Q and A with Khymani James: ‘The ultimate destination is Congress’
Khymani James, 17, serves as the student representative on the Boston School Committee. James grew up mostly in Dorchester and is currently a senior at Boston Latin Academy. He previously attended Dever Elementary and UP Academy Boston. His mother passed away when he was 12, and he lives with his aunt and two cousins. James, who identifies as a first generation African-Caribbean gay Black male, was vice president of BLA’s Black Student Union, and still helps to connect the organization with people in the city. He was also the captain of a school dance team but has stepped back from these activities since his unpaid work with the School Committee takes 25-30 hours each week, and that’s in addition to his schoolwork. He has been involved in student advocacy since his sophomore year and is also a member of the Boston Student Advisory Council.
James was accepted early to Columbia University, where he plans to focus on an economics-political science interdepartmental major. “It brings in economic principles and political science and puts them together in a way for students who are looking to go into a career of law and government and social justice work,” he says. “I’m going to be also doing a concentration in public health. The ultimate destination is Congress.”
The following interview with the Banner has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What drives you personally? What makes you a person who feels the need to speak out?
As a child, I was always told by my family that I’m very stubborn, because I always challenged the way things were. And I think that I have kept that sort of behavior, and that sort of willingness and courage to challenge expectations and the status quo. Growing up, when I began to see that all of these students — my friends, my classmates, my peers — being disadvantaged by the education system in some way, shape or form, or just was being sort of purposely kept from information, that, to me, was very unfair. I started asking, ‘Well, why?’ and no one could give me a direct answer. So, the question you asked sort of translates to me as ‘What gets you up in the morning?’ It’s knowing that there are thousands of students who don’t know what’s going on, and that’s a problem. That is a problem to me.
You’ve served on the School Committee since September of 2020. What have you learned about how education policies are enacted in Boston?
It can get done. Structural change can happen. It’s just a matter of who’s at the table. That’s what I’ve learned. When talking about mental health and having more guidance counselors and social workers in school, it’s not a matter of if we can do it. It’s a matter of will we do it — does the person at the table have the political will and the courage and the fight in them to just make it happen?
Your position is currently a non-voting role. You’re a proponent of getting the student representative to vote. Why is that important?
It’s important because we deserve a vote, period. When I get asked this question, I think the answer is really simple. I sort of answer with, ‘Well, why not?’ First of all, there would be no district without students, that’s first and foremost, and we’re seeing in this specific generation that students, and young people in general, are becoming increasingly engaged in what’s going on, whether it be local politics, national politics. Not only are they becoming increasingly engaged and aware, but they’re getting fired up to do something about it.
You’ve often taken positions at odds with the majority of your colleagues on the committee. To what extent do you think your advocacy is making a difference?
I think there’s a difference between just affecting whether or not one policy is passed and changing minds. Changing minds is much harder than just changing the outcome of a vote for one specific policy. I knew coming onto this committee that I most likely wasn’t going to change anyone’s vote on a specific policy. And quite frankly, I knew that from speaking with my predecessors, I knew that from doing research into the history of the School Committee, I just knew that. So I knew that I needed to do more. I knew that I needed to take on a greater challenge, which was to essentially change the way people think.
What could be improved in the decision-making processes around public education in Boston?
100% engaging more students and family members of non-interest groups, period. I’ve always been a strong advocate of that — we need to eliminate this sort of cherry-picking process that we have when it comes to formulating groups of people that have conversations on policy and draft policy.
What reforms would you like to see implemented in the Boston Public Schools?
I’d like to see an immediate revision of the process for how working groups and others are convened to discuss policies and draft policies, because that’s really where it starts.
I’d like to see quantity versus quality in the students’ work, really a reform around the meaningfulness of work, quantity versus quality, and then the curriculum as well, because we need to decolonize the curriculum and implement the social justice framework. That just needs to happen, that’s just non-negotiable.
Do you have an idea yet about what you’ll be doing after college?
I definitely want to go to grad school … and I want to be a community organizer. But throughout college, I want to work for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has been a huge inspiration, not only to me, but to my friends, to the people I work with, etc. So, I do want to explore ways to work with her throughout undergrad, and just work in local government, period. And do community organizing there as well. And then, whatever opportunity presents itself after undergrad, if it’s something that speaks to my heart and my passion, then I’m going to jump on it. I always tell people that the ultimate destination is Congress, and everything that happens in between is just life. But the ultimate destination is Congress.
How can young people and also adults who are nervous to take a public stand get more involved and learn to speak up for what they believe in?
Find that burning sensation within yourself, because everyone has it, and convert that into a willingness to learn about what’s going on. And then get involved. Unfortunately, we live in a society where certain people make it very hard for information to be found. So, get on that web browser, look up things, search the entire page until you find what you’re looking for. Do your research. Call people who may know more than you and may have a missing piece of the puzzle. Get a whole team together and put your heads together and really work at it, and then go do something about it. Go! Go do something about it. It’s going to be a journey. People mess up all the time, but go do something. Do it. I promise you, once you’re sort of just in the grass, you’re gonna be like, ‘I’ve got this!’
Do you have advice for the next student School Committee representative?
Listen, observe, dissect, analyze, and then speak truth to power unapologetically.