An immigrant’s path for progressive leadership

Editor’s note: This op ed by school board candidate Josephine Zhao was published in response to The Examiner’s Aug. 16, 2018 article, “School board candidate under fire for past transphobic statements.”

I am a public school mom of two daughters, a longtime parent advocate, an immigrant who grew up very poor in mainland China, and an experienced paraeducator/family liaison in the San Francisco Unified School District. As a progressive leader in the immigrant community, I am running for school board in order to ensure all children, including LGBTQ students, have the opportunity to succeed in our city. I support equal rights and access for ALL students. My values drive me to advocate that every student, of all background and needs, reach their fullest potential.

My family moved to the City ten years ago because my older daughter Genevieve had kidney failure at the age of 4. While we were fighting for her life, we also had to find housing and schools for my daughters. It was so heart rending. We were implicitly denied housing, and unable to enroll Genevieve at a school near our home or hospital. After Genevieve got a transplant and recovered, I became a citizen so I could find answers for why it is so hard for a family to get by in the City.

I went to many clubs and associations in my community, and eventually found the Chinese American Democratic Club. I quickly learned San Francisco values and thrived as Vice President of the club.

Looking back, I myself have evolved tremendously, from a lack of understanding about transgender bathrooms at schools to fiercely advocating for equal rights and safe access for LGBTQ students. In 2013, our immigrant community was presented with a bill called “co-ed bathrooms and communal shower for students,” and it created a real stir. I opposed the bill and described it in a way that I shouldn’t have. Even though I had no intention to hurt the transgender community, I did, and I sincerely apologize for it. To be clear, I support transgender students using the bathroom of the gender they identify with and will educate my community not to condone intolerance towards transgender kids or anyone.

Recently, Genevieve’s best friend from kindergarten came out as a transgender boy. I was happy to see that he finally found himself and he shines as a confident and handsome young man. However, when the news first broke at his own home, his immigrant mom was devastated and the boy wanted to kill himself. Fortunately, I was working at the school as a family liaison. With the trust that Genevieve and I have built with this family through the years, and with the exceptional team at the school, we collectively supported the family through his transition.

In 2015, I worked with Scott Wiener, London Breed and School Board Commissioner Emily Murase on education issues. Together we found solutions for students who were delayed access to algebra and advanced math in 8th grade. I am proud to be endorsed by these leaders on my campaign and by Equality California Board President Mandy Lee, who saw firsthand how I improved the relationship between LGBTQ youth and their immigrant parents.

Thirty-five percent of our City’s population are immigrants, and two out of five residents in our city speak a language other than English at home. Unfortunately, the immigrant community has been shut out of many issues that are important to our City. While San Franciscans are collectively working on the State Gender ID law, there is a huge population of immigrants who don’t understand the struggle of the LGBTQ community because, where they came from, there is no marriage equality or basic LGBTQ rights.

The answer is not to criticize or attack these folks but to reach out, foster dialogue and welcome them into the fold when they are ready. Isn’t the goal of the progressive community to change hearts and minds? I hope we can help celebrate — not punish — each and every evolution in social progress.

I am proud to have become a progressive leader in my community. I am running because having a seat at the table allows members of the immigrant and parent communities to get a clear picture of every education issue. If elected, I plan to become the bridge between the LGBTQ community and the immigrant communities.

Currently both the LGBTQ and immigrant communities are under attack. We need to stand together. We need to be stronger as one. I humbly ask for your vote for School Board, so our city and our schools can welcome immigrants and serve and respect every child.

Josephine Zhao is a public school parent, a longtime public school advocate, and a SFUSD paraeducator. She is currently running for the Board of Education in San Francisco.

Josephine Zhao
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