First Published in the South Seattle Emerald
by Ari Robin McKenna
Kaley Duong and Alexis Mburu knew there was something wrong with school, only it took them a while to find the right words, to know how to phrase them, and to channel their innate leadership ability. In middle school, both joined racial equity clubs that began to illuminate aspects of the issues they were seeing or facing. In high school, both began speaking out more frequently, organizing, and building community around taking action to address the ills of a system they were still in. During the 2021–2022 school year — when Duong was a senior and Mburu a junior — both were unstoppable, working tirelessly for racial equity in schools while organizing, participating in, and speaking at events that impacted thousands.
In June, Duong and Mburu were both recognized for the school years they had, becoming the seventh recipients of the annual Black Education Matters Student Activist Awards (BEMSAA). They were awarded $1,000 each, and join an impressive list of Seattle student activists who preceded them. At an award ceremony press release, BEMSAA Director Jesse Hagopian called Duong and Mburu “dynamic student activists” who had “contributed greatly to the struggle against institutional racism in the schools.” BEMSAA board member Rita Green called them “great choices” based on their personal growth and work toward policy change.
In recent conversations with the Emerald, Duong and Mburu shared some of their recent accomplishments and spoke at length about the paths they took to arrive at equity in education work.
In June, Duong helped guide a Teach the Truth protest through the streets of the Chinatown-International District, megaphone in hand. The secretary of the NAACP Youth Council (NYC), she helped plan the annual Martin Luther King Day Workshop event in January. Duong participated in the annual ethnic studies Praxis Youth Organizing Conference, and was a panelist at the Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) April assembly. She was also a panelist at a handful of events designed to inform teacher candidates about issues of racial equity, and taught a workshop at the Unity in the Community event at Nathan Hale High School. Duong also was part of a group of students selected to train Seattle Public Schools board members ahead of Policy No. 1250, which was approved in May and which entails students sitting on the board starting in fall.
Along with two past BEMSAA award winners Rena Mateja Walker Burr (2020) and Mia Dabney (2021), Duong spoke with board members about how to meaningfully engage students. They spoke about how to honor student perspectives, got board members to open up and be vulnerable about their own experiences as students, and gave them homework to create norms for holding themselves accountable to students.
About the experience, Duong said: “Talking to school board members beyond just asking them about what we want, being able to teach people who have power over our education, was mind-blowing. It was a really beautiful thing getting to know some of the school board members on a personal level. At the end, all three of us [Duong, Burr, and Dabney] got really emotional. I know I wanted to cry hearing the feedback that we got from them. Some of them said they’ve gone to so many trainings over the past few years and this has been one of the most memorable. It made a huge impact on me and made me realize that my voice really does have an impact and can make a difference.”
Mburu, whose first article in Real Change, “Stop punishing students, because your thoughts and prayers are not enough,” ran in June, has written, co-written, or been featured in more than a dozen articles for the South Seattle Emerald. She was a member of the Bridge Committee in Tukwila, and is working to develop a series of student panels at Foster High School next year. Like Duong, she has been on various panels for candidate educators, and also helped organize the WAESN youth workshop for their annual assembly. The vice president of the NYC, Mburu leads an internship program at the Seattle MLK Coalition. She has also helped organize the Black Lives Matter at School week, and for two years running, Mburu has emceed one of its signature events: the Young, Gifted and Black Talent Show.
Mburu highlighted the levity surrounding the Young, Gifted and Black Talent Show as what makes that experience stand out for her among her other accomplishments: “I really liked that event because it’s fun. I think that’s sometimes missing when we do advocacy work. It’s very, you know … we’re talking about oppression, and it’s very high-level thinking, and we’re reimagining society and that is great, but all the time, and it kind of takes a toll on you. You just need to have fun, you need to celebrate Black joy and you need to celebrate liberation in other ways. … And so events that do that are my favorite, the ones that just celebrate and bring people together in unique ways.”
Duong, who went to Meadowdale Elementary, Meadowdale Middle School, and Meadowdale High School, all in Lynnwood, says she was drawn toward activism as the inadequacy of elements of her formal education became more and more difficult to ignore. Here’s her account of the various factors that contributed to her becoming an award-winning activist.
“I think a lot of what drives my passion for seeing change — especially in the education system — is all the experiences that I’ve had in schools where I felt like schools didn’t serve me. [Many educators] would put out that they’re here to serve the students, but I never felt served. All this stuff that my peers and I went through over the years, I think that was a driver for me that things need to change.
“Growing up as a kid, I would be called certain derogatory terms by white students … even in middle school as well, getting those racist remarks. Seeing that I got no support from those teachers really impacted me. There was even a point when it really just affected my own mental health. Also, seeing my Black and Brown peers getting in trouble while white students were completely doing the same thing, but they don’t get called out for it. Even seeing my own friends get written up for things that are unfair that they didn’t even do. Also, not feeling represented in the curriculum in the classroom is something that was really affecting me. It was just all combining together, and seeing that it never changed.
“I started off in middle school doing a lot of equity work and joining clubs at school, and I continued in high school to join clubs and attend workshops and conferences. I made my own connections, and then I got brought to the Washington NAACP Youth Council (NYC) because I looked at their demands and the things that they fought for and I really wanted to be a part of that. I felt like being a part of NYC has really made me grow as a person, and I think it has been one of the most impactful choices in my life that really shaped how I view things, how I lead, and how I work around activism.
“Once I went to high school, everything was the same except for the fact that I actually felt like I had a voice. I could call out those teachers and talk about it. I had the knowledge or the education of being able to talk it through or being able to talk to someone about it. As a kid, I guess the biggest difference was like I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know the exact words or phrases to stand up for myself.”
Mburu, who attended Showalter Middle School and Foster High School in Tukwila, was always predisposed toward taking leadership roles, but began to realize she could use her talent to address systemic inequity. Here’s the award-winning activist’s account of how she was drawn to activism:
“I just feel like it’s kind of in me. From a young age (elementary school), I’ve always been a Type A leadership person. I knew that I was a leader, and I wasn’t afraid to sing at assemblies or volunteer to help the PTA with their dances. I was just always doing stuff.
“In middle school, I joined the race and equity club as a seventh grader. I just went to meetings and listened; I wasn’t really involved. The next year, I wanted to be more involved, and Ms. [Erin] Herda was a facilitator. Eighth grade was definitely the year that I just came more into myself; I just remember that year being really great for me as far as school, as far as socially, and all that stuff. Ms. Herda was not even a teacher I actually had, but just someone who saw me and I just connected with her. I would speak at assemblies and she and another teacher, Ms. [Emily] Tran, would take us to the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference. I just was surrounded by good energy, good people.
“And then really another catalyst was COVID. NYC was looking to expand their group, and Ms. Herda put me in an email; I went to the orientation, and from then on it was just like, ‘Okay, this is what I do.’ If I’m not doing this, I don’t feel that there’s anything as purposeful. I love sports. I love doing other things, but I need to advocate for racial equity or gender equity.
“Growing up in Tukwila, I was on the privileged end of the spectrum. I didn’t necessarily feel overt racism. I didn’t feel overt classism or some of the lived experiences that some of my peers have that pushed them into doing this work. Now, thinking back with the knowledge I have, I can see the systemic oppression and I can see the little small things that weren’t right that as a little kid I didn’t understand. … And there’s so much happening on the news every single day. Someone’s being wronged. Some injustice is happening. It’s always going. There’s no time when there isn’t harm being done to people who look like me, or people who are different than me. I feel like subconsciously, even if I wasn’t experiencing it myself, or not seeing it myself, I felt that weight.
“When we would go to the [Showalter] Race & Equity club, and we’d talk about the certain issues happening and current events, it was just a space that I felt I could fit in as far as adding to the conversation, having opinions, having that outlet to filter that part of my brain of always wanting to lead or talk or learn. That was where that kind of came out.”
Duong is heading to Edmonds Community College for a year to get her associate’s degree before attending a four-year university where she is likely to go into a social work program. She’ll be continuing her Leader in Training internship at the Puget Sound Educational Service District.
Mburu says she’ll continue to write and publish her work in the South Seattle Emerald and Real Change, and says she’ll definitely be applying to both Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this fall.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him through his website.
Featured Image: Kaley Duong and Alexis Mburu are award-winning youth activists. Photos courtesy of Duong and Mburu.