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Elected to a school board one year ago, it's been different than she expected

Northern Illinois University

A year ago, Ari Owens was one of two women of color elected to the DeKalb School Board. Between COVID-19 controversies and a new superintendent -- it’s been a lot to adjust to.

Owens learned quickly that working on a school board can be very formal.

“We have three minutes for public comment. After those three minutes, that's it. The gavel is down," she said. "And we don't offer any responses back, which is so just not my experience working with people and solving problems and hearing their concerns, and it feels kind of cold.”

The formality of the meetings and the density of board documents and reports feels intimidating, even for her, so she says she can imagine how it feels for some parents and community members who want to get involved.

“I do think we can be doing more and doing a better job of engaging people who are not at the table yet," said Owens.

Creating environments where people feel safe was one of the issues she ran on. It turns out that safety means different things to different people.

“I think everyone can agree, yes, keep children safe, but for some people that safety looks like more police presence. For some people that safety looks like additional psychologists," she said.

That “safety” conversation bleeds into issues like COVID-19 protections and masks, which took center stage for many school boards in 2021.

Owens is used to dealing with problems by working directly with students at her day job at Northern Illinois University’s Gender & Sexuality Resource Center.

On the school board, making change can look a lot different than what she expected. Identifying exactly her role in that process has been a major learning curve in her first year as a school board member.

“I realized that advocacy really looks like the things that I vote on and don't vote on," said Owens. "So it's a lot of reading the reports the people who are actually interacting with the students have written, [and] different experts we have come in.”

One of the votes she’s most proud of this year was approving a new position for a director of equity and inclusion. That person will take the lead on the district’s long-established diversity plan, which she says not much had been done with at the school board level.

“The people who are involved in creating that plan— they have never given up and they've been actively living out their mission and their goals, but have really needed that support from the board to do something about it," she said.

Even though there aren’t any tangible new programs she can point to, Owens says she does think she’s making progress on other parts of her platform like establishing a mentorship program with NIU.

She says there’s interest at the elementary schools she works with about a potential program focused on students of color.

Working with those elementary schools has also allowed her to have the face-to-face interactions with students and teachers that she hoped for when she ran for the board,

She says those moments have been a joy. She got to go to an elementary school science club, and even hear some student concerns.

“Some of [the concerns] were very silly, but some of them were things I wouldn't know unless I was getting out there and involved," said Owens. "Like, they're speaking to me about their lunch period. I think it's about 30 minutes and if you're a child who's at the end of lunchtime, you only get like three minutes for recess [than] if you're at the front. And I'm like, that's an inequity!”

Visiting those schools also allowed her to start building trust with staff. It was another really tough year for teachers, and she says she even had a few people break down crying talking to her about how hard it’s been.

Those trips have also helped her utilize her NIU Gender & Sexuality Resource Center expertise for school board work. For example, one of the elementary schools asked her about potentially starting a gay-straight alliance club.

“Just being able to share research about, ‘Hey, studies show that if there's at least one supportive person in the building that decreases mental health issues’ or how this is suicide prevention," she said.

Owens says with a year’s worth of confidence and experience serving on the board, she and fellow first-year member Deyci Ramirez are full of ideas.

Even though she says the board needs to do more to meet people where they are, Owens encourages any community members to email board members directly with any concerns or if they just want to get involved.

Copyright 2022 WNIJ Northern Public Radio. To see more, visit WNIJ Northern Public Radio.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.