New OSBA Board president invites different perspectives
OSBA Board President Sonja McKenzie is part of the increasing school board diversity visible at the 2022 OSBA Annual Convention. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
OSBA Board President Sonja McKenzie has a warm smile and a gentle laugh that can spread joy in a room. She makes people feel comfortable and says one of her goals for this year is to elevate the voices of anyone who hasn’t always felt welcome at the school leadership table.
An African American woman who has often made her way in mostly white environments, she knows what it’s like to carve new paths.
“I represent a lived experience that has not been there before,” she said.
McKenzie said she wants to be a conduit for people who feel like they have not been heard, whether that is because of race, gender, geography, economic standing or political leanings.
OSBA doesn’t record the racial or ethnic identity of its Board presidents, but McKenzie, who took office Jan. 1, is likely the association’s first African American Board president and almost certainly the first African American woman.
Having a person of color in leadership is important, McKenzie said, but she doesn’t want being the first to be a theme of her tenure.
“We need to acknowledge that shift has happened and then get to work,” she said.
McKenzie said her biggest focus at OSBA will be helping schools secure adequate funding from the 2023 Legislature. She also hopes to be able to address workforce development for schools and improved digital access for rural districts. She is a strong advocate for school board member training.
McKenzie was born at the Tinker Air Force Base hospital in Oklahoma and moved around a lot as a child because of her father’s Air Force career. At age 11 she moved to Texas, where she became a teacher in the 1990s. She taught special education and inclusion classes for three years before moving to Portland in 1999.
She left the workforce for a while to raise her four children: Aallan, 21; Mariah, 19; and 18-year-old twins Mattie and Victoria. She was the first African American woman on the board for the nonprofit Dress for Success Oregon, which supports women’s economic independence.
McKenzie has been a member of the Parkrose School Board in northeastern Portland since 2017. She works as the community engagement coordinator for the Oregon Community Foundation, which supports collaborative philanthropy work. She is also the treasurer for the National School Boards Action Center and the Pacific region chair for the National School Boards Association.
McKenzie said she is comfortable with who she is and does not try to “put on airs” when working in different spaces.
“What you see is what you get,” she said. “I bring my full self to the table.”
McKenzie sees her presidency as an outflowing of the Board’s intentional efforts to diversify, including supporting the 2016 creation of the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus. The caucus advocates for all students, with a special focus on students of color, while also aiming to support the professional development of school board members of color.
“OSBA gave us an opportunity to convene together and find our voice and learn,” she said.
McKenzie said people shouldn’t be reduced to their race and instead should be acknowledged for all that they are and all that they bring. She said OSBA will have another moment to pause and reflect next year when OSBA Board President-elect Sami Al-Abdrabbuh takes over. Al-Abdrabbuh will likely be the first Middle Eastern Board president.
Al-Abdrabbuh said the OSBA Board’s election of McKenzie and himself sends a signal of the association’s commitment to embracing the diversity of the communities it serves. OSBA made a “Call for equity” in 2022 to support all students and promote education leadership diversity. OSBA’s Get on Board campaign offers resources to run for office and to help recruit new voices and retain school board members with experience in education leadership.
Although no one person can ever reflect a whole community, Al-Abdrabbuh said, new faces can offer unique perspectives on the student experience.
“The value of committing to diversity is always thinking about who is missing from the room,” he said. “The only way to pay it forward … is to make sure those who are not in the room are heard and their perspectives are considered.”
OSBA Executive Director Jim Green said McKenzie and Al-Abdrabbuh set a great example for Oregon’s students.
“It’s always important for students to see leaders who look and sound like them,” he said. “It’s very important at the board level and even more so with statewide leadership.”
Lori Theros, a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, became Board president in 2014. Theros, a Klamath Falls City Schools board member, is still a member of the OSBA Board and said it is exciting seeing the Board’s growing diversity.
“It gives us a different flavor, a different perspective,” she said.
For McKenzie, though, her core purpose always comes back to serving children. She is a passionate advocate for student voice in education policy, and this year the Parkrose School Board added four student representatives.
“All kids need different things to be successful,” she said. “I think so much about the time years ago when I was in a classroom, struggling to support kids. Now I think I can do something about that.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA