Bravewoman’s Arduous Journey From Student to Union President

By Gracia Hernandez Rovelo



In a busy classroom at City College’s Ocean campus, Mary Bravewoman stands at the front with a whiteboard full of equations behind her. She speaks energetically, explaining details of Pre-Calculus and Trigonometry, using big gestures to show important concepts. At her feet, Dolly, her faithful canine companion, rests, occasionally raising her head to look around the room. 

Bravewoman’s journey from student to math professor to President of the American Federation of Teachers 2121 (AFT) highlights her resilience and self-belief. The Guardsman honors Mary Bravewoman, whose story at City College exemplifies values celebrated this, and every, Women’s History Month.

Born in Santa Cruz, California, Bravewoman’s heritage is a mix of Mexican and Native American. Guided by her grandfather’s influence, she joined the union and pursued a degree.

“When my grandfather became a union man, he always instilled in us that you were stronger with the union because you have your rights protected,” she said. 

Bravewoman embarked on her educational journey ten years out of high school, as an unemployed single mother living below the poverty level.

“People can take a lot from you, such as your physical possessions, but they can never take your knowledge from you,” Bravewoman said.

Despite having once been labeled as “lazy” and “not college material”, Bravewoman persevered. “You will go as far as you want to go, and oftentimes you go farther than you ever dreamed,” she affirms. 

Bravewoman’s path began at City College in 1990, where she met counselors Joan Vitorelo and Joseph Padua, who supported and encouraged her to pursue an Associate of Arts (AA) degree. Guided by mentors like Cindy Moody and Bie Han Tan, she spent four years at City College, accumulating a hundred units across various subject areas. Her experiences there motivated her to pursue two degrees, including advanced mathematics, after transferring to San Francisco State University.

“It was a long road, sixteen years for the time I started at City and the time I finished my master’s program, but it was worth it,” Bravewoman said, “Find a mentor in your discipline, for education; challenge yourself, don’t be afraid of doing things that you were told you couldn’t do.”

When she started at City College as a student, Bravewoman never envisioned that she would become a professor in the math department, never mind holding the position of president of the teacher’s union. Her involvement in labor work felt like a natural extension of her commitment to education as an act of social justice. 

“When I first met her, she was starting to volunteer with the union,” said James Tracy, Chair of Labor and Community Studies at City College, “You could hardly get a word out of her, she was very quiet at meetings, what we did know is that she was taking it in, almost like a mathematician.” 

Tracy has known Bravewoman for approximately five years, witnessing her dedication to labor organizing within the union. He describes her as an exceptionally committed and principled leader. He emphasizes her widespread respect among students and colleagues, “She really starts her work from a place of love and rigor, whether she is in a classroom or a picket line”.

Mary Bravewoman helps a student with a math problem on Thursday Oct. 12, 2023. Her dog, Dolly, has been accompanying her in her classrooms for 14 years. Photo by Gracia Hernandez Rovelo/The Guardsman

According to Bravewoman, when she was asked to take on a leadership role within the union, it wasn’t something that she actively sought, but she felt a responsibility to step up. She recognized the need to safeguard their values and the college’s vision, which, from her point of view, wasn’t being well-represented. “When we are educated then we can make decisions for ourselves, and we can engage in the conversations with the decision makers and we can be part of that decision making process, so it’s really an act of social justice.” She said, “I was asked to run for union leadership, which I hadn’t sought. But with no one else stepping up to fight for our values and the college’s vision, I felt I had a responsibility.”

Bravewoman leads the college’s largest union, the American Federation of Teachers 2121, which represents the faculty. As the president of AFT2121, Bravewoman’s responsibilities include serving as the chief spokesperson, organizing and leading meetings, liaising with other campus constituents, and overseeing the bargaining team. She is particularly proud of AFT2121’s collaboration with other labor unions, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, in initiatives like Proposition O and the successful replacement of trustees who voted for faculty layoffs.

In her candidacy statement, Bravewoman emphasized the depth of her connection to the college. As a mathematics faculty member, a precinct representative, budget analyst, among other roles, she has been shaped by City College. The driving force behind her desire to be the president of the teachers’ union was the profound commitment to students, colleagues and the college’s mission of remaining a true community college. “City College is a life saver; it changes lives for the better, it is the heart of the city,” she said.

Bravewoman’s future goals and aspirations in professional aspects included the desire to see the teachers’ union settle a fair contract before she is out of office. She recounted how an agreement was reached on Dec. 1, 2023, fully restoring concessions made during the 2021-2022 academic year, which had resulted in wage reductions ranging from four to ten percent for faculty. 

Additionally, starting in July 2023, there was a nine percent raise, followed by a three percent raise for the 2023-2024 academic year and another three percent raise starting in 2024 through the 2024-2025 year. Finally, in July 2025, there will be a final two percent raise, totaling a 14 percent increase over the three-year contract period from 2023 to 2026. 

“We won not all of that faculty deserves, certainly, but we won the best contract that we could, and our board of trustees were very instrumental in helping us get that contract settled,” Bravewoman said. “I am very pleased,” she added. 

Bravewoman plans to retire in five years in order to spend more time with her family. By that time, since the college is not currently in a contract dispute, she hopes their focus will be on supporting the college’s efforts to increase enrollment and meet its needs to support students.

 “I am eternally grateful for City College, and I just really want to make sure it’s here for future generations,” Bravewoman said. “Its impact goes beyond individual students; the ripple effects on families and the community will pay dividends for years to come.” 

Her message to women, especially women of color, and anyone starting out, is that the opportunities available at City College serve as a gateway to pursuing and achieving your dreams. 

“No one should ever tell you that you are limited to be anything, that you’re limited in your potential because of who you are, how you look, or where you come from,” Bravewoman said, “that potential for growth and achievement is in all of us.”

Mary Bravewoman solves and checks equations with her students on Thursday Oct. 12, 2023. Photo by Gracia Hernandez Rovelo/The Guardsman.

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