Californians for Justice: A History of Organizing Statewide & the Partnership with ESUHSD

“We believe that young people are the leaders we need to create the healthy, just and vibrant schools all of our communities deserve.”

Californians for Justice.

Californians for Justice (CFJ) had been fighting for racial and educational justice across the state and recognized the growing inequities in San Jose. It clearly understood the political context in which these were taking place, and began organizing youth and families in the community, and working towards educational and racial justice. In 2003, as part of an effort to challenge deficit notions of San Jose’s diverse and multilingual student body, CFJ and its student and community leaders partnered with California Tomorrow, an organization whose mission is “to create a fair and inclusive multicultural society” (Applied Research Center, 2002) to push for The District to develop a Bilingual Certification program that would celebrate, affirm, and recognize students’ home languages and cultural wealth. These efforts led to the District’s board formally adopting a Bilingual Certification program on April 17, 2003. Since its inception, the program has served an increasing number of students in ESUHSD, from 137 graduates earning a Seal of Biliteracy in the 2004-05 school year to 791 graduates in the 2019-20 school year (Dinh, 2009).

Meanwhile, CFJ was organizing in The District, holding press conferences, leading rallies, and facilitating student and teacher testimony to support the landmark court case Williams v. State of California: a class-action lawsuit asserting that schools in low-income and minority neighborhoods had limited access to acceptable facilities, resources, and experienced teachers, failing to provide them with education on equal terms (Oulahan, 2005). The Williams case was settled in 2004 and the nearly one-billion-dollar settlement included the signing of four legislative bills providing substantial resources for instructional materials, school repairs and resource quality monitoring, reducing school overcrowding, establishing minimum standards and qualifications for teachers, and introducing transparency into the process of completing these initiatives. During the year of the settlement, ESUHSD agreed to fully implement these initiatives within The District and, more importantly, inform the community of their progress. 

The Forging of a Partnership with ESUHSD: From Confrontation to Collaboration 

From the beginning, CFJ in San Jose employed a broad-based strategy consisting of building a base, developing student and community leadership and power, and building partnerships to strengthen its impact. CFJ, like many other organizations, researchers, and civil rights leaders recognized that making schools more equitable requires more than technical school improvement strategies. Instead, CFJ recognized that equity and educational justice require strategies that deliberately address the norms, power dynamics, and politics of the institutions of schooling and of the society from which they emanate (Oakes et al., 2007). As their work with students and families continued to deepen, the beginnings of a more “informed and energized public” (Dewey, 2015) began to emerge, especially among those who had been previously disenfranchised and underserved by existing school systems.

Initially, as explained by various district leaders and community organizers, CFJ’s role was to ‘hold The District accountable’, a role which at times proved contentious. CFJ leaders (including student leaders) understood the deep educational disparities that persisted in The District, and their strategy required both ensuring that these disparities were recognized and shared publicly and demanding that The District take responsibility for addressing these disparities and ensuring a quality and equitable education for all students. However, as CFJ’s work progressed and their presence in The District grew, several district and school leaders who resonated with CFJ’s vision and valued the work that CFJ was doing alongside students began to emerge. New relationships were forged and new opportunities to collaborate arose. In 2015, for example, CFJ youth leaders worked with Principal Vito Chiala of William C. Overfelt (WCO) High School to develop and run the first school-based participatory budgeting process in the state. As part of this collaboration, students, parents and Overfelt staff decided how to spend $50,000 tied to LCFF through an annual democratic decision-making process (see page 32).

Remembering the early days of the work, Rosa de Leon, Strategy Director for CFJ, spoke about the many district leaders that organizers and student leaders saw ‘come-and-go’ for a long time: “They knew about our work, but we were a group that was more focused on holding The District and the schools accountable.” However, as more of these initiatives and opportunities for collaboration began to grow, the relationship between CFJ and the school district began to shift. The arrival of Superintendent Chris Funk brought stability to The District’s leadership. A growing familiarity of district leaders with CFJ’s work alongside students contributed to a broader recognition of the potential and importance of student voice, power, and participation. CFJ also recognized the strategic and beneficial potential of the partnership: a productive and powerful relationship that is uncommon between educational justice organizations and school districts.

“When we passed A through G (a district-wide policy to ensure all graduates met the minimum requirements to be eligible for any University of California or a California State University campus) we were co-leading the process to write the language of the policy – we were leading that process together. Since he’s [Superintendent Funk] been here, we have been working with the district more in a partnership. And there has been accountability, too.”

