When I was a junior at East High School in 2005, my father, ‘Alama ‘Ulu’ave became the first Tongan to be elected to the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education. There were very few POC (people of color) who had ever served on the board. This was my first foray into politics, campaigning for my father on a shoestring budget of $100 and watching him win by a single vote. My family and I gathered to witness him get sworn in at the district headquarters. I remember the room was full and the majority of faces did not look like mine – both those in attendance and the line of elected representatives who sat at the front table. I never imagined that this elected body would become the most diverse in Utah.
In January 2021, four of the seven board members will be BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) – finally representing the ethnic makeup of the city more accurately.
Ethnic representation is not everything. The new board still needs to meet. The dynamics of diverse representation will be tested to see if, in fact, it is better than the past, but this has always been the experiment of American democracy. How will the new policymakers fare under the pressure of competing needs of parents, teachers, and students? How will their COVID response change or remain the same in 2021? Will there be an institutional shift? The proof will be in the policy.
Regardless, many people believe that this board’s ethnic makeup is a step in the direction of creating a Salt Lake City School District where every student feels that they belong. That’s a promise that the SLCSD has long stated. And the voters of Salt Lake City are now holding them accountable to live up to their own vision of “Excellence and Equity: every student, every classroom, every day.”
Jenny Sika – New SLC School Board rep makes history
By Moana Uluave-Hafoka
There is a level of hubris that every politician needs to have in order to say, “I am the best person that can change the course of history; I will be the one.” Jenny Sika, as a first-time office seeker, possesses no hubris at all. On election night, when most candidates are refreshing the count every other minute, she was returning from a long day's work laying concrete and had to be informed of her win. She is rough around the edges. A true daughter of the streets she represents.
Jennifer Christabel Temalisi Sika was born in Utah and raised transnationally, between the Rocky Mountains and the island Kingdom of Tonga. As the youngest of eight children, she has settled into the role of underdog. A role that has cultivated in her a fighting spirit to never count her out. Sika knows she was the student who was never supposed to succeed academically – a graduate of Horizonte, English Language Learner, transfer, non-traditional, first-generation, working-class student. Sika has occupied every aspect of the stereotypical west-sider student profile, for better or for worse.
And still, she persists. Her life has had ebbs and flows. It has never been a straight line to anywhere – not into politics, education, business, or motherhood. Sika’s experience is what brands her, not in the arena of politics or halls of academia, but in community building, of quietly serving as a youth leader for nearly twenty years in Tongan and English-speaking congregations. She is the one whom politicians claim to represent. Mother. Bilingual. Businesswoman. Unconventional. Real. All things she wants to bring to the Salt Lake City School Boardroom come January 2021.
Currently, she is raising eight children ranging from kindergarten to college, with her sister, Eni and mother, Rima. Her children are the reason she even attempted to run. “I did not seek this position; it found me. I was called to ‘the work.’ I looked around and was like, “You talkin’ to me? Nah, there must be someone else who can do this,” said Sika.
When asked how she feels about being the first Tongan woman to be elected in the 100-plus-year history of the Salt Lake City School District, she responds with visible discomfort, partially because she’s Tongan and social cultural norms do not allow for vanity, and partially because she’s just a keep-it-real kind of woman, “I’m both grateful and terrified.” What she does allow herself to feel is the responsibility. “I want all the kids in my precinct to know that I ride for them.” Sika points to her life motto, which her late father instilled in her: “Koe faka’amu ke ‘aonga ‘eku mo’ui ki ha fa’ahinga taha pe.” ITALICS: It is my hope to be useful to those in need.
And perhaps, Jenny Sika is the exact type of politician our neighborhood needs right now. One that is unencumbered by image or political ambition and is purely here as a representative of the family and community that pushed her to run.
Meet Nate Salazar, SLC School Board Rep for Precinct 4
By Moana Uluave-Hafoka
Nathaniel Salazar grew up in the East Central neighborhood, attended Bryant Middle School, and graduated from East High School. This bow-tie-wearing, golf-playing, highly-educated, millennial Chicano has spent the majority of his life in politics. His career started over 27 years ago while working with his parents on the late community activist Archie Archuleta’s bid for the Salt Lake City Council in the 1990s.
Since then, community organizing and politics has taken Salazar to Oregon for higher education, Colorado as a field organizer for Obama, Salt Lake City Hall, first – with an attempt for city council, then as an appointee of the Mayor’s Office – and most recently, the Vice President of the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education.
If Salazar seems polished, it is because he has been tumbled over and over through politics until his rough edges and surfaces have become smooth. This is a journey that was somewhat chosen for him long before he was born. His parents, Anna Vasquez and Chuck Salazar, Latinx/Chicanx Salt Lake community activists, instilled in Salazar a responsibility to those most marginalized in society. However, these efforts to build a community-conscious son was not always well-received by the young Salazar. “For context, teenage Nate was rebellious and unconventional,” Salazar describes his younger self, “and [teenage Nate] would probably think of my [political] position and pursuits as the epitome of authority.”
So what changed him from rebelling against authority to taking political office? For Salazar, it took leaving home to find home.
He fell into higher education by way of Portland Community College, where an influential educator took interest in Salazar and reminded him of his own potential. That educator intervention eventually led him to transfer to Portland State and leave Oregon with two degrees in higher education. “I am grateful for my unconventional academic and personal journey. That rebellious kid is still in me. He’s reminding me of who I serve. He’s reminding me that I have a responsibility to contribute to the same institution and place that not only shaped me, but will help me raise my own kids and family.”
Salazar and the rest of the board have their work cut out for them. With over half the board being new, COVID still on the forefront of everyone’s mind, and the hiring of key district leaders in 2021, he will need to call upon the ancestors, mentors, and community to see him through this next transition. Yet, he is optimistic and believes they, as a collective board, are up for the challenge.
When asked what it means to him to be part of this historic school board, he answered, “It is the commitment and sacrifices made by the previous generations that are coming to fruition. When I think about how we will become one of the most diverse legislative bodies in our city and state representing one of the most diverse constituencies, it is powerful – so powerful.”
Meet Joel-Lehi Organista, SLC School Board Rep for Precinct 1
By Michael Evans and Charlotte Fife-Jepperson
At 28 years old, Joel-Lehi Organista is currently the youngest elected official in the state of Utah. He is also a proud Mexican immigrant who values education, and works diligently to fight for equity and against the school-to-prison pipeline.
One of Organista’s defining moments was when he was told as an incoming student, that he could not enroll in Honors classes at West High School, despite having a 4.0 GPA and a desire to challenge himself. “I guess the counselor assumed I was not capable, because I was in a lower level 8th grade history class with many other students of color.” After his parents went to the school district to protest and get to the bottom of it, he was enrolled in the Pre-IB program, one of the most rigorous programs in the district. He said he took the Honors classes to “prove them wrong” – them, meaning those who disparaged students who are English Language Learners.
“I was the only Latino who graduated with the IB diploma in 2010,” said Organista. He is also the first member of his family to receive a master’s degree – in Education and Society – from an Ivy League School (Columbia University), no less. Through a partnership with the University of Utah when he was a student at West High School, Organista distinguished himself by making a documentary film about racism and ethnic stereotyping in Utah schools.
Organista values the experience of attending west-side schools with such rich diversity. “My best friends were refugees from around the world – from Somalia, Bosnia, and Cambodia – three different continents, and my best friends were Polynesian!” he said.
Once an English Language Learner, Organista now speaks and writes a variety of languages, including Japanese and Portugese which he learned and practiced on his LDS mission in Tokyo.
He taught highschool health at Horizonte for a few years and currently teaches a course called “Decolonizing Leadership” in the Ethnic Studies Dept. at the UofU. He is also very involved in his family-founded nonprofit, Casa Quetzalcoatl, which focuses on a cross-generational approach to empowering the Latinx community in Utah.
Organista, who by the way, is coincidentally an organist and composer, said he gained valuable experience managing his mother, Teresa Organista’s almost-successful campaign for SLC School Board four years ago. He was the only one of five candidates in his primary race to run an actual campaign this year. He won the primary, and ran unopposed in the general election.
Organista knows that one of his first tasks as a SLC school board member will be to search for and hire a new superintendent, which he notes, reports directly to the board. “We all have ideas, but the superintendent executes these ideas!”
Meet Mohamed Baayd, SLC School Board Rep for District 5
by Charlotte Fife-Jepperson and Michael Evans
Mohamed Baayd has had many different, rich life experiences in his first 45 years. His life journey has taken him from a very small village called Allougoume in the south of Morocco, where he was born, to Casa Blanca (the largest city in Morocco), Florida, California, Illinois, Hawaii (where he served in the U.S. Navy), and finally to Utah, where he and his wife, Jami, are raising their three children – 15-year-old Amira, 13-year-old Norah, and 8-year-old Naim. They attend East High, Clayton Middle and Hawthorne Elementary schools, respectively.
Baayd said that he was initially thinking of running for the city council, but was advised to run for the school board first. He embraced the idea, especially after all the hours he had spent teaching Arabic, Moroccan and Muslim culture at his son’s school, Hawthorne Elementary. (Parents are required to co-op three hours a week in the Extended Learning Program.)
An ethnic Berber (descendant of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa), Baayd was the first person in his family to go on to higher education. He grew up under very humble circumstances, but his parents always urged him to get an education. “My dad told me, ‘Son, never give up on education,” said Baayd. He graduated with a Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management from BYU in 2009.
Adapting to life in the U.S. took some getting used to. “It took a lot of effort to step out of my comfort zone, to feel like I belonged,” said Baayd, but he had some help from a BYU professor, Dr. Crandall, whose family basically adopted him and took him under his wing, for which he is grateful.
Back in Morroco, Baayd’s family and community are very proud of his achievements – especially since he is the first of his village to ever run for a political office. Baayd said his victory in the SLC school board race made national news in Morroco.
One of Baayd’s priorities is to take better care of teachers in terms of pay and support. This is ingrained in him through his Muslim faith. “In Islam, Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, said that teachers are almost considered as prophets,” he said.
Baayd is new to politics, but he’s hoping to bring about big changes. “We are one of the three worst districts in the nation for per-pupil spending, and by the end of my term, I want to see these barriers vanish with better state and federal funding.” Baayd also has ideas about policemen in schools, and the challenges faced when their presence is “not comforting for kids,” especially minorities. He speaks of the need for “a bridge of trust.”
He is excited to represent part of Glendale on Salt Lake City’s West Side because there are many immigrant families living there, just like him. He said, “I want those students to know that no matter where they came from or where they live, they are every bit as smart and capable to achieve whatever they desire through education.”