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How this school board member worked with students to lead on environmental policy change

Maimona Afzal Berta has achieved many notable wins during her time as a school board member of the Franklin-McKinley Board of Education in California. One that stands out was her “Global Advocates for Earth” Resolution, passed in April 2019. The idea for the resolution came when a sixth grade class attended a board meeting early in the year to advocate for a recycling program.

Eventually, after more collaboration and discussion, the resolution encompassed more areas including gardening and transit. Maimona went to the students’ classroom and worked with the kids and teachers to develop resolution language, and created a student Task Force that will continue to hold the board accountable to the outlined commitments. Maimona introduced the resolution in April 2019 and it passed with unanimous support.

Explain the value of listening to & supporting students’ and teachers’ concerns, ideas, and voices.

The work I do in the classroom is teaching my students about their own power. It’s not about empowering them, but about students empowering themselves to create change on issues that matter to them. As a board member, this teacher-minded aspiration is no different. Students need to know that their ideas and voice matters and that they can influence real change. Teachers also need this type of power. My role as a school board member cannot be accomplished without amplifying the voices of our students and teachers, because we are the ones living learning in our classrooms each and every day.

Why do you feel it was important for you to work alongside the students & teachers to develop the resolution?

The idea behind the outcomes of this resolution came directly from the students and their teacher. They made the ask of the types of changes they wanted to see actualize in our District. Hence, it seemed most appropriate to involve them at multiple stages of the resolution drafting process. From gathering ideas to visiting their classroom, to hearing them present before the Board, it was important to ensure this resolution was feasible, relevant, and meaningful to students and the broader District community.

What did the process of working with the students and teachers look like?

The process of working with students and their teacher was refreshing. Often times, school board level decisions are made amongst adults who do not have direct experiences working with students or in the classroom. This process involved finding ways to make our communication accessible to students and creating feedback loops.

What were some of the challenges?

Working as a full-time teacher in my own classroom made it challenging to figure out scheduling an in-person visit during school hours. At the same time, it was incredibly important for me to be able to have that direct dialogue with students to emphasize just how critical this work is of protecting our environment and validating their efforts.

What did you learn from this process?

Less of a learning, but more of a reminder through this process was that our students and teachers are the leaders of our community. They (We) are best positioned to organize and provide feedback on policies and systems that can make a difference. 

Is there something you would have done differently?

One area we are working on continuing to develop is systematically building youth leadership and development. Across our schools all students should have the opportunity to voice their experiences and practice advocacy. Utilizing community-based partnerships, a leadership training program is something we hope to be able to expand upon.

How can leaders ensure that they are working towards the inclusion of student & teacher voices?

As a leader, you can either make your best guess at what you think needs to be changed or you can hear directly from the individuals who are experiencing challenges day in and out.

Taking the time to listen to teacher and student experiences informally and directly is so important to building trust, responsiveness, and enacting meaningful changes. It is not enough to depend on a report from someone else on how things are going. Establishing regular opportunities to visit schools and classrooms, meeting with students and teachers, and being accessible through multiple means ensures there are several ways to build feedback loops.

What is something you want LEE members & leaders to know about your approach?

Students and teachers are practicing remarkable activism and advocacy work across our schools. Part of our job as leaders is to be able to identify when this is happening and amplify it. Finding real ways to connect learning in the classroom to actualized changes makes learning all the more relevant, meaningful, and inspiring. This is really what education is about.

What is your vision for educational equity?

My vision for educational equity is a world where the education system is an empowering experience for each and every child. Equity must involve both success for all students and pathways towards expanded opportunities. Education needs to take into account the wealth of experiences and knowledge that our students bring into the classroom in unique and powerful ways.

What do you see as your role in this vision?

Both as a teacher and as a school board member, my role in this vision is being able to create more opportunities for our students and teachers to directly enact changes that will make a positive impact. These opportunities teach students about their power and their responsibility to self-advocate and demand progress. This collaboration is also necessary for a community to truly value each individual's background and experiences. 

*The above interview has been transcribed and is in subjects' own words, with minor edits for clarity or brevity.

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