Neelam Gupta joins Ebony Clarke and LHS senior Mya Gordon as DEI committee co-chair

PMG PHOTO: CLAIRE HOLLEY - Neelam Gupta at her house in Lake Oswego.Neelam Gupta was elected as the third co-chair of Lake Oswego School District's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Advisory Committee, joining co-chairs Ebony Clarke and Lakeridge senior Mya Gordon in leading the committee into its second year.

The committee was created in August 2018 to examine places for improvement in the district's strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion. Members spent the last year looking at data and best practices from peer districts, auditing district policies through an equity lens and looking for ways to embed equity into curriculum and practice, as well as develop an equity policy for the district.

The committee has been guided by David Salerno Owens, the LOSD's director of equity and strategic initiatives, and has been meeting monthly to discuss how to improve district experiences for people of color, those with disabilities and other minority groups in Lake Oswego.

Gupta has spent much of her last two years supporting the LOSD in a variety of ways. She sat on the DEI Advisory Committee last year, co-chaired the 2019 LO Learning Levy campaign and sat on the board of the LO Schools Foundation for two years.

Professionally, Gupta's background is in the nonprofit sector. She earned master's degrees in public health and social work from UCLA, and worked on a team resolving healthcare delivery system issues for low income populations. She also worked for a foundation that focused on trying to improve healthcare and overall health of low income Los Angeles county residents through strategic alliances and policy advocacy. About five years ago, Gupta, her husband and daughter uprooted their lives and moved to Lake Oswego.

"My parents actually lived here in Lake Oswego for 30 years, and my brother went to LOHS. Just like my parents, when we had the opportunity to move up here, we thought of the schools," she said. However, when they arrived, Gupta found the move was harder for her daughter Ria than she expected. "When we moved here Ria was in third grade at Forest Hills. It was a difficult transition for her, more than I anticipated. We came from a very large, much more diverse, public elementary school in the LA area," she said. "I knew it was a welcoming community, and it really surprised me how hard it was for her to integrate into the social fabric of the school. She encountered a few bias incidents."

As Gupta privately helped her daughter through insensitive comments and microaggressions, she realized she didn't know what to do on a larger scale. "When Ria first encountered those bias incidences, I was in so much shock. I was just taken aback," she said. "I didn't know how to advocate for myself."

It took until Ria's fifth grade year for Gupta to really figure it out. "What 'activated' me was when she was in fifth grade," Gupta said. Ria's class was planning on going to see a play at the Oregon Children's Theater about Cassius Clay. Gupta was interested in going as a chaperone, so she emailed the teacher — who told her the field trip had been cancelled. "She told me that they had decided not to send the kids because they use the n-word in the play. To me, that seemed like a huge lost opportunity," Gupta said. "That would have been such a perfect opportunity to teach the kids about the use of that word, the history surrounding it."

She was curious how the decision was made, and decided to look into it. "It turns out the former principal at the school had consulted with the district administration, and they had collectively decided not to send the kids," Gupta said.

This was in early 2018, only a few weeks before students at Lake Oswego Junior High — students only a bit older than Ria — passed a note to a black student containing the n-word, and use of the word in Lake Oswego schools became a widespread conversation throughout the district.

"It just made me realize that we have a long way to go as a district when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion," Gupta said.

She believes if the district and school administrators are more proactive about teaching students tolerance and having difficult conversations, future incidents like the one at LOJ could be avoided.

That's why when Gupta heard about the creation of the DEI Advisory Committee last year, she knew she wanted to be a part of it. She was accepted, and last year was part of the workforce subgroup, because she was "interested in trying to assist the school district in developing a plan to diversity the workforce," she said. "If you think in terms of workforce, you want to make sure you have a really broad recruitment pool. You also want to make sure you're giving everybody who has eligibility a fair shot at the position. There are best practices that can make sure you're not unfairly disadvantaging people of color."

Gupta plans to continue working on diversifying the district's staff this year, something Superintendent Lora de la Cruz has said is a priority. Gupta also hopes to identify people who are already practicing inclusion within the district. "I feel like there are teachers that have great ideas, we just need to be able to find them and lift them up," she said. "It's going to require leadership from each of the schools."

Gupta acknowledges that diversity, equity and inclusion work is not easy. "In my experience, sometimes you take two steps forward and one step back. It's not linear," she said. "But I'm very excited and very hopeful. We're fortunate to live in a community where people are really invested and they really care."

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