Making History

Making History

Fresh Voice
School board member is Kentucky’s first Hispanic woman elected to office 

Kentucky School Advocate
February 2019
 
By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer
New Livingston County school board member Christine Thompson was sworn in prior to her first meeting. Thompson said she plans to focus on fiscal responsibility, transparency and bringing stability to the board. (Photo courtesy of Christine Thompson)
When Christine Thompson won a seat on the Livingston County school board in November, she was surprised to learn that her position came with an unexpected title – first Latino woman to win an election in Kentucky. 

“I couldn’t believe it, I was like there’s no way,” said the 37-year-old mother of two. “But then I thought, I’ve never heard of a Latino woman (in office), so maybe I am the first.” 
 
New Livingston County school board member Christine Thompson was sworn in prior to her first meeting.
Thompson said she plans to focus on fiscal responsibility, transparency and bringing stability to the board.
(Photos courtesy of Christine Thompson)

Thompson, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who gained their citizenship in the 1970s, didn’t run for the school board to make history; she did it for her daughters and community. 

“I just wanted to make a difference and I want to help make positive changes in our district,” she said. “I think everyone has a stake in a good school system.” 

It was a message she took door to door as she campaigned in Ledbetter, a community of about 1,700 along the Ohio River just east of Paducah. Residents without children or who have grown children told her that they didn’t have a stake in the schools. 

“I would try to explain to them that having a good school district makes the community more attractive," she said. “It has a ripple effect on everything in the community.” 

While Thompson did not set out to be the first Hispanic woman elected in the state, she believes her perspective and experience will be a benefit to the school board. 

“Having people with diverse backgrounds on a board, or serving their community, I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “We all have different points of view and our backgrounds help us make decisions and help shape our view of things.” 
Christine Thompson wasn't the only new member to join Livingston's board this year. Terry Watson, right, also joined the board which also has one open seat which will be filled by an appointment.
Thompson and fellow newly elected board member Terry Watson served at their first meeting Jan. 14. 

“We look forward to working with Mrs. Christine Thompson and Mrs. Terry Watson as they take this exciting step forward to be a positive impact in the lives of our students and community,” Superintendent Victor Zimmerman said. “They will bring unique experiences and skills to our board that will become assets to our school community.” 
 
Christine Thompson wasn't the only new member to join Livingston's board this year. Terry Watson, right, 
also joined the board which also has one open seat which will be filled by an appointment.

Thompson said her priorities on the board include ensuring that the district’s money is well spent, being transparent and bringing stability to the school board. 

“I’m ready, I’m energetic and I’m young and I’m ready to dive in and do my part,” she said. “I have a fresh voice, maybe I can do something good. It just comes down to I’m trying to be a good citizen and good community member.” 

‘It definitely was different’
Thompson, whose maiden name is Alonso, grew up in southern California where her parents met and married after immigrating to the U.S. When she was 14, her parents told her the family was moving to Paducah for her father’s job as a mechanical engineer. 

“I remember when I told my friends in California that I was moving and I was moving to Kentucky, they just had these looks on their faces like we feel so sorry for you,” she said. 

Her friends talked about farms and cows and “just thought Kentucky was so behind on everything and that was a fair perception,” she said. “But that wasn’t the case at all when we got here. But it definitely was different.” 

She grew up in a bilingual household and still speaks Spanish, a skill she’s trying to teach her daughters, who are 7 and 2. 
More about Christine Thompson Thompson graduated from Lone Oak High School, which was later consolidated into McCracken County High, and earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations with a minor in French from Murray State University, where she’s now pursing a master’s in business administration. 

When it came time to buy her first home about six years ago, Thompson spent nearly a year finding the best place to raise her daughter. She chose Ledbetter. 

Still, Thompson was seen as an outsider during the campaign, she said, not because of her ethnicity, but because she did not grow up in the community. 

“How long have you lived here?” was the first question Thompson heard while knocking on doors. 

“I kind of had to explain that I chose to live here. No, I didn’t grow up here and I wasn’t born here, but I made the conscious decision to live here and that should mean something,” she said. 

It worked. Thompson won the open seat by just 19 votes. 

Paving the way 
Soon after the election, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) confirmed her status as the first Hispanic woman elected in the state. 

Thompson is the only female Hispanic elected in Kentucky, but the number is increasing across the country. From 2013 to 2017, the number of Latina elected officials increase 17 percent, according to NALEO. In 2017, there were 2,052 Latinas serving in elected office. 

School boards are leading the way to more diversity in Kentucky elected office. Along with Thompson’s accomplishment, NALEO’s records show that the first Hispanic man to hold elected office in Kentucky was a school board member. That distinction goes to Joe Menez, according to NALEO. Menez = served on the board of Beechwood Independent Schools from 1997 to 2012.

Menez, whose grandparents emigrated from Spain and spent time in Portugal before settling in the U.S., said he never knew he was the first Hispanic elected in the state. 

“I would be surprised, maybe I’m wrong, if there weren’t other Hispanics on schools board in the state of Kentucky,” said Menez, adding that no one ever brought up his ethnicity during his 16 years on the board.  

While Menez’s tenure went mostly unnoticed, Thompson’s accomplishment was quickly picked up by her local newspaper, the Paducah Sun, which featured a story about Thompson soon after the election. At first, Thompson wasn’t sure she was comfortable with the recognition. 

“It’s a small county, it’s a small election,” she said. But her husband, Ben, a middle school teacher in Crittenden County, convinced her to embrace it. 

“It’s still important,” she said. “I’m paving the way for other women of color, not just Latino women. But any progress that we get like that, even as small as we think it is, it’s still really important.”
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