Portraits of Community Action: Maimona Afzal Berta -- an education leader promoting equity and prioritizing community, families and students

Portraits of Community Action is a collection of stories from Black, Indigenous and/or people of color (BIPOC) community leaders who are working to build a more vibrant and equitable future for our neighbors. Through Portraits of Community Action, SVCF shines light on leaders creating innovative community solutions and uses this platform to encourage donors, philanthropic institutions and government agencies to consider and support their work.

SVCF designed the Portraits of Community Action series to shed light on issues of inequity, injustice and exclusion – and help ensure that the voices of BIPOC leaders creating community-driven solutions to address those challenges are honored and heard. Silicon Valley Community Foundation invited Maimona Afzal Berta, former board president of the Franklin-McKinley School District in San José, California to share her story as part of Portraits of Community Action. Maimona is a special education teacher in the Alum Rock School District and serves as a board member of the Franklin-McKinley School District.

Maimona tells us her story in her own voice.

“My family immigrated from Pakistan. My father came here as a college student. My mom was an infant when my maternal grandfather came from Pakistan. He was an orphan and a refugee who came to this country through an educational opportunity. That always stood out to me, knowing that education transformed not only my grandfather's life and my family's life, but my life as well. I think about the challenges he experienced growing up and how difficult it was. Coming to a new country with a new language, new culture and a different school system was a lot to navigate. Knowing that he had to help his children and learn how to advocate for them in school was always something that really inspired me and stood out to me as part of his immigration story.

On my father's side, both my grandparents were also refugees from the Kashmir area, which is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Hearing about their escape in the middle of the night and how they lost family members that were very close to them has always been something that I've carried with me. I reflect on their resilience and their strength, knowing that raising a family and having to start from scratch again was very tough and challenging for them, but that they got through it by depending on each other's strength.

My mom was a teacher for a very long time, and so I always swore education and teaching was going to be something that I would never go into. I resisted it for a long time. Once I transferred from community college to university, I started volunteering for the San José Public Library and running the reading to children program and their afterschool homework club. That's where I think I started to learn and realize the inequities that exist when it comes to children, when it comes to early literacy skills and learning. It just felt like such an injustice to see the resources that some families had while others didn't. I knew I wanted to be a part of changing that. It was something that, even though I resisted, I just felt like this is what's calling to me. Then also reflecting and thinking about just how powerful education can be as a tool, seeing how it transformed my grandfather's life and my entire family's life and my life, I just knew I couldn’t stay away from it anymore. Once I got into the classroom and started volunteering in some kindergarten classrooms and seeing just that joy and that love of learning, I instantly fell in love and knew that would be the place that I needed to be in: the classroom, working with students.

What I've reflected on and learned is that our students are not leaders of the future. They're leaders of now and they're leading that change actively. They have things that they want to make an impact on. They have things that they're passionate about. I see my role, as a teacher, being someone who's facilitating that learning, helping students discover what they want to do and making sure that they are building their awareness of the world around them, of their community and how they want to make that change.

What motivates me to continue teaching in special education is there are a lot of inequities that continue to exist and continue to be perpetuated. By the time students get to middle school, they're just so turned off from school. I see my role as being someone who can help them understand the power that they have to be their greatest advocate, speak their truth and be their authentic self. I remember that through an action learning project, where students identified a problem and came up with solutions themselves, student opened up and started sharing. We worked on a project to figure out how students in special education can stop feeling isolated and closed off. My students did research and learned about what special education is. We talked a lot about the label of disability, what that means and what they didn’t like about it. They created, hosted and facilitated a carnival to share their abilities in an engaging and fun way for other middle school students to learn. It was incredible to see students taking this into their own hands. It was a moment for teachers to step into the shoes of their students and learn. My students are such incredible young leaders. Seeing them as self-advocates and activists in our community, creating change at school and in their lives, continues to give me so much hope.”

SVCF thanks Maimona Afzal Berta for her work and partnership. Maimonais a special education teacher in the Alum Rock School District, school board member with Franklin-McKinley School District, San José, and alum of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – San Francisco Bay Area Youth Leadership Program.

If you would like to learn more about Portraits of Community Action, please contact Mauricio Palma, SVCF’s director of community-building, who envisioned the project and shepherded it to completion.

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to photographer Bryon Malik and videographers Jeff Arthur and Tony Victor Gauthier for bringing SVCF’s vision to life. You can learn more about Bryon’s work here and Jeff and Tony’s work here.