Posts Tagged Activist of the Month
At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for March: Sameth Mell. Read about his experience as a strong advocate for education, housing, and immigrant communities.
Sameth Mell is an active leader with the Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees & Communities of Color (CIRCC), serving on the leadership and advocacy committees. He works for the Mount Baker Housing Association as the Outreach & Resident Services Manager, helping residents access needed services and programs, and helping them to engage in their community. He is also responsible for connecting the agency at large to community based organizations and public officials, and works on legislative materials. He is a community activist extraordinaire on behalf of the Cambodian community and many social justice issues that the community faces.
Sameth supported the Campaign for Student Success (C4SS) by adopting its three principles of funding and fairness, talent, and accountability as part of CIRCC’s advocacy agenda for this year, along with other priorities that focus on housing development for communities in South Seattle, opposition to building a new youth jail, and ending fines for formerly incarcerated people that often prevent them from being able to support themselves.
After he put together CIRCC’s advocacy agenda, Sameth then scheduled C4SS group meetings with four Seattle City Council members to date, and seven state legislators. As a small group, C4SS met with council members Burgess, Johnson, Herbold and Harrell. Each time, C4SS had thoughtful conversations with the council member about the priorities on our advocacy agenda, and C4SS has asked the council member to sign onto the Campaign for Student Success. Of the four, one has signed on so far. Sameth is now working on setting up more appointments with the remaining Seattle City Council members.
Sameth was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his parents fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. After his father died in the camp, his mother signed up to relocate him and his three siblings to the United States in 1985.
Living in poverty in mid-1980s Seattle, Sameth wondered why he was transferred from High Point Elementary School near his home and bused to Lafayette Elementary seven miles away. He didn’t understand the policies then.
Sameth became involved in Asian Counseling and Referral Service’s APIRA (Asian Pacific Islander Rising Above) program in his teen years, and started to recognize his Khmer identity as being important to him. He began working on identity politics, recognizing racism and oppression and addressing more of that as he grew older. Sameth says, “I saw organizing as a way to effect change and create equity for my community members.”
In addition to C4SS, Sameth is working with the Cambodian-American Community Council of Washington State to create scholarships. They have strong advocates from the education sector working on the education subcommittee, particularly around mentorship to help students continue to higher education. He hopes to have conversations with elected officials about helping support Cambodian-Americans attain degrees and certificates, and share stories about the Khmer Rouge genocide.
When Sameth went to high school, there were only two paragraphs about the Khmer Rouge genocide in his history books. He would like to see an education mechanism to educate the general public about the genocide so that his community can take pride in overcoming that, and draw attention to its implications in today’s political climate. He says, “Refugees don’t come to America because they just want a better life. My mother never asked to be here. We had no choice but to survive.”
Sameth says all the issues he works on intersect. In addition to C4SS, he is supporting the creation of a Filipino Community Center, construction of the Mount Baker Gateway Project to build 250 affordable housing units in Southeast Seattle, and the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). He says, “We’re rewriting the narrative – ecology equals affordable housing. If we want to build on a space contaminated by solvents, we need to get MTCA funds to make that happen.”
His overall plan is create spaces where people can live, celebrate their cultures, and have access to quality education. After all, Sameth says, “We have along Rainier the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the country.”
By MyKaila Young, LEV Intern
At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for January: Heather Wallace.
Every New Year brings the opportunity for infinite possibilities. As the year begins, I’m sure you wonder about all the people, events and experiences that will occur over the next 364 days. Being in the right place at the right time opens the right doors to many of the great experiences and people that will make the year worthwhile, and that was the case for Heather Wallace when she crossed paths with LEV Spokane Regional Field Director Sandra Jarrard.
Heather’s background is in sociology, and she is connected with the importance of what many may call “Overall Life Experience.” One thing that stood out to me about Heather was that she’s not concerned with numbers and statistics, but how things really are and ways to address issues that may be viewed as broken or problematic.
