Opeyemi (Yemi) Ogundele and Jazmin Alvarez sat down virtually with Juliet Stipeche to reflect on her career as the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Education, as she prepared to step down from the position.
This is the fourth of four parts of this interview that will be released over the next few days. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here and Part 3 here. The transcript has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Yemi: I met with people who were interested in hearing and learning about student voices, but they weren't interested in the actual power and agency that we have, and actually putting our ideas to work.
You might have touched on this, but if there's anything else that you'd like to add: how have you given students the power to direct their own educational paths and to make sure that they are true advocates for themselves
Juliet: It's hard because in the K 12 system, that's not strongly encouraged. You can find the wonderful teacher that will alter the system and advocate for that, and I think that there are amazing educators that know the critical importance of youth participation, voice and involvement. That's why a lot of teachers go into it to begin with. They know the transformative effect of education in the same way the City has the bureaucratic standardization type person, or the bean-counter-number-cruncher type.
There has to be a balance between those two, but the truth, energy and the excitement comes when you're looking at children and youth as people. Not as a product or PUA [per unit allocation], or dollar amount, but as a human being with unique feelings and tremendous innate opportunity and potential and dreams and aspirations and problems and concerns and trauma.
In every opportunity that I saw Mayor talk to young people and encourage young people, or the moments that I had, I've always learned more from young people than I can share, right? I tell them I'm dated, I'm a dinosaur, I'm getting older. I said that when I was on the school board, too.
Houston is one of the youngest cities in the country, and that's why it's critically important for young people to be a part of the solution. I probably could have done a much better job of advocating for that more aggressively at the City. But that's one of the major components of the UNICEF CFCI program, the Child Friendly Cities Initiative. One of the fundamental critical pillars of the program is that you have to have young people at the table when you're designing and developing city programs. If you don't, then you're going to have what we have right now.
We had an opportunity to go to Germany [because of CFCI], and Mayor was like, Juliet, I can't go to Germany. You're going to go represent the city of Houston in Cologne, Germany. And I was all afraid (I have to buy a new suit!). All these mayors were representing their cities, and here was little Juliet.
I had this opportunity to sit at a table with a mayor from a city in Japan and a lady who was a doctor who was the mayor of a city in Indonesia. She was dressed in these beautiful, beautiful veils with little sequins, and she was in a wheelchair with two guys wheeling her around.
She had an opportunity to make a presentation at the conference, and she got up on the stage, and she gave a speech. She's from this massive city in Indonesia that had a huge problem with prostitution and human trafficking. What she did as a doctor, a medical doctor, an educator, was invest in early childhood education, transform former spots and spaces into green space, and bring in school. That was mind blowing, right? What's the population of Houston, like 2.2 million people, right? I sat down at a table with this lady and these other mayors, and I told her, your presentation was absolutely, mind. blowingly amazing. And she was just like "hee hee hee hee hee."
I asked, "How big is your city?, and she was like, "8 million." Eight. Million. People. And so I just sat there, and I was like, it can be done. [Houston’s] not too big. We're not too small. We're not too hot. We're not too cold. It can be done. But you need to have all people to be a part of the solution, to make solutions that make sense for communities to grow and flourish. Because if you keep on doing the same thing, you're gonna get the same results and we're all going to fail, right?
As a young person moves from one setting to another setting, they see their space in that place and grow. They bring the value, wonder, promise, hope, and spirit of where they're from and who they are. It transforms a space, and it makes things better. It may make it more challenging, it may make it more difficult, but you don't get great things without conflict or tension.
If you get a piece of carbon that's in your average pencil, that little thing right there, and you put it in the center of the earth, and you put all the pressure of everything on top of this little thing, it creates a diamond. The pressure is needed to transform. As I said, the crisis gives us opportunity.
Houston is reactionary, but we don't consistently compress our abilities together to restructure. The only thing that changes this piece of carbon into a diamond is a restructuring. It's the very same molecule. It's just alignment and coordination that transforms it. The coordination takes pressure, it is uncomfortable, and it is bad. For some people, they don't want that pressure. But we lose out on that opportunity. And every single one of us is a diamond.
Yemi: Wow. That is so great. I don't know if any response can top that. Oh my God.
Juliet: It just breaks my heart that I say, “Okay, let's do all that.” But then why am I leaving the City? That's a question that I'm still trying to solve. I tell folks it's not that I'm leaving. I'm not going away from the City. But I know that it's a time for me to grow.
I reached a point where I didn't feel like I was growing. And so that's why I've made the decision to take a moment to spend time with my family and develop myself personally and professionally and regroup and breathe. Because you also need to take care of yourself. I'm going to be 47 years old in June. And I'm like, whooo I'm not getting any younger now!
Jazmin: You've done so many extraordinary things for the City of Houston and even outside, with UNICEF, in collaboration with Houston. It's so inspiring to see what you have done and the position you made in Houston. It's crazy, just seeing your life’s work. And this is not the end of you.
We wanted to know, because you are leaving very soon, what do you hope your position becomes and turns into? What is the next chapter of your life?
Juliet: I'm hopeful that the good work we started will continue, and that the new person that comes in and the people that remain continue to be creative, and collaborating, coordinating and communicating. I hope that they build community and that they find happiness and joy in what they're doing. I think that's really, really important. And that we continue the spirit of being inclusive and also focused on equity.
