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Municipal Politics

I Won a Seat at the Table. That’s Just the First Step

As a school trustee and woman of colour, I’ve figured out what I need to do now.

Jennifer Reddy 21 Mar

Jennifer Reddy is a OneCity Vancouver School Board trustee, associate director at SFU and a cofounder of EdMeCo. Follow her on Twitter @reddyforchange.

I am proud to be a Vancouver School Board trustee. I was one of few women of colour elected in the recent municipal elections, and I want to share some of my experience in hope that this won’t be the case the next time around.

Just before the election, in the midst of high anxiety and uncertainty, I was at a community event with young women of colour who were interested in political leadership. Sitting in a circle, I asked if they knew anyone who looked like them and who held a formal position of power.

Out of 16, no one put up their hand. No direct access to decision-making, no role models, no ownership of a system that is meant to serve them. I thought about how this impacts a young person’s sense of belonging in their community. As we talked, I learned that these young women and I shared a commitment to make life in our city safer, more inclusive and more rewarding for people now and for future generations.

Like others, I’ve noticed the lack of diversity in our elected bodies. During the election, I asked for support from my colleagues and peers. To my surprise, some people told me that they could not publicly support me because of their careers or personal preference.

For me, it is not a choice to stand up to injustice — it is a requirement and function of the skin I live in. I cannot choose to look away. Thankfully, I am fortunate to be supported by a strong community of peers and mentors who know that the pathway to justice is about removing injustice, and about showing up. Like those young women I met during the campaign, I know that having a seat at the table is the first piece, and what I do when I’m there is even more significant.

What has it been like so far? There are many words to describe the experience of holding a seat at the table of public education decision-making. It’s an honour to be among educators and other elected officials who want to lead a better and brighter future for public education. When I reach for my microphone, I feel an immense amount of pressure to ask the right questions, to ensure I’m representing the voices that aren’t in the room, while at the same time considering those that are, and to weigh the impact of seemingly small decisions that will undoubtedly affect the future of our education system, and by extension, our city.

With each choice I make at the board table, I ask myself how I am supporting the success of young people while reflecting the needs of our ever-changing city.

How do we ensure that we are building a system where underrepresented and marginalized groups can access spaces for decision-making? Not just for a moment, but for the long haul. At times, I feel like I am somewhere that I don’t belong, but I’m learning as I go, spotting the detours, and taking opportunities to listen, to speak, to act — all while staying committed to my belief in the young people and educators of our city.

When I think back to the 15-year-old me who was searching frantically for role models that I could relate to, I remember how lonely the journey can be. I think about those young women who said they didn’t know anyone who looked like them in an elected position, and that’s how I know I am right where I need to be.

We are faced with challenging problems that require diverse perspectives, ideas and contributions. How do we make use of the tools we have to make the system better — more inclusive, more safe, more equitable? How do we lead, build, and better the system in ways that make a tangible difference for students and their families?

In the coming weeks and months, I will continue to seek out voices that are sidelined, dismissed, under-represented. I am more committed than ever to seize this opportunity and make lasting change.  [Tyee]

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