People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Eduardo Lara, a lecturer of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and a former candidate for the LBUSD school board and for the District 2 council seat, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.
In an age when hashtags succinctly define movements, #ImWithJuan, has become a local organizational tool to share support for board member Juan Benitez. Juan, as he is affectionately known in the community, recently held the title of vice-president of the school board, but in a move eschewing both courtesy and tradition, was unfairly bypassed for selection as president.
I have a unique lens in assessing Juan’s recent board snub because in 2018 I ran for the same seat that Juan currently occupies, a seat that represents Downtown Long Beach, Willmore, Alamitos Beach, AOC7, Rose Park and Cambodia Town. Upon reflection, the heart of our respective campaign messages was to bring needed change to the district by engaging various communities into the fold as key informers of educational policy. This was considered an unorthodox approach toward the school board role. We were warned by many to abstain from publicly critiquing the district’s culture along our respective campaign trails.
Nonetheless, in our unique ways, we both communicated to voters that we were running to act as vehicles for change. In the end, Juan was elected to the board and has since been true to his message. As a board member, Juan has made it his priority to engage community stakeholders in the decision-making process. He has been inclusive of Latinx, Cambodian, Black, and various communities of color. He has given hope to the marginalized. Juan has guided the school district to live up to its mantra of All Means All. His unapologetic commitment to both community and equity is the reason we are proud to say #ImWithJuan.
Most recently, Juan collaborated with local non-profits to produce much-needed Long Beach Schools Community Forums on the topics of dismantling institutional racism and equitable online learning. These forums helped uplift Black voices and centered the demands made by Black Lives Matter Long Beach organizers to end LBUSD’s anti-black policies and practices. Collectively, over 750 participants joined the online forums and more than 8,000 additional participants have watched the forum recordings on social media.
Fifty years prior to the Juan’s election, Martin Luther King, Jr., offered a salient lesson in leadership by sharing, “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus, but he is a molder of consensus. And on some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”
Juan’s approach to leadership, though unconventional by LBUSD’s standard, is one that is informed by the question: is it right? Indeed, it is right to want to move the district with all due and deliberate speed in a new Long Beach Promise calling for dismantling of racism in the district and the elimination of systemic inequities. Serving as president would allow Juan to work in concert with the community and the superintendent to place agenda items reflecting such a promise with more expediency.
Recently-selected Board President Diana Craighead is also qualified to lead in this role. In fact, she has proudly served as board president twice. Originally appointed to the school board in 2012, Craighead was selected in part due to her robust contributions as an active member and president of the Long Beach Council PTA. It is also noteworthy that Craighead recently voted in favor of developing a new equity policy for LBUSD and thanked the public for helping the district sharpen their equity lens.
However, the issue facing the district is not that Craighead was elected as president, but that Benitez was purposely bypassed for the role. Board culture allowed for Craighead to serve as president early in her tenure as board member—the same equal courtesy should be extended to Juan, whose qualifications are also with extensive merit. Juan holds a Ph.D. in history, has served students for decades as an educator, and is executive director of CSULB’s Center for Community Engagement. Perhaps most importantly, Juan has a long-standing record in Long Beach as a community advocate.
Fellow community advocate and participant of #ImWithJuan, Rocio Torres, shares how effective Juan’s own advocacy has been, saying, “Dr. Benitez continues to bridge the gap between communities and schools. He understands the benefits our schools are and one of the most important assets in our communities. Juan listens and learns from all members of Long Beach.”
Torres is one of many community members echoing their support of Juan. Though there might be temptation to regard Juan being overlooked for president as only an affront to the Latinx community, it is in fact, an affront to anyone who subscribes to values of social justice. Black, Cambodian, and Filipino community members are upset over this board faux pas.
White allies have also expressed their concerns. Board member Megan Kerr, who was voted as vice president, recently announced she will be resigning from the position at today’s board meeting. This sends a strong signal to the board that a second reorganization of leadership is needed in order to correct the injustice that occurred at the last meeting.
There is a window of opportunity to rectify Juan’s unequal and unjust treatment. At a time when Black Lives Matter has paved the way for hope in re-imagined futures, I also draw words of solidarity from Chicana feminist and labor organizer, Dolores Huerta. She saliently offered words that have transcended time and various movements. Her words are a rallying call to help move racial equity forward in LBUSD, with Juan at the helm, leading in concert with diverse and marginalized communities in Long Beach.
¡Sí se puede!