For 15 years, she worked mainly with adolescents and then went on to the administrative level of medical management. When she wasn’t making an impact in the way she had envisioned, she did something about it and went back to school and eventually attained a Masters in Communication and Leadership Studies with a focus in dialogue and community development. She currently works at Spokane Regional Health District in a program that she very much enjoys called Neighborhoods Matter. This is a program that focuses on the social determinants of health and how to improve neighborhoods to in turn improve the overall health of the community at large.
Neighborhoods Matter works directly with residents to identify their neighborhood’s health and safety concerns, and then they work to address these concerns in the best way possible. They leverage community resources and focus on how to connect and advocate for safer neighborhoods. Heather says, “Safe neighborhoods mean people are out more and active, which contributes to long-term success.”
With the help of LEV, the Inland Northwest Early Learning Alliance, and the Spokane Regional Health District, Heather put together a conference that focused on realistic accountability. Sometimes quality is better than quantity, and that was surely the case for last month’s Spokids 2020, where the overall experience and discussion contributed to great strides for changes and hopes in 2017. Being lower in numbers but higher in perspectives allowed people to come together in a way that allowed many thoughts and ideas to come together and move forward. Collectively, everyone came up with action plans to help envision how that will look.
With so many organizations working to improve education and support families in need, and all the many changes that occur within various positions at numerous organizations, Heather sees great work being done at many different levels, which is something that is encouraging to us all.
The Spokids 2020 conference was a great way to figure out how similar organizations and families could come together, develop common goals, and leverage partner organizations to work together with the idea of a common community goal. Heather’s common community goal is that all children in Spokane County will achieve social-emotional readiness by kindergarten.
Next month, Heather hopes that word will spread about Spokids 2020’s useful discussions in order to home in on specific projects and areas of focus that will be able to identify success and how conference participants plan to measure progress as a group.
From a public health perspective, social-emotional health serves as the foundation for academic indicators and how likely a child is to succeed. Addressing these issues are imperative because if students are living in unhealthy environments and don’t have access to primary medical care and their basic needs aren’t being met, especially on an emotional and social level, they can’t learn. Heather is advocating for student supports and ways to measure a child’s social-emotional health early in the education continuum, which will help with discipline and a wide range of other issues that teachers have in the classrooms.
A student’s behavior reflects their social-emotional health and not their intelligence. I think we can all agree that we shouldn’t blame the child for the shortcomings of a system that isn’t tailored to the needs of every student, but instead we should blame the lack of resources that prevents the child from moving forward. A start in the right direction until we can get adequate resources for all students is to figure out ways to positively impact a child’s social-emotional health, which is why Heather’s work is vital for communities throughout Washington state.
Heather has three daughters, and she hopes her daughters will find work that they are passionate about. She hopes that they travel and learn about other cultures, and go on to be lifelong learners. Heather says, “A paycheck will only take you so far, and if you can’t find meaning in the work that you are doing, then money will never make you happy.”
By MyKaila Young, LEV Intern
At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for November: Michele Johnston.
Arthur Ashe said, “One important key to success is self-confidence, and the key to self-confidence is preparation.”
Growing up, Michele Johnston received what many would consider to be a decent education. She attended a private Catholic school for primary, was home-schooled in 5th grade, and went on to public junior high and high schools. She attended North Idaho College and earned her degree from Eastern Washington University in microbiology. Reflecting back on her schooling, she remembers it as not being very stimulating. She says, “It was a lot of just teaching to the tests.” The vital missing component was an emphasis on critical and creative thinking. “Socially it was good – I just wasn’t engaged in the academic part.”
The way in which we understand the world is primarily rooted in the way that we are taught to think critically about situations and problems. In turn, these processing and thinking skills help us make decisions that have the potential to impact our life in positive and negative ways. If students are only taught to take a test, then what have they really learned to help them get through the next phase of life? If this piece is missing, how can we expect students to really prosper and grow as lifelong learners and truly be ready to succeed in college and beyond?
