When Divya Jain immigrated to the U.S. from India, one of the first questions she encountered was, “Where is India? Is it bigger than Texas?” Jain was mind-boggled. This experience, combined with her insights from frequently volunteering in her daughters’ classrooms, compelled Jain to start the Passport Club at Illahee Elementary, her daughters’ school. The program has now helped hundreds of students across the district to engage with and learn about different cultures. Jain credits starting Passport Club as the experience which gave her a good understanding of what is needed in our education system and the role that every committed citizen can play.
Years after starting Passport Club, Jain took this experience to run for an Evergreen School District (ESD) School Board position as a newcomer to elected office and a person of color in a majority white district. While Jain ultimately wasn’t elected, her story represents to countless students of color in the Evergreen School District that there’s someone rooting for them — and more importantly, Jain shows us that you don’t need to have a title to be an active community member or make a difference.
Jain cites the “really very good teachers” both of her daughters had as the catalyst for her classroom involvement. The deep sense of gratitude teachers instilled caused Jain to start volunteering in the ESD early on, checking homework and helping the teachers with a multitude of tasks.
After two years of working with teachers, listening to students and seeing firsthand the learning happening inside every classroom, Jain came to realize that students are hungry for different opportunities. She researched Science and Art Fairs and soon came back to the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) President with a simple proposal. Only $300 for supplies and a custodian, Jain said. She’d do all the organizing and the backend work. Unsurprisingly, the PTA President approved of the Science and Art Fairs, and Divya immediately started organizing the first event.
Science & Art Fairs quickly became marker experiences and rite of passages of sorts for students at Illahee Elementary. These powerful experiences were volunteer-run, required no extra effort on the side of the teachers and were easily incorporated into the curriculum or as a capstone project. Jain took what she’d learned here to address another gap in learning opportunities she’d identified: the need to increase cross-cultural awareness among students and foster kindness & empathy. In 2007, Jain piloted the Passport Club to 200 students and 8 teachers at Illahee, a monthly program where students would learn about different countries, languages and religions. Jain had met a real need in the community; the program immediately took off, spreading to schools around the district and even becoming copyrighted through the Evergreen School District.
At the same time, her daughters continued to grow and move through the education system, and Jain was determined to grow and move with them. She received her Project Management Professional certification and attended countless leadership conferences, where she continued to hone her skills in team development and conflict resolution. Little did she know how quickly these skills would be called upon when Jain refocused her energy back to the Evergreen School District.
When Jain observed the school district with a fresh eye, what became most clear was the decline in the quality of education. This was largely the result of budget cuts that kept coming, coming and coming — which caused the teachers to keep striking, striking and striking. That year, the start of the school year was pushed back three weeks. Jain knew it was time to address these challenges. She started going to the ESD School Board meetings to learn more about what was going on and what she could do. It was then when the only person of color on the school board, Todd Yuzuriha, announced his resignation in the following year. There would virtually be no representation for the 44% of students of color in the Evergreen School District at the decision-making table.
“Why not me?” Jain thought. “Let me just take a look at it and see what I can do.”
She ultimately decided to run for the School Board position — an incredible leap of faith driven by her daughters’ experiences in the classrooms and her own belief in championing inclusion and access. Jain was a newcomer to the whole process, a person of color in a majority white and red district, and running against an incumbent. But none of that deterred her; for Jain, the nasty emails and underhanded comments she received only make her more determined to stay on track.
It was also the experience of reaching out to donors, rounding up volunteers and personally going door to door in many neighborhoods to canvass voters that helped Jain realize she wasn’t alone. Her campaign brought people of color out to vote. Her campaign provided a platform for students of all lived experiences to share their stories of school. Her campaign even allowed her to draw out stories from those closest to her, including her own daughters.
She learned about all the times when her daughter would take Indian food to school for lunch, and the kids around her would peer at her food and exclaim, “Ew!” She learned about how at recess, black and brown children were more likely to be sent to the Principal’s office if anything went awry. Issues with race and equity in public schools became more and more pronounced. Jain became more and more invested in her work with the Passport Club, using geography as a vehicle to inspire the exchange of stories and empathy.
Although Jain ultimately didn’t win the School Board election, her campaign forces each of us to pause in our tracks and reflect on who is represented (or not represented) in our school district. She showed us that a newcomer, a woman, a brown person can run for elected office. Most importantly, Jain helped us realize that having a positive impact on the community starts long before public office. Making an impact for students, teachers and the education system doesn’t mean having a title, it means drawing on our own lived experiences to create new opportunities and spaces at the table for all students.