Sonoma COE hosts student voices forums to hear their perspectives about race
Partnering with Santa Rosa City Schools, each webinar included concrete next steps for school leaders
Last summer, as the nation reeled from the killing of George Floyd and grappled with issues of racism and equality, a group of local students approached the Sonoma County Office of Education with a request: To have a platform where they could address educators directly on topics of racism and social justice.

In partnership with Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest school district in Sonoma County, Sonoma COE developed a plan to hold a series of four Student Voices forums on the topics of racism, equity and social justice. Each forum included between five and 12 high school students of a given race/ethnicity from around the county: The first focused on Black student voices, the second on Latinx voices, the third on Native American voices and the fourth on Asian/Pacific Islander voices.

In a moderated conversation, students addressed questions such as: “Can you think of a time at school when you felt alienated or treated differently because of your race/ethnicity? Can you describe what happened and how you felt?” and “What do you want educators to know and do so that all Asian/Pacific Islander students feel seen and safe?”

Sonoma COE felt it was important to create the forums in partnership with students, in the spirit of doing “with” and not “to” the students they serve. To this end, students participated alongside the adults in weekly planning meetings, getting to know one another, growing comfortable with the moderator and helping to formulate the questions that would be asked.

The forums were broadcast as live webinars to school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers and others with the power to influence school policy and curriculum. Each included concrete next steps that school leaders could take to act on the students’ suggestions.

Following the forums, numerous educators shared that they found the events to be the most powerful professional development experience they’d had in years. What seemed to resonate most was the specific, personal stories that students bravely shared, relating the very personal impact of sometimes abstract-seeming policies, teaching methodologies and more. Santa Rosa City Schools plans to use the recordings as a form of professional development for all their teaching staff going forward.

At the same time, many of the students who participated shared how good it felt to be able to speak their truth directly to educators.

One student wrote to Sonoma COE’s county superintendent: “Thanks to you we are heard. By you and the board of education hearing our voices and wanting to act on change, I believe this is going to start a very new experience for many [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] students in schools and will … push the world towards having more accepting, thriving school systems, hopefully depleting learning barriers between minorities and the school system by improving the gaps of quality in the classrooms.”

To learn more or access a recording of a past forum, email