Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

For months, when I imagined voting for the first time, I visualized casting my ballot for president. For senator. For congressman. These, I thought, were the elections that could change the course of this country. But one other election stood out to me as especially important.

I think I was probably more aware of the school board than most 18-year-olds, considering for a good bulk of my childhood, my mother Toya Hampton was a member. I was definitely aware of the inequity within the student body of my magnet school, and ran for student body president to try to diversify our audition process. But even as I organized outreach projects to Title I elementary schools and I began to see signs that the issue I cared so deeply about was rooted at the district level, I never attended a school board meeting. I am sure many students can relate; the school board may make decisions about us, but never with us. We are never taught that we are the stakeholders in school. Years of classes on history and government, and we leave thinking civic engagement is just about voting. District offices at 75 Calhoun are seemingly inaccessible. So while I knew in the back of my mind that I would have to vote for school board candidates, it was definitely not a race that I was thinking about months in advance.

Green | Provided

And then COVID-19 happened.

School shut down suddenly. I finished my senior year in my bedroom. Eventually, college went virtual, and I started preparing as best I could for a highly abnormal freshman year. And as I did, pressure came from the state level for districts to re-open five days a week. My 7th-grade sister had panic attacks about catching COVID at school and spreading it to our at-risk grandparents. My former teachers held their families tighter, robbed of all real choice and agency if they wished to keep their jobs. My mother frantically texted former colleagues, trying to piece together what was going on.

At the center of it all was the school board. At the center of so many life-changing decisions is the school board. And they were doing it all without student input.

But this year I had a vote, and I knew it counted for something. Five seats were opening on the Charleston County School Board — I had to tune in to the upcoming election, quickly, and do my research.

Luckily, Student Voice, the non-profit I work for, was partnering with the local advocacy group QEP, the Quality Education Project, for a candidate forum. Not everyone attended. Notably, candidates endorsed by the Charleston Coalition for Kids — a group with more questions than answers on transparency and school privatization — were absent. But there, students and community leaders asked questions of the candidates who did make time to attend, and it quickly became clear to me which ones I wanted to learn more about: Erica Cokley, Regina Duggins, Francis Beylotte and Kristen French.

I appreciate that these candidates believe that public schools should remain public, teachers should be given agency and treated with dignity, and neighborhood schools should be invested in as backbones of our communities. They are parents, activists and educators with roots and families in Charleston’s public schools. Above all, they have already shown that they are willing to engage with students in meaningful and tangible ways — because until students are treated like the stakeholders they are, we won’t see the change we want in Charleston County.

I waited in line at the North Charleston Coliseum and cast my ballot with genuine hope for the future of this nation and my community — a future of prosperity and opportunity, where we care for, listen to, and invest in one another. We have much to do before we get there: implementing diverse, culturally relevant curriculums as well as equitable disciplinary measures like restorative practices would be two great first steps. But I believe wholeheartedly that this future is in reach — and it begins when we vote for school board candidates that center students and not special interests.

Maya Green is a 2020 graduate of Charleston County School of the Arts and is currently (virtually) attending Stanford University. She is organizing director at the national student-led non-profit Student Voice.