging other women to lead. My story is important because in my field, I have reached some pretty high levels. I feel a responsibility to share my story; to shed light and inspire women and men who want to become leaders in the Latino community. I help them figure out how they can do it, how they can become real leaders.
I have maintained my commitment to the Latino community, and especially women, throughout my career. It is part of who I am and I have never lost sight of those values that can help to inspire others. They have traveled with me, wherever I have been and in whatever I have done, and I have focused on this and been committed to this without fail.
Your values will show you where you need to go, and the skills will help you get there. But if you don’t have the principles and values, it won’t work. Every successful leader I have worked with has had a strong sense of values to guide them and the wisdom to know that it takes a strong team to help reach their goals.
You were the Executive Director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation in New Mexico, and have co-founded several organizations. Describe your passion about helping others and working with community organizations.
My north star is how to make things better - better for my family and better for the many communities I am part of. Our daughter, Graciela is 30 years old. I have an obligation to show her the way - to share with her who we are as a family, who we are as a community , and what our role must be to keep all of it strong. She has a lineage that is important and family that is important. I want my legacy, if I am to have one, to be her. If she can carry on what I learned from my father and mother and she can share that with her children, then I will have great comfort.
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
I think it is the same thing that I have seen in my own life. How do we find the strength within ourselves to be who we can be, should be and will be? It takes a family and community to support women and girls in our community. It’s up to them to understand the power they have within themselves.
When my friends told me I was being nominated. I was really excited for myself, but I’m really excited for my daughter. She will know that many women like me - women of color - have contributed to our state’s history and that recognition lays the inspiration for what she can, will and must do to keep our communities strong.
My coaching and mentoring advice comes down to a very simple question: What guides you, what is your north star? Staying true to your values will alway put you on the right path. Knowing how you will fulfill those values is always the big test but I encourage young women I talk to never wander too far afield
Is there a message you want to make sure we are sharing with others?
We truly stand on the shoulders of others. No one does this by themselves. I think about those who came before me; and the people I am responsible for ahead of me. I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude and responsibility. I think about my friends, family, culture, my daughter – I continue to strive to be the light that can shine the way.
If I can share that I care, then I have given. And when I share my hopes and dreams I often find that I help others do the same.
The jobs and titles I have had are not necessarily who I am. The title is less important than the person you are. What is really important to me is that my experiences in all the titles I have held have helped me to be a better person.