My hope is also that [the Mayor’s Office of Education] doesn't go away and that it lasts and remains at the City. I really don't want it to just be a blip. We've made a lot of really important advocacy and changes and there's a lot more to come. I also think someone new might be able to advance other things that I wasn't able to focus on. I hope that the change will continue allowing catalysts to grow in different ways.
Jazmin: That's amazing. We're excited to see what's coming for you. So I know you earlier, you mentioned that you're studying for a test. Are you still interested in going into law? Like, what are your future plans?
Juliet: I graduated from law school back in 1999. A lot of people don't know that I'm a lawyer, because I've devoted the last 10 years to education. Now I'm studying for a certification for a particular area. I'm going to go and see how I can merge law and what I've learned in government and see how I can bridge these two worlds. How can I potentially expand some of the circles of relationships?
I'm going to be working in a statewide position to develop a business model in the Rio Grande Valley. They want me to focus there initially, and I started to practice law there from 1999 to 2002. How the world brings you back to where you were! I'm going to be headed back to spending time in the Valley again.
I kind of feel like a silkworm right now, like I have to start making silk in my little cocoon for a while. I'm not sure what's gonna happen to me when I come out...become a moth [laughs]. I don't know. We'll see what time proves.
I planted these seeds in my backyard that say "for pollinators" and "for butterflies," and they started sprouting. Some were doing really well. Well I looked today, and there was a big fat caterpillar on one of the plants. Then I look at the tag, and it's a plant that’s supposed to be for pollinators. So I was like, “this guy's a poor hairy caterpillar right now, but it's going to be a butterfly. So something’s working, right?” I think that's where I am right now. Maybe this season, Juliet's a big bad caterpillar getting ready to go.
I just hope and pray that this moment will give me some more opportunity to see what the next steps are, and hopefully be able to help. I cry. I've cried a lot, but I hope I made the right decision.
Yemi: With that being said, as a representation of Houston, Jazmin, and I really want to say that Houston loves you. We will definitely remember you for all the work you have done in your time as the Director of Education. Hearing you speak and hearing the passion in your voice and just hearing how much you really care about Houston youth means so much to me as a Houston youth. It just means so much to know that there is someone up there who genuinely cares about people like me and Jazmin. We just want to say thank you and that your extensive generosity to various groups of people does not go unnoticed. And we just want to thank you for all the work you've done, within and outside of Houston.
Jazmin: Thank you so much. I quickly wanted to add that as a member and a leader in StuCon (which is under the Institute of Engagement), I'm so inspired by you. Like from when I first met you two weeks ago, in a short amount of time, I'm inspired to grow as much as you.
I still don't know what I want to do [with my life], but I know that I want to go into legislation and student advocacy. And I realized that because of you. Not to end on a cheesy note, but you've helped me specify my scope on what I want to do and pursue in the future. So thank you. I wanted to thank you personally for that.
Juliet: Thank you, that's a gift. I mean, that really means so much to me.
Yemi: And just seeing someone with your passion. When Jazmin mentioned that you've inspired her to figure out what she wants to do, in my life, I want to be just like you when I grow up. Your personality and your passion is so contagious. I've been really interested in political science and sociology. I've gained a recent interest in learning more about cognitive science, like machines and algorithms and how they impact low income people and people of color. I've been researching algorithms and AI and all that. And just like you, I want to create a future where I will be able to help people, just the way that you have been able to help us. You're really impacting people out here! You've done so much.
Juliet: Learn, learn, learn! Lifelong learning. Never stop learning. Never be afraid to ask a question. Never be afraid to stick up for somebody that needs that person to serve as their hero and their champion. Find a mentor, somebody that will be there for you through thick and thin and you can ask any question in the world, and who you'll never feel uncomfortable or ashamed around. Never stop learning. Don't limit yourself.
Somebody told me that as you do it, you care. Sometimes you care too much. The biggest thing in this decision that I've made [to leave the City] is that for me, all my life, I have deeply, deeply cared for others, but don't forget to take care of yourself too because that's really, really important.
I'll get a little spiritual here, but Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” You've got to learn how to love others as you love yourself. What does that mean? That sounds kind of selfish, right? You were taught not to love ourselves many, many times as people of color and women. We are taught, “you must serve, and you must do this and you must do that.”
It's really important because that's a true message. How can you love anyone else if you don't love yourself? That means taking care of yourself, giving yourself time, and being patient and not beating yourself up 24/7. If you want to go and take a vacation, you take a vacation. If you want to go see your loved one, see them. These are really important lessons.
They don't teach that in college, and they don't teach it to all these professional women. Instead, they say you have to do everything. You do everything if you know what you want to do, and then you take care of yourself in the process. That's the one lesson that I think at 46 has finally come to bear.
I remember my mother and my father saying "study and work hard and don't lose out on the opportunity." I was the child of immigrants, and they came here to change lives. My mom and my dad passed away three years ago to the day tomorrow. Today is my parents anniversary. My dad died the very next day. He had a safe and last anniversary before he left. I remember my mother and my father, my father especially, saying “I want you to be happy.”
Remember that joy and happiness in life is very important. But passion and finding what you love to study and do is so wonderful that Jerry Seinfeld said "if you find something that you love, and your job is what you love, then you never work a day in your life, right?