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A Conversation with:
Najla Gomez Rodriguez

Najla Gomez Rodriguez is capacity building director at Californians for Justice. She helps build the capacity of school district and CFJ staff to increase parent and student participation in decision-making to advance justice for youth of color.

Tell us a little about your experience as a student. 

I am an immigrant. I came to the United States in the fourth grade. My family was very academically oriented, so I always felt very supported and encouraged to do well in school. That became part of my identity. When I came to the U.S., and I was navigating migration and what it was like to be an immigrant in San Jose, California, a very immigrant-heavy community, I saw that there were clear lines between students who were immigrants and English language learners and students who were not.

But I was very fortunate. I had a teacher in the fourth grade who took to me, Ms. Filippinni. She really pushed and encouraged me to take the English proficiency test. She knew how tracking worked in education, and she was looking out for me in ways that I didn’t understand at the time. Her support really solidified a path for me moving forward, towards higher education, which was not the case for the majority of my friends, students who looked like me, the people in my community. 

How did you become involved with Californians for Justice?

Californians for Justice found me. They were organizing in my high school. I had really embraced the myth of meritocracy. I thought: I must be smarter than my peers. I’m doing everything right, that’s why I’m the only Latina in my classes, why I have all these AP courses. But through Californians for Justice’s leadership academy, I learned about systems of oppression and racism in education. I saw how everything was set up for students who looked like me to fail. 

A lot of my peers were pushed out of school, into the juvenile justice system. Some of my gang-involved friends were killed. It was a very different reality from what I experienced, how I felt very encouraged and supported in school. I saw how this system segregates us, creating very different experiences. Even as early as middle school, I remember a teacher separating the class and putting some of us into project-based learning while the rest continued to basically just copy out of a book. She would literally pull us out and have us work in a different classroom and come back together at the end. I didn’t understand at the time.

Once I saw the truth, though, I could never unsee it. So I became an organizer, and I came back to see Californians for Justice as a staff member four and a half years ago. I wanted to focus on capacity building, bringing in the adults to do this work with us. 

Can you talk more about the role of adults in this work?

For the last 26 years, Californians for Justice has been organizing young people to fight for educational justice and racism in the system at all levels. We’ve had a lot of wins along the way, policy wins, we have boards of education working in our favor, writing memorandums supporting high expectations for youth of color, trying to tackle disciplinary measures, improving material conditions of schools. And this work continues. 

In 2013, we had a retreat, celebrating our successes, thinking “look how far we have come.” But our youth leaders were like, “Well that’s nice, but my classroom still feels the same. My teacher is still racist, I’m still not experiencing a deep level of engagement, I don’t see myself in the curriculum.” They were saying they were empowered and engaged in the organizing work, but the policy changes hadn’t reached their classrooms, and their day-to-day experiences did not feel very different. 

That was a real eye-opening moment for the organization. We decided to look deeply to determine what it would take for us to really transform our schools, since winning at the policy level — essentially, kicking at the door from the outside — was not working. We engaged in youth participatory action research. We asked students what they thought the lever for school transformation might be from the inside. We interviewed thousands of students across the state. Our young people helped us design surveys and get them out to other young people. 

What did students say would make a difference in their day-to-day classroom experience?

What we heard back were stories about caring adults, stories about relationships. We looked at the data. One in three students across California who took the survey could not identify a caring adult in their whole school. For Black students, for Indigenous students, for AAPI students, for other subpopulations, the statistics were much worse. Young people spoke about how adults and teachers did not believe in them, did not believe in their potential. Students talked about how they were perceived by staff versus how they felt about themselves: “I’m actually a scholar. I’m actually here to learn. I’m not who you think I am.” 

We realized we needed to tackle perceptions and mindsets. Even if adults said they cared about students, students did not feel it. There were very deeply rooted reasons for that, including historical racism. So, we designed our “belief gap” campaign

Prioritizing relationships is a guiding principle of the work we do at NTC. Can you talk a little more about your framework for relationship centered schools

We think about it in terms of three “pillars.” One is student voice, or, as we’re calling it now, student power. This means students having power at every level of education, from the classroom up to the state level — being decision-makers, being heard, being deeply engaged in a genuine way, particularly students at the margins.

Investing in staff is another pillar. We realize that staff, teachers, administrators, they’re the ones that are going to help us turn all these wheels. We want to invest in them, in their professional development, in their growth, giving them spaciousness to learn with each other and do this work well. Student-led professional development is one way of investing in staff. It also includes thinking about our teacher pipeline and getting more teachers of color in the classroom, having a very diverse and supported staff. 

The last pillar is creating space for relationships. This is where we think more about structural shifts that need to happen to embed a culture of care into our schools. We want advisory periods and other spaces intentionally created to support relationship-building, but we also want every teacher to think about forming authentic relationships with their students in every classroom. So how can we support teachers to be able to do that? The onus is not only on the teachers, it’s on the system and the administration to think about the master schedule, to think about how priorities are reflected in the structures of the school. In order to make these inside-out shifts, we realized students needed to be in deep partnership with the adults in the system.