Rosa de Leon, CFJ Strategy Director

In addition, as the leadership of The District committed to supporting student voice, power, and participation, they quickly recognized that CFJ not only held important and valuable theory, strategy, and experience about how to empower youth and to effectively create spaces for meaningful and powerful participation; but had also developed youth leaders that could help The District pilot and jump-start initiatives. Consequently, with both the willingness and commitment of the school district, and with the help of CFJ, ESUHSD worked to create a system in which The District could move from “compliance-oriented engagement” to meaningful and productive voice, power, and participation.

District Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee, speaking about CFJ’s role and the knowledge it has contributed to the work, shared:

“Californians for Justice have been great. When participating as individuals, they have brought a lot of value, and when participating as facilitators and as a group working with students; they are strong, trained, focused facilitators that are eliciting voices, with the goal of representative participation.”

Glenn Vander Zee, District Superintendent

Teresa Marquez, Associate Superintendent of Educational Services at ESUHSD, describes this partnership as both collaborative and collegial: “in authentically bringing in the student voices; we see them as the experts in this area.” As she described, this partnership has moved CFJ from being on the ‘outside’ to ‘sitting next to us [The District]’, having a direct impact on the educational practices of ESUHSD. These practices include, amongst others: writing and developing strategic policies including the A-G requirement and the Relationship Centered Schools; helping plan agendas and facilitate meetings so that they are equitable for youth participation; planning and conducting joint professional development around unconscious biases, racial justice, and teacher-student relationships (including youth input in hiring and staffing, scheduling, and other relevant educational practice decisions); and supporting and planning The District’s implementation of the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) work.

Meaningful Youth Participation

Educational research has found that most often, policy-making institutions invite youth to speak, participate, and share their opinion, pushing discourses that portray the voices of youth as important and central to how they make decisions. However, when youth are “called” to participate, they are often placed in spaces and structures that fEducational research has found that most often, policy-making institutions invite youth to speak, participate, and share their opinions, pushing discourses that portray the voices of youth as important and central to how they make decisions. However, when youth are “called” to participate, they are often placed in spaces and structures that further marginalize and silence their voices. These experiences only lead to further disempowerment.

“When you have student voice, you have voices from people who are experiencing education firsthand. The problem is not whether you have their voices or not, but whether you listen and value their voices enough to really consider and act on what they’re saying. If you don’t, now you’ve made it worse.”

Lupe Navarro, Student Leader

Superintendent Vander Zee shared a similar sentiment:

“If students are asked to participate in something with unclear outcomes, devoid of mission, and unclear about the ‘how to make it meaningful’, we will make students feel like they gave their time and it wasn’t valued or accounted for.”

ESUHSD Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee

A growing body of research demonstrates that when youth are brought to the table to collaborate with adults in decision making in meaningful ways, the results are mutually beneficial: it enhances the social-emotional and academic development of young people, in addition to promoting their civic and community engagement, while simultaneously bringing important new perspectives to institutions that help to guide policies and practices (Shah et al., 2018).

A key component of this partnership has been CFJ’s role in lifting the importance of creating spaces for authentic youth participation and voice. Supporting The District in engaging youth beyond performative and symbolic engagement has been one of the multiple roles that CFJ has played.

“CFJ teaches us how to take space, how to participate in spaces that were not designed for us.”

Student Leader

Borrowing from the language developed by CFJ in their Student Voice Continuum, student power is moving away from “students as bystanders” to “student governance”, from “reproducing inequities in participation” to “shared ownership” (Californians for Justice, 2020).

The District sought youth participation during a budget committee meeting to decide on district budget cuts. However, recognizing that the budget committee meeting would not be a “youth-friendly space”, The District worked with CFJ to help prepare youth for the meeting by sending them information beforehand, scheduling a pre-meeting between student leaders and board members, and ensuring there were deliberate opportunities during the meeting for students to voice their thoughts. The District worked with CFJ staff and youth to create these meeting agendas, giving weight and importance in the conversation to issues related to budget cuts that were of concern to The District’s number one stakeholder: students. 

Together, these efforts have become part of a broader collective effort to reshape The District’s culture and decision-making processes, and consequently its outcomes. As explained by Albert Tobias, a former CFJ youth organizer within ESUHSD and now Statewide Campaign Manager for CFJ:

“I hope [everyone gets] that the change that happens here is happening as part of a larger culture movement right within our schools. That’s emulated through what our students need, through what the district is pushing, what our students are saying… The work that we’re doing here is to move a culture, one that addresses its biases by meeting and feeling the needs of the students.”

Albert Tobias, CFJ Statewide Campaign Manager