Michele’s hope for her six-year-old daughter currently attending charter public school Spokane International Academy (SIA) is that as her daughter progresses in her education through the K-12 system, she will always be excited about learning, not only at school, but throughout her life. The goal of education is to show students how learning is a lifelong skill and experience. “I love SIA,” Michele says. “SIA helped my daughter overcome her shyness, gave her a new confidence to engage with people and advocate for herself, and it has changed how she feels about learning and school.”
Michele believes that every child deserves to have a similar, if not greater, experience with their teachers in a way that helps them transcend any personal barriers that may prevent them from being comfortable and confident enough to learn. As a result, Michele has made over 200 phone calls and sent nearly 200 emails to lawmakers encouraging them to support charter public schools and school choice. She has reached out to Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates Erin Jones and Chris Reykdal, and even did phone banking for Senator Steve Litzow, chair of the Education Committee.
Michele worries that our public school system doesn’t adequately prepare students to earn post-secondary credentials. “We’re sending our young adults to college to pay a university price tag for a high school education,” she says, referring to the need for many students to take remedial classes. “Most students take on a substantial amount of debt in order to stay in college, and it’s not fair for them to spend a year catching up on skills they should have been able to master in high school.”
Michele’s commitment to education is driven by a desire for an innovative system designed to meet the needs of every child. Michele says, “Our current education model was conceived in the industrial age. Since then, we’ve seen huge advances in transportation, electronics, and even phones – but most schools are still operating like they did 100 years ago.” Her vision for a newly designed education system involves an environment where every teacher and student has the autonomy to teach, and learn, the way that works best.
At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for September: Felix Vargas.
Retired Colonel Felix Vargas of Pasco, Washington, has taken on the charge of helping the League of Education Voters understand the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) at a local level so that we can ensure that children who need additional support are not denied tutoring services promised by the federal government. Col. Vargas advocates with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), and speaks regularly with Senator Patty Murray’s representatives and the local Pasco School District, which has not yet provided in writing the district’s plans for tutoring services.
About a year ago, Col. Vargas met LEV Community Organizer Ruvine Jiménez at a Pasco Citizens for Better Schools forum to support a school levy and he now meets with Ruvine at least once a week. He has since invited Ruvine to participate in two meetings with Congressman Dan Newhouse. These sessions have provided an opportunity to explain to the Congressman why it is important to maintain ESSA funding for the Tri-Cities region. Col. Vargas is working on what ESSA means for the community, such as adding resources for early learning programs like a pre-K learning center, and looking at how schools provide information and how they are evaluated.
Thanks to his work, the Tri-Cities community now has access to senior levels of leadership in government and education. Deputy State Superintendent Gil Mendoza has recently spoken on two occasions to the community on ESSA. Col. Vargas participated in an OSPI candidate forum in July and is helping to organize another similar forum this fall.
Col. Vargas also meets with a Latino parents’ group monthly to discuss why students are under-performing. He explains, “Beyond the obvious factors of language, culture and socioeconomic standing, we believe that the quality of instruction and teaching credentials have to be assessed and weighed as well. Our parents want a 360-degree review.” He listens closely to what the Latino parents say, and then holds quarterly meeting with the Pasco School District’s Parents Advisory Committee.
Col. Vargas is not shy about talking to anyone. He held concurrent careers in the U.S. Government as a military and civilian officer. He served as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. State Department and as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. Col. Vargas served two tours of duty as an Army Ranger and Special Forces officer in Vietnam. After retiring from the U.S. government, he entered the corporate world, serving as manager of sales and marketing for an American helicopter company in Mexico City, where he sold helicopters to the Mexican government and the private sector.
