Going to bed around 6 p.m. on a Tuesday isn’t a typical thing most 16-year-olds would do, but for Gema Quetzal Cardenas, this is step one for preparing for a long Wednesday. Each Wednesday morning, she awakes and prepares herself a large breakfast, then she dashes to school where she serves on several clubs including the school dance planning committee. When school is out, she heads to her internship with the All City Council, a student union that bridges the gap between adult decision-makers in the school district and the student body. With enough time to grab dinner, she finally arrives at the Oakland Unified School Board meeting, where she serves as one of two student directors. This bi-weekly routine is soon to change for the ambitious high school junior at Life Academy, as she prepares for her new role as the student representative on California’s State Board of Education.
When Quetzal Cardenas received her congratulatory phone call about the new position in late March, she was overjoyed. “I straight up called my mom,” she said. “My sister answered the phone, so I kept telling her to pass the phone to mommy. Then I said, ‘Mommy, you aren’t going to believe. I got it! They appointed me. The governor appointed me!’”
Since 1969, the State Board of Education has appointed one student each year to serve on the board. Any high school junior in the state is eligible to apply, with the exception that they must be a senior when their term begins. The student selected for the program must attend all state board meetings and serve a complete term from August 2018 to July 2019. The student will have the opportunity to vote on policies and will receive compensation for every meeting they attend. Once all of this year’s applications had been submitted, a review board selected 12 semifinalists, who were invited to the Student Advisory Board on Education Conference, where they made speeches and presentations campaigning for the opportunity to advance. Following the presentations, students were asked to vote on each other. The top six scorers advanced to interview with the board’s screening committee, which in turn selected three students to interview with representatives of the governor. Governor Jerry Brown, Oakland’s former mayor, made the final decision.
To celebrate her accomplishment, Quetzal Cardenas’ family had a nice dinner prepared by her mother. Her father also rewarded her with a bike she had wanted for a while. “It was chill, honestly. Everyone was happy,” she said.
“We are very excited about Gema’s appointment and look forward to working with her,” said Janet Week, the communications director for the California State Board of Education (SBE). “SBE has a long history of awesome student board members, articulate teens who act as the voice for California’s 6.2 million public school students.”
Quetzal Cardenas attributes her success to the support of her community. Her high school humanities teacher, Nina Portugal, has been a huge support to her over the years. Naturally, Quetzal Cardenas asked her to write one of her letters of recommendation for the position.
“When I think of Gema, I think of her strong integrity and moral compass and the way in which she leads with a strong value stance,” wrote Portugal in an email interview. “She is always looking out for everyone and looks to uplift everyone on her team. She is a motivator and a very empathetic leader. And of course, she is a hard worker and hustles always for the task at hand.”
Another letter of recommendation Quetzal Cardenas received came from OUSD District 1 School Board member Jody London. In her recommendation, London wrote: “In my ten years on the Oakland School Board I have worked with many student directors. Gema Quetzal Cardenas is that rare student who understands the policy debates and is articulate and composed in uplifting student voice for equity. Ms. Quetzal seeks out opportunities to learn and expand her skills, for example, last summer she participated in a national American Civil Liberties Union training program. Many times, when she is speaking I think to myself that someday I’ll say I knew her when.”
OUSD School Board Vice President Jumoke Hinton Hodge is another advocate who expressed her excitement for Quetzal Cardenas’s future. “I look forward to her growing and experiencing a world outside of Oakland. She is a powerful leader that is poised to learn and develop multiple perspectives to inspire a new generation,” she said. “I trust she will be humble while also being unafraid of this new opportunity. She is a fierce warrior for creating a sanctuary state,” meaning the idea that no proof of legal immigration status should be requested upon a student’s enrollment in California schools, nor gathered by the school.
When Quetzal Cardenas is not serving her community, she is spending quality time with her friend and family. She is the oldest of four children. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to have a sister that’s always busy and comes home late on Wednesday. It’s always that balance of how to give my siblings enough attention and still have enough time to serve on places like the school board,” she said.
She also enjoys visiting different food restaurants in her neighborhood, keeping up with her social media accounts (she’s @q_gema on Instagram) and indulging in her secret pleasure—Marvel movies and comic books.
“I probably watch The Avengers once a week,” she said. “Even though they are superheroes, some of the problems they go through, people go through in their daily lives. You see all these people with different personalities that have their own mindsets. In some way, it reminds me of the school board. … In the school board, everyone has these ideas and they clash, but at the end, they are going to get stuff done.”
If Quetzal Cardenas had to pick which Avenger she would want to be, she would select America Chavez from the Young Avengers. “She’s just very outspoken. A lot of times in comic books, people tell her ‘Don’t do it,’ but she does because she knows it’s the right thing to do. She’s not going to let anyone hold her down, and I really like that about her,” she said.
Quetzal Cardenas admits she still has challenges to overcome in her leadership. As a student, it can be intimidating being a representative of the students’ voice to adults. She said she has to work tremendously on both her public speaking and learning when to speak up. “I got a lot of support from my peers and parents,” she said. “My mom is very good at presenting and is not afraid to say what’s on her mind. I learned a lot from her.”
As a student leader on the OUSD Sanctuary District Task Force, a group dedicated to protecting the safety of students and families in school regardless of their immigration status, Quetzal Cardenas hopes to continue to create awareness at the state level about the importance of diversifying education for all students. “I really hope to talk about representation, because a lot of students don’t feel like they are represented in these spaces,” she said. “I really hope to be talking about curriculum specific to ethnic studies and making sure it’s reflective of California.”
Quetzal Cardenas is preparing to exit out of her position with on the Oakland school board in the next month as she finishes her junior year. Now, the very proud East Oakland native is excited to represent her neighborhood on a state level.
“I’ve seen a lot of different places, but nothing takes away from the love I have of my community here,” she said.