Silicon Valley makes history with trio of South Asian trustees
Santa Clara County Board of Education member Raeena Lari is sworn in by her son, Shay Lari-Hosain, in December. Lari is one of three South Asian members on the board. Photo courtesy of Raeena Lari.

    Three of the seven members on the county’s board of education are South Asian —making history for the most representation on the county’s powerful education board.

    The Santa Clara County Board of Education swore in its first Pakistani American members, Maimona Afzal Berta and Raeena Lari, this month. Both members won in November’s election: Berta defeated San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco for the seat held by former trustee Peter Ortiz, who secured a spot on the San Jose council. Lari beat candidate Natalie Prcevski for the seat held by trustee Claudia Rossi, who did not seek reelection. They join Tara Sreekrishnan, who won reelection this year unopposed, and is the board’s first Indian American member.

    Berta, a special education teacher, said she hopes her win will foster self-empowerment and leadership among students of color. The former Franklin-McKinley School District board member said representation for South Asians and Muslim Americans was scarce growing up.

    “For young people, it’s hard to imagine what’s possible, or even specific pathways of leadership if you’ve never seen it done before,” Berta told San Jose Spotlight. “As a working mom navigating issues like affordable childcare, (being a) Hijabi and public school teacher, the perspective I bring makes this win that much more significant.”

    Board of Education members represent different parts of the county, working with the county’s Office of Education to oversee academic and financial programs at more than 30 school districts.

    Pictured here from left to right is Assemblymember Evan Low, Trustee Maimona Afzal Berta, County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan, Trustees Tara Sreekrishnan and Raeena Lari as well as County Supervisor Cindy Chavez at a swearing in ceremony on Dec. 12. Photo courtesy of Tara Sreekrishnan and the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

    Berta’s perspective as a non-English speaker growing up will also inform her work in education, she said. She represents Area 6, which includes East San Jose school districts— Alum Rock Union School District, Franklin-McKinley School District and Mt. Pleasant School District. Her district includes parts of East Side Union High School District and San Jose Unified School District.

    “Growing up in East San Jose, language played a significant role in staying connected to my family’s Pakistani and Kashmiri heritage. At home, I only spoke my native language first and learned English in school,” Berta told San José Spotlight. “Representation in leadership helps ensure decisions and policies reflect diverse student backgrounds.”

    Lari said her and Berta’s victories are encouraging amid ongoing discrimination against Asian Americans and Muslims. Both board members faced Islamophobic comments on social media during their campaigns which can often deter some people of color from pursuing political office. San Jose’s Sikh community, an ethnic and religious minority, is also pushing for more political representation after a resolution passed in the state Assembly to recognize the community’s presence in California.

    “Representation will garner more confidence within the South Asian community that their voices will be heard and encourage more South Asian origin individuals to participate in the political system,” Lari told San José Spotlight.

    Lari said her new position is an extension of the work her family has done for generations: her grandfather pushed for education to be codified as a basic human right in India’s Constitution. Lari, a research economist, represents Area 7, which includes Evergreen School District, Morgan Hill Unified School District, Gilroy Unified School District and parts of Oak Grove School District and East Side Union High School District.

    Sameena Usman, a government relations coordinator with the Bay Area’s Council on American-Islamic Relations chapter, said the new representatives could help support more robust ethnic studies programs.

    “We want to make sure that we have a true representation of different cultures and religions to be taught to the students,” Usman told San José Spotlight.

    Sreekrishnan said she’s looking forward to working with the new members, who each bring their own distinct education interests and ideas. Sreekrishnan represents Area 2, which includes Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District, Cupertino Union School District, Lakeside Joint Union School District, Loma Prieta Joint Union School District, Los Gatos Union School District and Saratoga Union School District. It also includes portions of Santa Clara Unified School District.

    Sreekrishnan was first appointed to the seat in 2021. She works as a deputy chief of staff to state Sen. Dave Cortese.

    “We’re certainly not a monolith. We each bring a unique perspective, despite our shared cultural background,” Sreekrishnan told San José Spotlight. “I’m honored that each of us were supported by educators and families across the county.”

    Having diverse education leaders means policies are created with a deeper understanding of students of color’s experiences, Lari said. As a new board member, she hopes to address inequities among the county’s students in terms of mental and physical health.

    “Students are our future and they will determine the trajectory of our world,” Lari told San José Spotlight. “It is great to see that in 2022, we are catching up in terms of South Asian representation.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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