by Ari Robin McKenna
On March 19, Michelle Sarju announced her candidacy for the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) District 5 School Board Director seat. SPS District 5 includes most of the downtown area from the Sound to Lake Washington and, specifically, the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, the Chinatown/International District, First Hill, Leschi, Madison, and the Central District. Outgoing District 5 Board Director Zachary DeWolf has been one of those who have endorsed Sarju as her campaign launched.
In an interview with the Emerald, Sarju reflected on her professional life and how she feels it has prepared her to step into this role at this particular, historic moment. She also spoke about why she thinks it’s important the board includes a Black resident from the Central District who has had three children in SPS.
Sarju’s career and “calling” as she describes it is in the field of maternal-child health, and has gone through three distinct stages. For 12 years, she was in midwifery, and says one applicable skill developed during that period of her life was simply listening. “A good midwife is a good listener,” Sarju said, “because what pregnant people tell you can give you sort of a little window into what kinds of things I need to be paying attention to. What are the unique needs of this person sitting before me? How can I be a resource broker in that situation to get them what they need?”
Sarju then says she “went from being a direct service provider with pregnant people, to now serving them in a support, partnership kind of relationship.” She added, “My midwifery actually prepared me for that next step, because I understood on the other side, what pregnant people were facing.”
This second stage of Sarju’s career could be described as programmatic, and she spent almost nine years working at the nonprofit Open Arms Perinatal Services, where she served “pregnant and parenting families,” often continuing care until children reached two years old. “The purpose is to walk alongside parents and help them understand how they can be the best people to put their children on the right path in terms of their social/emotional health.” Sarju points out that organizations that do the work of prioritizing parents and early childhood are part of a continuum of growth that sets the stages for individuals to enter SPS. “That five-year-old, when they show up to kindergarten, is showing up based on what they received in their first five years. So it’s not like magically, something happens at five when they walk into kindergarten. Everything that’s happened to them prior is who shows up in that classroom.”
The third stage of Sarju’s career has been at the systems level, working for King County Public Health. The majority of what she does revolves around what she describes as “trying to get at the systems issues that are barriers for families.” Sarju, whose Masters of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Washington focused on integrated health and mental health, was briefly redeployed and put this aspect of her degree to use. Sarju served those confined to an Isolation and Quarantine site earlier in the pandemic, and she knows whoever is elected to the District 5 School Board seat will certainly need to be focused on students’ mental health. Sarju says she feels uniquely prepared for this part of the Board’s work at this particularly complex historical moment.
“Teachers are coming back to the classroom with just as much stress and worry and anxiety as the students are,” she said.“We’ve all been stressed. Talk to a parent who’s having to now be an academic teacher, when they never thought that would be their role. People are coming back to these buildings, having been gone a year, and particularly for teachers, having now to teach in a completely different way than they envisioned when they got their teaching certificates. I think it is important to recognize as adult leaders that if they’re not self-regulated themselves, they can’t be expected and responsible for co-regulation of students — if they themselves have some mental health stress.”
“I think it’s mandatory that the district be thinking about this now: how they’re going to support teachers so that teachers can support students. Our students’ mental health has been severely impacted, and schools have not really seen themselves as that being their worry, or their business, or their work. But it has to be their worry, their business, and their work now, because students are not coming back to school the way they were in the fall of 2019. They’re coming back very different people … So we need to have a strong plan. I think that there are plenty of smart people on the Board. I have some experience in thinking about plans to support people’s mental health, so I think I can bring what I have, and together we can create some policy.”
Sarju, who has also recently taught at the graduate level at Bastyr University and served as the director of the University of Washington’s Northwest Public Health & Primary Care Leadership Institute, says unequivocally that “The most important experience I’ve had is I’m a parent. I’m a mom of three Black, Seattle public school kids. That’s where I come from. And that’s why I think I am well equipped to be a School Board member.”
A 34-year resident of the Central District (CD) and former member of the Garfield High School PTSA, Sarju has seen both a daughter and a son matriculate through SPS but then felt the need to pull her youngest son out of SPS before the end of fifth grade after an experience with a racist teacher. Tragically, one of her children’s few Black teachers died of cancer when her son was in fifth grade. Her son then reported that during the long-term substitute teacher’s first week, the teacher said, “You Black kids just don’t want to learn.”
Sarju recalls, “I was like, is he telling the truth? Or is this a story? So the next day, I went up to the school after class is out, and I asked the teacher if we can have a conversation because I was concerned about something. We sat down, and I said, ‘My son came home and said that you announced to the class, ‘You Black kids just don’t want to learn.’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s true.’ And quite honestly, I had a moment of out-of-body experience because I couldn’t believe that it was actually true.”
When Sarju asked for clarification, to her further shock, the substitute doubled down, matter-of-factly. “Well the Black kids in the class … All they want to do is clown around and be disruptive,” Sarju remembers the teacher saying, and she eventually interrupted, telling her, “That is categorically false. You don’t tell a group of Black kids, particularly Black boys (who were in the majority in that particular class), that they don’t want to learn.” After the sub tripled down, Sarju went to the principal, recounted the conversation and demanded this substitute be gone within a week. She was told they couldn’t get rid of her, because it would take too long to find another “stable” teacher. Sarju remembers responding, ‘Well, she’s not stable if she’s saying stuff like that.’ So I pulled him out and I homeschooled him the rest of the year.”
Sarju connects this experience to SPS’ historical failure to serve Black children for decades. “You can look at almost any measure, and for the most part, things have gotten worse, not better. So when are we going to stop talking about the racial opportunity gap? And when are we actually going to start doing something?”
On her website, Sarju indicates that she wants to explore phasing out standardized testing, which “negatively impacts all of our students, particularly students of color” and replace it with “evidence-based metrics of success.” She also hopes to support anti-racist curricula and says she’s “all for” K–12 ethnic studies because of its potential to create classrooms where everyone feels welcome and also its potential for impacting society at large.
“If ever there was a time where there has been glaring national proof that we need a different way forward, that has happened the last four years and January 6th …” she says. “I believe the way to a healthy democracy is for people to know what democracy looks like, and it looks like all of us.”
Michelle Sarju is running to fill one of three SPS board director seats up for grabs in 2021. If there are more than two candidates running in any of these districts, a primary is scheduled for August 3, when residents in districts 4,5, and 7 will be able to elect two finalists who will be chosen in a general election scheduled for November 2, 2021.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
Featured Image: Michelle Sarju, lifelong education advocate and 34-year Central District resident, is running to represent District 5 on the Seattle School Board. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Sarju.)
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