Oakland High senior Natalie Gallegos Chavez is one of two student directors on the Oakland school board. Credit: Amir Aziz

Natalie Gallegos Chavez began her second year as a student director on the Oakland Unified School District board last month. A senior at Oakland High School, Gallegos Chavez has been involved in student leadership since she was in middle school. She’s one of two student directors on the school board, along with fellow Oakland High senior Linh Le

Gallegos Chavez has been active in the All City Council student union, lending her voice to causes like the youth vote, the Oakland Undivided campaign for computer and internet access, and Oakland Promise, which provides college scholarships. Last month, she spoke at an event with Vice President Kamala Harris and Mayor Libby Schaaf to announce a $50 million college fund for Oakland students. 

Gallegos Chavez talked with The Oaklandside about her time as a student leader, what it will take to get more students involved in education discussions, and her goals on the OUSD board this year. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your upbringing and how it influences your approach as a student leader. 

I wasn’t really someone who was very outspoken. I was very shy and I wasn’t involved in [student leadership] until I got into restorative justice in middle school. Restorative justice opened my eyes to how powerful our youth voices are. And that’s what made me want to transition to [All City Council] and, now, being the student director.

Ever since middle school I’ve had great adult allies like Mr. Gibson and Ms. Michelle (teachers at Edna Brewer Middle School) who’ve taught me that my voice matters. In eighth grade, budget cuts happened and that’s what made me really passionate about talking to officials about our priorities as students. Because during those budget cuts, they were trying to get rid of restorative justice, which had helped me so extremely throughout middle school. I don’t want students to miss out on an opportunity that can possibly save their life and help them throughout their education.

Me and Linh [Le] came into [student government] together and now we get to end it together. I first started off as the [Local Control and Accountability Plan] student budget director, because in middle school I was on my school-site council. That really gave me insight into the budget and knowing how to speak up for where the money should go.

How do you describe All City Council to people who don’t know what it is?

All City Council is a governing board. It serves as a bridge between decision-makers and young people. ACC is about uplifting our students’ voices and making sure that we get a seat at the table, not on the menu.

What are some of the accomplishments that All City Council has had in the past few years?

The Oakland youth vote has been something ACC has been working on for the past four years, since my first year. Even though it’s not finished, I feel like this has been a huge accomplishment because we’ve gotten this far. Another is being able to finally, almost, have a full governing board and have successful events, whether that’s our ethnic studies conference or our youth action summit.

What are the things you’re most proud of having done last year as a student director, and what are you hoping to accomplish this year?

It’s not just me that I’m proud of—I’m proud of all of our young people because so many last year really fought to get the things that they wanted, especially after coming back from COVID. It was an extremely hard time. So I’m just proud of our students being able to speak up and I’m proud of being able to properly represent our community and our young people to make sure that their priorities are met, whether that was having COVID necessities, or more education on sexual harassment and Title IX (civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools). 

This year I’m hoping to partner up with different school board members for the civic education seal (that goes on the diplomas of students who demonstrate excellence in civic participation). Also, a goal going into last year and again this year will be to make sure that future student directors are able to get an actual vote that counts on the school board.

Currently, student director votes are noted by the council, but not technically counted in final vote tallies. Why do you believe it’s important that student directors get a real vote? And what would need to happen to implement that?

We have some great school board members, but as young people, we still don’t feel represented and don’t feel like the school board votes in favor of what our community and our youth want. After public comment, after emails, at the end of the day, the school board votes for what they feel is best. And as young people, we are the ones who are being impacted the most by their choices. So we should have a vote that’s actually going to have an impact on decisions.

It first starts with creating the resolution and partnering up with school board members to have someone co-write it with us, who is willing to be in favor of this and help us get it passed.

How can adults outside of the school board do a better job of uplifting student voices?

Adult allies can do a better job by actually taking what students say into consideration. Most times, young people don’t really want to communicate or express themselves with adults because as young people we feel like our voice is going to be dismissed. Truly engage with your young people, whether that’s in your school sites, in your district, in your schools, wherever it is, to make sure that you’re engaged and you’re actually respecting their voices and listening to them. Yes, there might be disagreement, but there’s always space to take what they say into consideration and be able to compromise, and for them to be able to feel like someone actually cares about them.

What do you think can be done to get more students engaged with the school board or All City Council?

Definitely having young people come out to our high school and middle school meetings. We always try our best to do outreach to all the schools and have it blasted to other students. Anyone can be in ACC and anyone can be a leader as long as they believe in themselves and share their voice, including at school board meetings. Even if it’s not in person, they’re able to join on Zoom and speak during public comment. 

They also have the two student directors, me and Director Le, to reach out to if they have any concerns. Our emails are always open. If they are ever wondering about the next event, it’s always on our Instagram.

What is your favorite thing about being a young person in Oakland?

My favorite thing is the community. I’ve never lived anywhere else in my life but I definitely feel like we have a huge community here in Oakland. The young people in Oakland are super dope and I’m proud to say that I’m from Oakland and that I’m a leader.

Oakland gets stuff done for its young people. We have the Oakland Promise scholarships, we have Oakland Undivided to give free laptops and hotspots to young people. That’s what I’m proud of. That we’re actually taking action to make sure that our young people are getting the resources that they need. In many states, young people might not have these things. To know that Oakland has these resources for its young people is so amazing to be a part of.

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.