Why we need legislators of color

 

Earlier this year, I shared a story with my first grade ESL students about meeting President Barack Obama when he was running for office in 2008. My students had a host of questions and comments for me, but I’ll never forget when one of my students of color stood up and proudly exclaimed, “The president looks like me!” Unfortunately, that student would be able to relate to very few leaders in Minnesota’s schools and government in the same way.

As a child growing up, I always had teachers who looked like me, curriculum that I could see myself in, and politicians that reflected my own background. I didn’t have to question if I belonged or if I could do something, as everything around me validated my experience and assured me I could. As a white English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher in Minneapolis working primarily with Somali students, I see every day the importance of role models that my students can see themselves in and who will help them know what is possible.

I know I do not provide this for my students, and consequently need to be sure I provide examples in which my students can see themselves and their experiences represented. While a classroom is an essential place to start, we must also look to larger, more systemic changes in representation to make a wider, more lasting impact.

In Minnesota’s District 60B, the candidacy of Ilhan Omar is encouraging young students of color to achieve their dreams, challenge positions of power, and be catalysts for change. My students need leaders like Ilhan in the State House. Not only is she an incredible role model, but she will work tirelessly to see that all students across the state have a more equitable access to resources and an education system that meets their needs.

Like many of my students, Ilhan understands what it is like to attend school taught in a language different from what your family speaks at home. Students learning English have to navigate not only the social ways in which we use the English language, but also classroom instruction, complex academic language demands, and face standardized testing in English. When we live in a state with some of the worst educational disparities in the nation, English language learning becomes an equity issue. ESL services, in addition to wrap-around services such as school counselors and psychologists, after school programs, and universal Pre-K shouldn’t be an auxiliary feature. Students, especially those who are new to this country, need to receive explicit support in order to succeed.

Ilhan’s steadfast commitment to wrap-around services in schools demonstrates that she won’t let any students get left behind. She will be a champion for all students, and bring her lived experience of being a new American to the capitol. Educational disparities have existed for far too long — we need someone who will be able to bring a new perspective and approach to legislation. By fighting for the rights of diverse students, families, cultures, and values, Ilhan will support the advancement of the entire state.

We cannot expect to challenge the status quo of education in Minnesota without bringing new voices to the table. The opportunity for students to see a politician who looks like them, advocating on their behalf, will be equally as powerful. Ilhan’s leadership will not only improve our schools, but will help make school more meaningful to the many students of color who dream of being leaders themselves.

Rachel Durkee is an ESL teacher in Minneapolis and lives in the Whittier neighborhood.