An Oak Park teacher and leader within the country’s largest teachers union, is vying for a seat on the District 200 school board. Gina Harris said she was drawn into the race after realizing that “our students of color don’t feel like the school belongs to them.”
In 2016, Harris was elected one of seven directors who represent the 130,000 members of the Illinois Education Association — the statewide branch of the National Education Association.
Harris said her candidacy is shaped by her experience as a teacher, the fact that her own daughters once attended the high school, and her role as a member of the D200 Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee.
“I saw we were making progress with the committee, and I thought I should run to continue that progress,” said Harris, herself an Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate, during a recent interview. “It seemed like a really good fit and really good timing because I’m a teacher and I know there weren’t any other teachers on the board. That representation matters because the conversations we’ll have about implementing something are different when you have a teacher in the room.”
Harris, who teaches in nearby Maywood, is the only candidate for the D200 board to get endorsed by both Wednesday Journal and the OPRF Faculty Senate, which represents teachers at OPRF. The Oak Park Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers in District 97, announced their support of the Faculty Senate’s endorsements.
Harris said she has experience training educators in how institutionalized racism works.
“I’ve seen people shift their views,” she said. “When we trained the IEA’s board of directors in institutionalized racism, I had multiple people come to me and say the training has changed what they do. I know it’s possible.”
Harris said she hopes that the D200 school board can engage faculty and staff in similar training that is deep and ongoing. Unfortunately, she said, OPRF isn’t quite where it needs to be with respect to implementing substantive professional development. Whatever training the high school has undergone so far, she said, has not seemed to translate into better experiences for the majority of students of color.
“When I came to the [Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee] meeting, I said, ‘I’m not sure what you’re doing, but I’m finding that it’s not effective.”
For starters, Harris said, her own daughter, who graduated from OPRF last year, experienced racism at the high school. Harris said she’s heartened by the progress the district has made in just a few years — including the pending decision to launch a pilot restorative justice program with a cohort of roughly two dozen faculty members and the hiring of a new HR coordinator who Harris said is focused on recruiting and retaining minority hires.
However, she hopes to see more.
“I would like to see us be a lot more aggressive with the restorative justice and equity work we’re doing,” she said, while acknowledging that changing the environment at OPRF will take some time.
“Everyone is pushing for a big, quick fix, but this work doesn’t quick-fix,” Harris said. “For cultures to shift organizationally, it takes a couple of years for that to take place.”