When Alysa Cisneros won election to the Sunnyvale City Council in November 2020, at age 33, she became the first openly queer woman to serve on a city council in Santa Clara County since Jamie McLeod sat on the City of Santa Clara council from 2004 -2012. When her council colleagues voted for her as vice-mayor in 2022, she became the first queer woman in the county to ever hold that title.
Besides creating a career in politics, Cisneros is a role model for the LGBTQ+ community and students at her alma mater, De Anza College. She credits the school with instilling her with the confidence to pursue her passion.
Things might have gone differently. Cisneros had a baby girl at age 19, and is a prior recipient of food stamps, but her determination and resiliency led to her success.
Cisneros was raised in Sunnyvale. Her mother was a medical assistant at O’Connor Hospital and her father worked as a janitor and machine shop worker at Hewlett Packard. Her father rose through the ranks during his 30 years with the company, eventually becoming a global manager. With her parent’s combined incomes, Cisneros’ family was able to rent a home in the Bay Area, something that feels out of reach for many today.
Cisneros said affordable housing is desperately needed as people are commuting 2 1/2 hours a day, each way from areas like the Central Valley where they can own a home. In addition to creating affordable housing, her policy goals include completing the redevelopment of downtown Sunnyvale, improving public transportation, and supporting small businesses.
In 2006, Cisneros’ life changed with the birth of her daughter and the realization that working class people have the odds stacked against them. Reading “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich brought home to her how difficult the lives are of working-class people, who even while holding several minimum wage jobs, struggle to get ahead. This revelation galvanized her to reassess the challenges she faced and work to make a difference for others.
“It occurred to me that the reasons why my life was hard was not because of me, or anything that I’m doing wrong,” she said, “but because of how society is structured to benefit some people. It’s a lot easier to achieve the same things based on privilege.”
Experiencing severe ADHD lends her a unique lens and makes her extremely focused on certain issues. She’s learned to appreciate it, turning a difficulty into an asset. Being a young, bisexual city councilmember also sets her apart.
Cisneros believes diverse representation across demographics is essential for ensuring policies are insightful and effective. For example, being a renter brings a deeper understanding of the value of rent control.
“Ideally, you’d want to have all of those voices coming from those different experiences,” she said. “The council’s the most diverse it’s ever been, and it enriches us because we have different career backgrounds, different ages, and different life experiences.”
But it wasn’t always this way. When Cisneros joined the Sunnyvale City Council, she was the only woman of color and the only queer person until Richard Mehlinger, a bisexual man, joined the council in 2023.
Cisneros made it her personal mission to make access, equity, and inclusion part of city policy but was met with resistance from other councilmembers, she said.
In addition, she championed a human relations commission, made up of residents, which addresses equity.
“It was a big ask to get it,” she said, adding she won the other councilmembers over by repeatedly speaking about its importance and gaining their empathy.
While campaigning for office, Cisneros faced disagreement with one of her consultants about revealing she’s bisexual. He told her lesbians who didn’t consider it a thing would be intolerant and advised her not to mention it.
“I was not expecting it,” she said, “I just hadn’t come across any pushback on my identity. That was not an acceptable answer to me.”
Otherwise, her sexuality came up in positive ways, she said, with people saying she’d increase that representation as an openly queer person serving on the city council.
“That was not always a safe thing to do,” she said. “I feel very lucky to live in a time where it was.”
In fact, running against two opponents, Cisneros captured almost 54% of the votes. She said the city moving to district elections encouraged her to run, as citywide elections can cost $60,000 to $100,000.
Although Cisneros struggled academically in high school because of not being diagnosed with ADHD, she resolved to attend college and pursue a career in politics. She worked in politics following high school, advocating for tenants’ rights and increasing the minimum wage. Without a college degree and a baby, she felt limited and decided to enroll at De Anza College, following in her father’s footsteps. It helped that professors and staff were supportive. Empowered by
knowledge and opportunities, she excelled in political science and government.
Cisneros credits a De Anza professor with encouraging her to pursue graduate school. The professor wrote in one of her papers, “Have you considered going to grad school? I think that you’d do really well.” Cisneros hadn’t even considered the possibility until that moment. As a person of color, she also knew she needed twice as much credibility to be hired for a job as someone who was white or male, she said.
“So, I went for it,” she said. “I might not have if my professor hadn’t done that. De Anza offers those experiences and accessibility to college to people who would not have it otherwise.”
Cisneros transferred to Mills College, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in political, legal, and economic analysis and received a master’s degree in public policy. Following college, she worked as a community organizer and public policy analyst. She is proud of helping to pass state legislation that allowed foster youth and homeless students to access financial aid until they were 26 years old.
De Anza reached out to Cisneros following college to offer her a job teaching American Government and Grassroots Democracy. She was also invited to be the keynote speaker at the school’s Lavender Graduation ceremony honoring the resilience and the accomplishments of its LGBTQ+ graduates.
“It’s been an incredible opportunity to give some of what I received to students,” she said, “and hopefully propel them forward.”