From 2006 – 2010, Col. Vargas returned to Washington, DC, to champion education and training opportunities for the newest generation of U.S. military veterans returning from wars in the Middle East. He received a White House appointment as member, then chairman, of the U.S. Advisory Committee for Veterans Business Affairs during this time. In April 2010, he accepted an assignment to work with U.S. and international agencies assisting Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010. Col. Vargas lived in Haiti for a year.
In 2012, he returned to his hometown of Pasco, Washington, where his focus now is on his community in the Tri-Cities. He hit the ground running, forming the Consejo Latino (Latino Council) to serve as a discussion group on issues of interest to a diverse and dynamic Hispanic community, getting involved in community policing and economic development of Latino businesses.
Two years ago, Col. Vargas added advocacy for voters’ rights, rights for injured agricultural workers, and education. He started reading and learning about the local education landscape. He recalls, “I was surprised to find out that two of our elementary schools have 98 percent Latino students, and the schools overall are 70 percent Latino in the Pasco district. Times sure have changed.” Col. Vargas was the only Latino in his high school graduating class, and the only other Latino(a) in the school at the time was his younger sister.
Education has now become a core issue for Col. Vargas. He recently met with the superintendent of Educational Service District 123 in Pasco to discuss developments and approach in such areas as early learning and bilingual education. He always expects and looks forward to civil and productive conversation. He says, “I will continue to collaborate with community providers and other partners at the State and Federal levels to seek solutions to the many challenges of education for all students. Let’s keep up the drumbeat.”
At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for August: Vanessa Hernandez.
The Every Student Counts Alliance (ESCA) is a new collaboration between organizations and individuals in Spokane working to end the overuse of suspension and expulsion in Spokane Public Schools and to eliminate disparities in rates of suspension and expulsion of students of color and students with disabilities. LEV is part of the Alliance, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and its Youth Policy Director, Vanessa Torres Hernandez.
As Vanessa explains, “The Spokane district has discipline rates that are some of the highest in the state, disproportionately applied to students of color, Native American students, and students with special needs. Spokane has a lot of challenges, and making a difference in this community will impact the lives of thousands of students and set a positive example for the rest of the state.”
One of the primary goals of the Alliance is to promote positive and restorative school cultures, where teachers and students feel equally supported, individual needs are met and voices are heard. This ensures that students remain in school on a path toward academic and life success.
Vanessa comes to this work both as a legal advocate and as a former teacher. A native of Guam, Vanessa grew up in a family devoted to public service. During college, she taught in after-school and summer school programs throughout the country and also volunteered in public schools.
After receiving her M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum from Harvard University, Vanessa began a teaching career at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston, a charter school serving low-income students of color. She was moved by how the students who faced steep academic and socioeconomic challenges excelled in a school focused on student and teacher support and achievement.
Taking the experiences, lessons, and memories from teaching in Boston, she transitioned into teaching 7th graders in Washington state. Her class focused on empowering students with knowledge, developing their skills to understanding bias, evaluate information and advocate for what they believe is right. Vanessa then transitioned to the University of Washington School of Law, where she participated in a public service law program.
Vanessa first worked with the ACLU as an attorney with a project focused on criminal justice reform and the challenges facing people returning from prisons and jails. After a short time working with ACLU, she realized that she loved how they employed a long-term view and relentless push for justice, similar to her work ethic and mindset. This year, she will celebrate her five-year anniversary with the organization. Vanessa started in the litigation department and moved in October 2015 to the position of Youth Policy Director, where she continues her passion for helping others and using the power of the law to contribute to social movements.
Promoting student success was an important concern this past legislative session, and it led to passage of the Opportunity Gap Bill (HB 1541). Vanessa says it is a great first step in the right direction, in terms of recognizing that a student’s behavior should not affect the education he or she receives. But she adds that there is a lot more progress to be made.
Vanessa’s hope for the future is to strengthen the fundamental building block of ACLU, ESCA and LEV’s progressive work in education by coalition-building and community. She says, “These two aspects are incredibly important because change occurs when people are working together, listening to one another, and exposing themselves to the stories and challenges out there.”