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Student Voices

Students join school board calling for unity, more teachers of color

"I am ready to go and I want the wheels to start turning."

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Humbled and inspired by their experiences growing up — one with a mother who has cerebral palsy and another berated by students for wearing a Muslim headscarf, Imere Williams and Doha Ibrahim are determined to robustly represent their peers as the student representatives to the Philadelphia Board of Education.

The two hard-working and disciplined high school seniors were selected from 44 applicants to serve for one year on the school board. They are the second pair of student representatives to the board since the District’s governance returned to local control in spring, 2018.

Ibrahim attends Abraham Lincoln High School, a neighborhood school in the Northeast, and Williams is a student at Boys’ Latin Charter School in West Philadelphia.

Being on the school board might be a challenge, but these students are no strangers to struggle.

Ibrahim was born and raised in Canada, and came to the United States when she was in eighth grade. “For me, in middle school, I wanted to get my education when I moved here from Canada. But I was always attacked in a way where I was called a terrorist and my scarf was pulled off.”

For that reason, she said, she looks up to Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani activist who was shot in the head for advocating for the education of girls. She sees connections between their two stories, since Malala always had to fight for her education, and persisted no matter what that Taliban threw at her. “To see her have the Nobel Prize and be out there starting different programs for girls inspires me.”

For Williams, it is his mother who provides him with inspiration. “My mother had a really bad upbringing in foster care, with her cerebral palsy and a lot of other things,” he said. “Life has not been kind to her, but she is doing all she can to work hard and make sure that I have a good life.

“I want to do that and go out, work hard, and give back like she has.”

They already have ideas about what they hope to accomplish in their new positions. Williams plans to advocate for the hiring of more teachers of color. They both stressed unity and representing all public school students.

Additionally, they want to try and provide continuity of the student voice, and they have reached out last year’s two student representatives, Julia Frank and Alfredo Praticò to talk to them about the position.

Ibrahim and Williams have both accomplished a lot in their high school years. “I guess you could say I am the right hand to my principal,” said Ibrahim.

She started a social media page for her school that now has over 1,000 followers. She is editor for Lincoln’s yearbook, president of student government, and vice president of a business club at her school called DECA. She also formed a club called Power that supports female immigrant students at her school. In her spare time, she runs a photography business.

Ibrahim is is proud to be a leader at her neighborhood public school. “For me, it is an honor to be a part of Abraham Lincoln High School,” she said. “We were always on the news for bad, so for me to be a leader and stand out, and be in the media showing that our school has leaders and students that want a change is very nice.”

Part of what Ibrahim is representing is her female Muslim identity. “Me wearing the scarf is one of the big things because, in our culture, not a lot of women are allowed to raise their voice on issues happening inside their home or outside,” she said. “So, for me, being that go-to person is a really big step in my life.”

Williams is the president of his school’s National Honor Society. He has written for his school newspaper, been involved with the Junior Classical League’s Certamen team, and started a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance at Boys’ Latin. As a member of his school’s steering committee, he also helped to form his school’s honor council.

As for the future, Williams wants to become a teacher and some day start his own school. He said that he has been inspired by the teachers and principal at his school. “Charter schools in general really serve boys of color in a good way,” he said.

He believes the proverbial “war” between charters and District schools is tearing people apart. “I think we have a common goal, but the only way we are going to be progressive is if we are putting our heads together,” he said. “This division is not going to get us anywhere.”

For the new representatives, there are feelings of pride and responsibility. It can be joyous and overwhelming. “I’m nervous some mornings. I get up and I am wondering, ‘Am I going to be able to do anything?’ ‘Am I going to be overwhelmed?’” Williams said. “And there are times when I feel really proud, and I am ready to go and I want to the wheels to start turning.”

While there is excitement for the future, there is also a certain sadness knowing that they will graduate soon. Ibrahim said, “Honestly, it stinks that I am a 12th grader, because I don’t want to graduate. I just want to stay in high school, and continue enjoying and creating.”

Joseph Staruski is a Haverford College student interning with the Notebook this fall.

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