In our school transformation work, we focus on what Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan call “street level” data, which comes from listening and observation (for more information, see A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation). It’s data that is being collected all the time by teachers, by students, just going through the school day. But it’s data that’s undervalued. It’s data that is not brought to the table when we’re thinking about solutions about what’s happening at school. We’re often looking at map data or satellite data, surveys or big data points, chronic absenteeism, tardiness, things like that, which are also important markers, but they don’t tell us the story. We’re not hearing why there’s this or that trend of tardiness. In the absence of that, schools will gravitate towards sweeping policies that are not going to be effective, because they didn’t take the time to ask or hear from students why they’re rolling into their classroom late. When we dug into this specific question at one of our school sites, for example, young people were like, “Well, that class is boring. I’m not engaged in that class. I’m not rushing to get to class, I’m not going to be engaged there.” So that requires a different solution. It’s not a policy about tardiness that you need. It’s a solution focused on how to make classes more engaging.

In terms of building capacity to create partnerships with students at the school or district level, what are some of the barriers?

That is the crux of the work right now. One of the main muscles we’re finding ourselves having to build is power-sharing. What does it take to actually turn over the keys and make decisions alongside students. Our system is not set up that way, so it’s a big culture shift, a big practice shift. There are a lot of mental models — I’m an adult, I know better. I know the answer. 

So step one is bringing staff and young people together. We usually kick off our work in schools with a retreat with young people, educators, administrators. It’s often also important to have decision-makers in the room. We’ve found that when we were trying to do this work without them, there was just a ceiling that we can’t get past, so principals, assistant principals, come too.

We bring all those people into one room together to listen to each other deeply, practice as equals, answer the same question. We ask everyone, “Why are relationship-centered schools important to you?” And when adults and staff hear students speak about that, there’s a lightbulb moment — “wow, students are deep thinkers, and they have a lot of ideas about the school community and about how to improve it.” I think some make an assumption that young people don’t care, or don’t know how to think deeply about how to transform their school experience. Those assumptions start to dissipate when they hear directly from students, their ideas, what they see as not working. What students are experiencing every day are symptoms of the way the system is set up, so they actually have really deep insights and wisdom that staff do not, can not, have, about what and how to change, because they don’t have that experience. That realization opens the door for ongoing conversation, transformation. 

There aren’t a lot of opportunities in the school experience for that level of engagement between adults and young people, dealing with these hard questions of equity, of student experience in school. So it feels really new. It’s a really eye-opening experience. Sometimes it’s just a day or two when we do our opening retreats. We also have a lot of one-on-one conversations with them to help them process what happened and how to keep that going. 

We emphasize that we don’t want staff to feel any type of judgment for having that aha moment, because the system is set up this way. That’s the way the classroom unit is set up. That’s the way the whole school is set up. So it is a counterculture type of move, and there needs to be a lot of grace and compassion as we navigate it.

The practice of bringing staff and students into the same room together consistently is key, rather than, “Okay, we heard enough from students, now let’s go back to an adults only, behind closed-door session and figure out what’s next.” We encourage the adults to keep students at the table throughout implementation of any resulting effort. Students are your partners as you are collecting data, as you’re making meaning of the data, as you design and try an intervention. Think about students as another partner in the work who you can count on, you can count on their capacity. And so much more is possible because there are so many more students in a school community, adding to that capacity for change. 

Capacity is so often viewed as a limitation — how much can we do? There’s only a few of us. But when you open the door and say, “teachers are our partners, students are our partners,” you can do a lot more together than a separate group of administrators trying to take on a whole intervention by themselves.

Another limitation that people often hold up as a barrier to change is time. We don’t have the time to do that. What are some strategies you suggest to counter that?

That’s often a matter of reality versus perception. Sometimes it’s just a perception that we don’t have the time. We hear that from principals whose frame of reference is the whole landscape of their school community. So, we say, “Okay, talk to us about where is your time going? Where is the school putting its attention, because that’s what’s going to grow.” We ask them to map out where they are putting their energies. Are there ways they can bring synergy into all the different things that they’re doing? Are there things they can drop? What can they downsize so they can direct their energy elsewhere? Or can they identify staff members who can commit to a very intentional investment to grow this work? 

When the time limitation is more real, say, for instance, because they’re getting a lot of demands from the district, it’s important to have those conversations with district leaders. Where are y’all putting your energy? What are the requests and demands that you’re making of your schools? Because you’re saying that this is important, but that’s not translating to what you’re asking of them. What can you take off their plates? Or how can you staff differently so schools can really put their attention and energy here? That’s where we focus some of our coaching work with leaders. I will say that once leadership sees the power of this work, they prioritize it. They show up, they move schedules around. If it’s a priority, you find the time, you make the time.