'Empathy, not apathy'
When Mya Gordon's family moved from New Jersey to Lake Oswego in the seventh grade, she found herself in a very different community, and didn't like what she saw. "I had an outside perspective on things," she said. "I saw the way things were and I wanted to help be a part of the change."
Gordon specifically saw a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion present in her new home. Now a senior at Lakeridge High School, she has dedicated herself to changing things. She was recently elected to serve as one of three co-chairs on the Lake Oswego School District's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Advisory Committee.
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.
"The number one problem that I see in Lake Oswego is the lack of acceptance in terms of people who are different," Gordon said. "People who are different don't feel like they have a community, or that they are a part of this community."
Gordon served as a member of the DEI Advisory Committee last year, and was promoted to co-chair by fellow committee members at a June 5 meeting. She will serve alongside Ebony Clarke, who held the position last year, and a third co-chair yet to be decided.
The DEI Advisory Committee is hardly Gordon's first foray into equity work. As a freshman at Lakeridge, she became aware of the lack of acceptance of diversity — from personal experience and highlighted by articles in the Review — and approached then-principal Jennifer Schiele.
"I told her it was messed up, and that we needed to do something about it. I wanted to know that she was doing something about it, that something was happening," Gordon said. "It made me really upset for a few years because I felt isolated because of my race."
She said that hearing that other people were having similar experiences validated her feelings. "I wasn't just being too sensitive, it was something that was actually there," Gordon said. "I knew what I felt, but I didn't know if I was being oversensitive."
When Schiele approached her with the idea of forming an equity council at Lakeridge, Gordon ran with it, and is now leading it into the third year. She said the goal is "to have a group that is purposefully trying to tackle racism and other types of prejudice, and making sure the school embodies empathy, not apathy — which is very common."
Even with the existence of the equity council, Gordon and the other members face an uphill battle. "A lot of students are uninterested in the work that we do. It's really hard to figure out what we need to do without feedback," she said.
The council has held assemblies and discussion sessions on topics like mental health and privilege, and Gordon said some students don't take them seriously. "They kind of just joke around," she said. "It is disheartening to hear that people don't care about the work that you are doing."
Still, Gordon remained resilient in her efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the school district, applying for the DEI Advisory Committee last year. Now entering her second year on the committee, she hopes to spread the word about the work they are doing.
"I don't want students of color or students that feel like they don't belong here to think that their school district isn't doing anything," she said. "Some people may not know that this is going on, but would want to be involved."
Gordon also wants to focus on bringing more student voices to the committee, as the vast majority of its members are adults. "Being a student I understand what it's like in the schools," she said. "This is all for the students. People forget that and students get excluded from the conversation."
Because last year was the DEI Advisory Committee's first year, much of its time was spent creating a foundation for future work. "The first year we were just getting on our feet, so I hope that this year we can do more and get more involved in the community," Gordon said. "I would really like to see more communication with the town so that people know what we're doing."
She said that as co-chair she will focus on trying to keep members' ideas and passion organized. "I really want to make sure that the voices of the DEI team members get heard. I feel like there's a lot of work and collaboration ahead of us," Gordon said. "This is a big task that we have in front of us, to create such a big change."
Gordon has seen some changes in the last few years, with the formation of Respond to Racism LO (a grassroots organization created to combat racism in Lake Oswego and across Oregon), equity groups in schools and the district DEI Advisory Committee. "I would say that there's definitely more opportunities right now for people of color or LGBTQ people to feel more included in the community," she said. "Because Respond to Racism is present and equity groups are popping up in schools, students and community members feel like they have more support — they have somewhere to go to."
Gordon believes that change can come from Lake Oswego residents having empathy. "You may love it here. You might be having a great experience — but other people aren't. It's really important that you accept that you might never understand it, but there are people struggling and you should help them," she said. "There are students that are silently suffering and don't feel like they can say anything. It doesn't matter if you don't see it — it's there."
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