Oakland High School senior Linh Le is one of two youth directors on the Oakland school board during the 2022-2023 academic year. Credit: Amir Aziz

Every year, Oakland high schoolers elect two of their peers to the Oakland Unified School District board of directors to represent their interests. Unlike adult board members, who serve four-year terms, student directors are elected to serve for one academic year, and their votes are preferential, which means they do not technically count when the board makes decisions. But that doesn’t stop them from being outspoken about their ideas and, at times, calling out other board members for not taking students’ perspectives into consideration.

In recent years, student directors have been advocates for removing police from schools—former directors Mica Smith-Dahl and Denilson Garibo were featured in Homeroom, a documentary about the effort—providing more mental health support for students, campaigning for the Oakland youth vote, and opposing school closures. The student directors are part of OUSD’s All City Council student union, which convenes students from across the city to amplify student voices and work with district leadership to bring changes to schools. 

As part of The Oaklandside’s Q&A series with school board directors, we’re also talking to each of the two student directors. First up is Oakland High School senior Linh Le. Le talked about how she got into student leadership, how adults can be better allies, and how the pandemic impacted her high school years. The interview has been edited for length.

What was your upbringing like and how does it influence your perspective as a student leader?

I immigrated here from Vietnam when I was really young, so I’m a first gen, as well as an immigrant. And I feel like it really influences the work that I do specifically with youth voice and leadership, since I see those who don’t have the resources they need, because I’m also a low-income student. Living in Section 8 housing, I see the different resources that students aren’t being provided for at a school site, like not having money to have a laptop, or not being able to get books or even a backpack. [Some students] even have to pay for their rent. Being a student that struggles financially and in other ways as well, I really value student voices and just ensuring that students have the resources they need in order to further their education to break that cycle of not building generational wealth. 

How did you first get involved in All City Council and student leadership?

I got involved in middle school. All City Council works with high schoolers and middle schoolers. So I got involved in the seventh grade because of my leadership class that I was in at Edna Brewer. All City Council was introduced to leadership [classes] across Oakland, and my leadership teacher brought this up and said, “Linh, this is something that is a great opportunity, and I think you should join.” Because of her, I got into All City Council and I saw the different things that they were doing. 

At Edna Brewer, I feel like my journey of leadership really began when I started being a restorative justice peer leader. That was my core leadership starting point. But with the support of adults and my peers, they really pushed me to continue the work that I’ve been doing. I really love the adults I’ve interacted with and still keep in contact with, and the way that they build relationships with their students—not just on the surface level but way deeper than that. 

That year when I joined [All City Council], I believe it was the 2016-2017 school year, they were really fighting for restorative justice as well as ethnic studies. We came out to the school board meeting and we fought. School closures were happening during that time as well, during the budget cuts, and I saw how students were really impactful and really using their voice during that time, even as a middle-schooler. 

Speaking up for the community I thought was so empowering that I still wanted to come back and stay and be a part of All City Council even through high school until now.

What would you like to accomplish during your year on the school board?

It’s relatively new, it’s called the state seal of civic engagement. It was passed by the state in 2020 and it’s something that I’m really looking forward to working on with different directors this year. Since, as you heard, the Oakland youth vote is now being pushed back until 2024, so I want this to be a way for students to continue doing that work. Even though Oakland’s youth vote isn’t happening this year, this is a way for students to still be civically engaged, and make sure that students are able to have a voice in different spaces where decisions are being made. 

What do you hear from your peers are the most important issues to them?

At last school year’s All City Council Youth Action Summit, students brought up a lot of priorities. But students’ priorities have been the same for the past 10 or 15 years. For instance, making sure that students have support in balancing school and social life. Mental health is a really, really big priority for students. Also, youth voice on decision-making or on the budget or even the youth vote. And school cleanliness. It’s really important for students to feel safe and to have a clean environment. 

Things that our students also mentioned are quality teaching and quality teachers. They want to be a part of the hiring committee to make sure that teachers accurately represent the demographics of their school and know what they’re talking about when teaching students. Academic engagement, where it’s fun to learn—students actually want to enjoy being at school, and have a curriculum that relates to them. For instance, ethnic studies is really important for students to get to see themselves in their classes. Those are just a few of the many things that students have prioritized for the past couple years. 

How can adult allies do a better job of uplifting student voices?

I think for adults, there is a difference between tokenization and supporting students, and they tend to mix it up a lot where they would ask for students’ input and their voices and invite them to meetings, but never really explain to them what’s going on in these meetings or break things down so students can really understand. For instance, [Local Control and Accountability Plan] meetings. LCAP is like the budget. So it’s really hard for even adults—from what I’m hearing from other adults—to understand what’s going on in those meetings and what different terms mean. 

Students and adults have preferences on how they want to engage with each other, but adults should make sure that youth input is actually youth input, and not just saying, “Oh, we got youth input,” and they don’t really add anything else. Make sure that youth understand what’s going on and have actual input.

How did the pandemic and distance learning affect you and your peers? 

With distance learning, it was really hard for me. I feel like I really thrive on socialization and being with my peers and being with my friends. But with the pandemic, there was such a distance, even though there’s phones, texting, FaceTiming, all these ways to communicate with each other but it isn’t the same as one-on-one, face-to-face communication. And that’s what I really struggled with, especially being in an immigrant household. I was always with my parents and I used school as a way to be in a different space where I felt more comfortable—being in school and being with my friends. 

It was [also] difficult in the sense that teachers were way more lenient, which I think is really understandable. But that also made me not care about my academics as much because I didn’t see a consequence to not doing it. For the end of freshman year, it was pass or no pass. So it just led me to kind of brush off academics, since so much was happening already in my personal life.

What do you like most about being an Oakland student?

It’s definitely the community. As an Oakland student, we have a collective community with each other. Everyone knows each other and we’re so interconnected. And the way that we are such advocates for ourselves. So many students and my peers that I know really stand up for themselves and become advocates in their communities, and social justice leaders in one way or another. It doesn’t have to be big, but even on their Instagram, they’ll make sure that things are being posted and that people are aware of things. We’re really big on social justice and making sure that students are speaking up for themselves. I really, really love that, and how it’s such a collective act that we do together. 

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.