The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity in collaboration with the honoree.
CEF: How did you get here and begin doing the work that you’re doing today?
Juanita Towns: I got involved in this work when my daughter went to King Elementary School. She was in the after-school program. And one of the directors saw my advocacy and my participation as a parent at the school, so she asked me if I wanted to work for the Bay Area Community Resources.
I have always loved working with children. My mom also worked in the WCCUSD for over 20+ years and my grandmother was a big advocate for education. So for me, it was something that was already in me. I have learned so much not only as a parent, but a facilitator, a mentor, role model, a person who resolves conflict and brings solutions and advocacy to any table that’s put in front of me.
I come from a diverse background. My family comes from all kinds of different colors and cultures. My first cousin looks like he could be Latino or white and his mom and I are the same complexion but people don’t know that when they see me. That is why for me, it has always been natural to work in a diverse community.
When working in an African-American community you have to know how to engage people. That’s something that I know how to do very well. You must first identify the concern and listen so we all can work together for the solution.
School staff, administrators, and teachers may not see what I see on the ground floor. When you live and work in the community you serve, it helps to build relationships and it builds community from all types of backgrounds. This will make it easier for you to understand the culture and to provide a better outcome for your community and schools.
What are some of the specific goals that you are currently working on, particularly for Black students in the district, but more broadly for the students that are part of your community?
My goal is to close the achievement gaps, and also bring communities and cultures together by understanding each other’s culture. Because when children see adults getting along and understanding each other’s culture, it helps the children to look at things differently when they are in a school setting. Another goal of mine is to have Black students have a better classroom and school experience, without feeling like they’re alienated, excluded or not recognized for the things that they do well. My goal is to educate staff administrators and teachers on Black culture so they can better communicate and work with our children inside and outside our schools.
What was your reaction when you learned that the foundation wanted to honor you with the Julie Wright Changemaker Award?
I was actually at a school helping with their African American Parent Advisory Council. I was talking to the principal when the email poped up, and I just saw, “Congratulations!” I started reading and I was like… I just started crying. And she was like, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “I just got some exciting news right now.” I said, “Please excuse me.”
I was just overwhelmed with excitement by the recognition, because I don’t look for recognition, I just do the work. I want to make sure that my goal [is met] for my community, and that the African American children in the West Contra Costa Unified School District have the things that they need to succeed. So for me to get this award and to be acknowledged meant so much to me, I’m still in tears.
Did you know Julie Wright?
I didn’t really know her personally. We were at [WCCUSD] board meetings, and we had conversations. She was always an advocate for everyone. She was inspired about the things that I was doing. I tell people, you have to be a certain type of person and have love for children, and love for your community to do this work. Because if you’re just doing it for a paycheck, it’s not gonna work. You gotta have the passion and the love for people in general to do the work that I’m doing. So she admired that.
Can you talk about how your work relates to educational success for the young people that are in your life?
It’s that children are finally having a voice. Many times, children didn’t have any voice. But as they’re learning how to advocate and understand what equity is, and how inclusion is important, and how diversity in this world we’re living in is important, they’re starting to speak out. And so, no more of us adults having to speak for them. And so, I’m just happy to be a part of their success in that. For actually having a voice to actually speak for what they want.
How does courage play a role or a part in what you’re working on?
The courage comes from the children and the community. It’s not easy to go into a room full of others and speak to them about how to engage Black families. And you get challenged by the biases and the racial things. I’ve grown to understand, if I’m gonna be in this fight, I have to have tough skin. So no matter what people think, or how they perceive things, I gotta stay true to what my purpose is and what I need to do moving forward.
What would you say your purpose is?
My purpose is to finally speak out. A lot of times I’ve always played the background and I never stood up. I stood up, but it was always from the back. People used to say, “No, no, Juanita. Speak, speak, speak.”
I was at a board meeting with [former Superintendent] Dr. Harder, and I just saw that everybody was like, “Juanita, speak, speak, speak.” He came to me and gave me the microphone. And so I spoke.
I really feel like coming into this year, it’s very important to me that I speak up, because a lot of people depend on me and respect my thoughts and my vision that I put forth.
And I’ve worked hard to get to that place, so I have to have the courage to be able to fight that fight. Now that I’m older, I understand that this is what I’m here for. My purpose is to make sure that my voice is heard so the community and children I work with know that they have a voice, an advocate, and a support system they can rely on.
What are some of the specific things that you’re advocating for right now?
I advocate for all children and communities. I’m known for bringing communities and cultures together. I find a common goal, like education. Then we say how can we work together as a community to make that happen and together we find a solution. It starts with a goal we all agree with.
I’m currently working with the district BSUs, the Black Student Union. And a lot of times they get overlooked. And the children feel like they’re not heard. So I’m working with them to be more vocal, to be more out there. I’m really proud of all the BSU in our District. El Cerrito High School BSU presented a powerpoint presentation at a board meeting and showcased all the things they have accomplished up until now. It just shows with a little support and advocacy, the children know now that there are people like myself who are listening so they can have the courage to do something they are proud of.
What are you particularly proud of that people may not know anything about that you’ve been able to accomplish?
The first district-wide BSU/AASU spirit week that happened. I was working with the The Black Parents Resourse Center (TBPRC), the African-American Site Advisory Team (AASAT), the BSU Advisor, District Board Members and as a representative of The Office of African American Student Achievement (OAASA) District Office. I was in a position to work with all of them to make that happen. This was the first in our district. This spirit week led up to the district taking over 75 students to the Black College Expo. A lot of our students were accepted right on the spot to different colleges, and also received scholarships also on the spot. So I’m really excited about that and their accomplishments, and how I played a part in that.
Most college and career centers in the schools didn’t have [information about Historically Black Colleges and Universities]. I’m proud to have gone into college and career centers and talked with the counselors, and given them a different outlook and information so Black students feel more accepted and welcome when they walk in. Now when you walk into many of the college and career centers at the schools, you see sections with historically Black colleges information up front. There’s starting to be more posters and information around the school with inclusion for Black students. So I’m very proud of the accomplishment that has happened this far. It’s been a long road leading up to now, and we still have a long way to go. (laughs)
When you interact with young people, what do you hope they feel as they leave that interaction with you? What way do you want to leave them feeling about themselves?
I want them to feel confident, that they’re courageous and that they have a voice inside and outside of their school and community. I also want them to know whatever their goals or dreams are that they can accomplish all of those things by not giving up, keeping their eyes on the prize and working hard.
If your work is very successful over the next 10 years, what will be true for young people that maybe isn’t true today?
That they would be able to own their own businesses and start their own Black or Afrocentric schools. Because we don’t have that in our school district and community. And I want them to be able to think bigger than now. I want them to have the resources, so they can set their goals and accomplish their goals. I want them to become independent, and have a voice, and change the systematic racism that we face in society today.