6 Questions with Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame Inductee Katherine Archuleta
Archuleta has changed the landscape for what is possible for women, specifically Latina women
This interview is one in a series of interviews with the 2020 Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame inductees. Each year, the Hall of Fame inducts a group of contemporary and historic women who have made enduring and exemplary contributions to their field while inspiring and elevating the status of women.
Katherine Archuleta was born and raised in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. After graduating from the University of Boulder, she became a public-school teacher in Denver before she was called into a career in politics and an unwavering commitment to justice and equality.
Archuleta’s prestigious career includes serving as the first Latina to lead the U.S. Office of Personnel Management under President Barack Obama in 2013; serving as the Chief of Staff for two U.S. Cabinet members, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena; and served as the Senior Policy Advisor to Federico Pena when he served as the Secretary of Energy.
Read the conversation below between ColoradoBiz and Archuleta as she shares knowledge and advice from her career, detailing her journey into politics and the movement that defined her career.
ColoradoBiz: To start, tell me a little about your background and your journey to starting your career.
Katherine Archuleta: I was born in Denver and raised here along with my five siblings. It is significant to me that I am the first in my family ever to have been born outside of the San Luis Valley. Since the late 1500s, the Archuletas and the Garcias lived in that magical valley and, but for the medical care my sister urgently needed, we would have remained there. Although my father and mother moved their family from the Sangre de Cristo mountain range to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, they brought with them traditions and values that continue to guide me: love for family and respect for others. I share this with you because those values have had such a powerful effect on my life.
I started my career as a public-school teacher—teaching at a DPS [Denver Public Schools] inner-city school. I had been active in Latino community issues in my college years and I brought that into my professional career by advocating on behalf of Spanish-speaking students in the school district. Recognizing the critical roles of Latinos and women in the decisions that affect their daily lives guided me toward supporting a young Denver Mayoral candidate, Federico Pena. His vision for Denver, “Imagine a great city,” inspired so many people, including me.
I quickly jumped on board his campaign and that was the beginning of a new career in political leadership that has lasted for nearly 40 years. Love for family and respect for others has grounded me; and, commitment to the need for many voices at any decision table has energized me throughout those years.
CB: What are the moments/people/movements that defined your career?
KA: The moment that defined my career was my first step into a university classroom. In the late 60’s not many Latinos or other people of color entered university, and I was one of the fortunate few whose access to higher education was aided by a silent mentor who made sure I had the funds to allow me to start my university experience on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
The people who influenced my career are many. First and foremost were my parents and family, who did all they could to support me. My husband, Edmundo Gonzales, has been my partner and coach at every step of my career and I simply couldn’t have done it without him. City leaders like Federico Pena, Virginia and Bruce Rockwell, and Kay Schomp helped to guide me; and friends like Juanita Chacon, Lauren Casteel, Judy Wagner, Nita Gonzales and Marth Urioste have cheered me on. Young people like Sergio Gonzales, Dusti Gurule, Graciela Gonzales, and Joelle Martinez continue to inspire me every day because of the leadership they bring to some of the most important issues we face in our country.
As far as influential movements – I have been inspired by the work of Dolores Huerta, Corky Gonzales, Cecilia Munoz, Cecil Richards, and Michelle Obama—much as they have inspired women throughout our country.
CB: What were some of the ways that you found success?
KA: Success has so many different meanings—I find that I have to remember that success is not always merely professional, but more about being a well-rounded individual. I don’t know that I have always hit that mark, but I do feel gratified that my daughter calls me when she just wants to chat or has an issue she is working through and needs a thought partner. I feel honored when young people want to hear about my life journey, and they want to share with me what their own journey is like. Finally, acknowledgement by some important people in our country by appointing me to their leadership teams because of my expertise and experience makes me feel like I have had success.
CB: What is your proudest achievement?
KA: The wonderful thing about aging is that it gives you a bigger rearview window to look through, and you get to see some of the scenic highways as well as the rough roads you have traveled. My 40-year marriage to Edmundo; our talented and compassionate daughter, Graciela; my service to the American public alongside two US Presidents, and now being inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame are all achievements I cherish.
CB: What was your greatest hurdle and how did you overcome it?
KA: The greatest hurdle for me—as well as many women of my generation, and, sad to say, for many women today—is to be acknowledged as leaders in our fields. For so long we have struggled to get our heels past the doorways of conference rooms where decisions were being made that affected us, our families and our communities.
I, personally, encountered my own struggle with overcoming the stigma others have put on women—especially women of color—about whether I really belonged at the decision-making table. Fortunately for me, many friends and colleagues assured me that the imposter syndrome I felt was not real and that I was needed at those tables and they pushed me forward.
I remember walking into one of my first policy meetings in the Roosevelt Room of the White House as the Director of the Office of Personnel Management and looking across the room at Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, she nodded to me with a look of “You got this!” And with that small nod, affirmed that I was exactly in the place I needed to be.
CB: What advice would you give to women today?
KA: My advice is three-fold: First, don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and try something you think you can’t do. At the very least you will learn something new. “I don’t know how,” should not be a deterrent to taking on a new experience. Second, be sure that whatever you do and whomever you work with is led by the values you personally hold dear. And finally, I would encourage all of us to acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of many who have paved the way, and that we have a responsibility to mentor and support those who will come after us.