Maimona Afzal Berta, a Special Education Teacher in the Alum Rock School District writes about her journey to becoming Board President at Franklin-McKinley School District and the importance of Muslim leadership in Education
What has been your experience as a Muslim elected official?
My journey to becoming an elected official was an unexpected one. Shortly after personally experiencing Islamophobia as a teacher, I spoke at a school board meeting regarding the incidents. Facilitating a call to action gave me insight into the types of systemic changes that could be made through legislation.
In 2018, as part of CAIR’s Muslim Day at the Capitol event, I shared my story with legislators to advocate on behalf of AB 2291(Anti-Bullying Bill), which would equip teachers with training to address bullying in schools. These experiences created a path that allowed me to learn about ways to create change through policy work, specifically as a school board member.
Since assuming office and running in two elections as a Muslim elected official, I’ve learned to navigate through uncharted waters. It’s not always easy or comfortable being the only Muslim in the room, let alone being visibly Muslim. This role has helped me grow in so many ways as a person and leader.
What has been your impact professionally and for your community?
Growing up, I never envisioned becoming an elected official. Part of the reason was because I didn’t see individuals in this position who looked like me. It’s hard to imagine yourself in roles when you’re conditioned to view these seats as possibilities for only a select few (namely older, white men).
I hope our leadership has this impact. It’s not about what I accomplish, it’s about establishing this kind of role that can be possible for our youth to look up to. Modeling these possibilities starts with seeing leaders who look like you. From visiting classrooms, reading to our students, or sitting at the dais, it’s important not just for Muslim students, but for all students to see what leadership can look like in action and how leadership can come in many different and diverse forms.
It’s also about modeling how to lead. Working with students and the community to create change on issues they care about helps facilitate a cycle of self-empowerment that has been inspiring to be a part of.
What have been some unexpected successes and challenges?
I have always anticipated prejudice in new environments. What I did not expect was the amount of implicit bias and microaggressions that exist within the political realm. Navigating tough conversations by inviting individuals into a discussion to talk about bias has led to fruitful actions.
From a systemic standpoint, one part of this work that I’m most proud of is establishing a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Board Committee. This group of stakeholders works on establishing equity-rooted priorities to create lasting policy change in our district.
Why is it necessary to recognize Muslim American Month (in August)? How has it impacted your work in a positive way of getting more Muslims involved in government?
Recognitions like Muslim Awareness and Appreciation month help change the narrative about American Muslims in our community. These actions by local jurisdictions are a crucial step towards cultivating a sense of belonging for our community, which is often otherized.
These moments also give us the chance to highlight the intersectionalities of Muslim identities, which creates pathways for individuals within our community to get involved outside of the community. Over the last several years, I’ve seen more and more young people taking an interest and wanting to be involved in public leadership, organizing, and policy work. The increased interest, energy, and activism makes this work less isolating and is truly inspiring for what the future holds when it comes to Muslim youth in government and other important bodies of work.
Interview conducted by CAIR Editorial Committee member Yasmeen Abed.
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