Up and Away

Katherine Archuleta’s journey started in a Denver housing project and has taken her to the highest echelons of government. Along the way, she has kept a singular focus on community.

By Leslie Petrovski

Publish Date: June 26, 2014

“I can be an example of where Latinas in my community can go. They can
be leaders of our country,” says Archuleta. Photo: Jessica Taves

 

Not long after Federico Peña was sworn in as Denver’s first Latino mayor in summer 1983, he made an appearance at Katherine Archuleta’s desk. A former schoolteacher and administrator, Archuleta was working on his staff after helping the 36-year-old Peña win his unlikely bid against 14-year incumbent William McNichols.

“There’s something I want you to do for me,” he said. “I want you to be my council lobbyist.”
Archuleta (B.A. elementary education ’71), who today serves as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), remembers being nonplussed. “I’ve never done any lobbying,” she protested.
“Katherine,” Peña countered. “I’ve never been a mayor.”

Archuleta tells this story from her cell phone at the end of a long day in Houston, where she is promoting health insurance enrollment under the Affordable Care Act. The anecdote illustrates the advice she often gives youth on the precipice of their careers.

“Be a risk-taker,” she says. “Today young people have so many options, they shouldn’t be afraid of going beyond their level of comfort and taking on responsibility. I’ve done things in my career that I, frankly, never thought I could do.”

In 2013, President Obama appointed Archuleta to lead the OPM, making her the highest-ranking Latina in the administration and the first to hold this post. As director of the OPM, she is effectively the country’s HR director-in-chief; her more than 5,000-person agency is responsible for recruiting, shaping and maintaining the federal government’s 2 million-plus employees—a workforce the president, by executive order, would like to see become more diverse.

Archuleta understands that priority intrinsically. Born in the North Lincoln Homes, a public housing project on Denver’s west side, Archuleta grew up in Aurora, graduating from Hinkley High School in 1965. At Hinkley, she became acquainted with then-superintendent of Aurora Public Schools Ruth Dalton, who helped her get into the University of Colorado.

Archuleta was the first person in her family to enroll in college, but by 1969 she had dropped out. Having suffered a personal tragedy, she left Boulder to be closer to her family. Unsure about her future, she reached out to “Miss Dalton,” who by then was teaching education at the upstart Metropolitan State College of Denver.

When Dalton asked if she was ready to return to school, Archuleta said,“ I’m not sure I can.” Dalton was having none of it, pressed an application on her, and said, “You’re coming back to school.”

“It was one of these magic moments when someone enters your life and cares for you,” Archuleta says. “She was this influential woman who never lost track of me. This speaks to what mentorship is all about.”

Attending MSU Denver before construction of the Auraria campus, Archuleta became the archetypal Roadrunner, attending classes in disparate buildings throughout downtown Denver and connecting more deeply with the Latino community.

“It cemented my role in that community,” she says of her experience at MSU Denver. “I met people there who remain my friends and who I’ve worked side by side with for decades. There are many of us who graduated from Metro State because it’s affordable, accessible and in the heartbeat of the Latino community. I don’t think I would be where I am today without that experience. It galvanized a lot of interests, passions and emotions for me.”

Majoring in elementary education, Archuleta would go on to graduate summa cum laude from MSU Denver and to teach 4- and 5-year-olds at Denver’s Del Pueblo Elementary School (now the Girls Athletic Leadership School, an all-girls charter) near Eighth Avenue and Santa Fe Drive. The school catered to the neighborhood, offering bilingual education to local kids.

Able to trace her family’s Colorado roots back to the late 1500s, Archuleta was raised with a deep commitment to community and a profound sense of pride in her Latino heritage. As a young professional, she threw herself into community work and was tapped by Denver Public Schools to run the district’s state bilingual education efforts. That’s how she met Peña, who was drafting legislation on the issue for a civil rights organization.

“She’s very intelligent,” Peña says. “I was very impressed with her knowledge of education and commitment to kids and social justice and education reform.”

Archuleta is a hometown girl at heart, which is why after a short stint working for the California Department of Education, she returned to Colorado and joined Peña’s campaign for Denver mayor, working for him in various capacities during his eight-year administration. She remembers the “Imagine a Great City” years as halcyon days, when this young, idealistic mayor and his equally youthful staff not only worked to transform Denver from a sleepy city to a cosmopolitan mecca, but also changed the racial and gender dynamics of the city’s power structure.

“We felt that what we had could be so much more,” she says. “It was a magic moment in the Denver community and its economic history. When you think about what happened–the development of the 16th Street Mall, the baseball stadium, the airport, the convention center, the parks—all of that changed, and who was at the table making decisions changed.”
In the ensuing years, Archuleta has stepped up to countless challenges. Her bio on whitehouse.gov covers only the high points of the impact she’s made on her home state and the nation: chief of staff and senior policy advisor to Transportation Secretary Peña and then Energy Secretary Peña; senior policy advisor to Mayor John Hickenlooper; chief of staff to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis; and national political director for Obama’s 2012 campaign. But she also helped to launch organizations that today are Mile High City institutions, including The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, the nonprofit Center for Regional and Neighborhood Action, and the Mi Casa Resource Center.

And when she sees the Blue Bear in front of the Colorado Convention Center, she can look back to the work she did for Denver’s Public Art One Percent, tying 1 percent of city capital projects with budgets of $1 million and up to public art for that project.

There is something about Archuleta that is both fierce and approachable. When asked if the protocol is to address her as Director Archuleta, she says, “Oh, brother. Really?” In a 2012 Denver Post column—“The most influential women in Colorado history”—former Colorado first lady Dottie Lamm described Archuleta like this: “Katherine is politically sensitive, but psychologically tough and outspoken. She can be fearsomely direct, even with ‘her own.’ I was there, and part of the ‘accused,’ when she took on her ‘sisters’ of The Women’s Foundation founding committee for not being inclusive enough. ‘You are going against everything you are supposed to stand for!’ she admonished us. And she was right.”
Archuleta recognizes her own power as a role model to young Latinas and is happy to play that part. “I can be an example of where Latinas in my community can go,” says Archuleta, Hispanic Business Magazine’s 2014 Businesswoman of the Year. “They can be leaders of our country.”

Only a few months into her new job, Archuleta is still “drinking from a fire hose” but has already fulfilled a promise she made during her confirmation hearing to roll out a strategic information technology plan. She’s also traveling the country to persuade uninsured Americans to sign up for health insurance and to promote federal employment opportunities. She is a thoroughly modern leader with an active Twitter feed—including the occasional missive in Spanish—an Instagram account and a Facebook page, and she connects with federal employees via LinkedIn.

What’s next? “I’m one of those elders in government,” she says. “But I have a few more good years in me and I want it to be in Denver. This is the fifth year I haven’t been home. I want to go home and be part of the community I deeply love. Those are my roots; Colorado is a state that has magical blue skies, beautiful cities, rich history and it’s really true for me—I crave being there.”