Q&A: School Board Chair Sami Al-AbdRabbuh

School Board Chair, Public Service Champ

Q: What led you to public service? 

A: I want –to leave the earth a better place, and I love solving problems. Public service gives me both. As an engineer, I was professionally trained on breaking down a problem to its basic components, and then building a solution that addresses that problem. I found gratification in fixing problems through electronics, pumps, and computer codes. I find a similar gratification, and more fulfillment, when I break down a public policy issue to its basic elements, talk to those who are impacted by it, talk to the decision makers, and help reach a fruitful solution.

My first public service was in college while I was doing my Masters degree in engineering. I started encouraging graduate students to get involved in their student movement, before receiving a handful of write-in votes in the next election for the Graduate Representative spot, and was also appointed to fill a vacancy in the Senate. During my time in grad school, I joined the American Federation of Teachers local union and represented my fellow union members in Pittsburgh, and helped pass a nation-wide resolution in support of sanctuary campuses and schools.

Q: What are some of the biggest rewards and challenges you’ve faced while serving in public roles?

A: The biggest challenge is being focused and determined, while staying flexible and continuing to listen.

The biggest reward is to see how some resolution or policy I advocate for makes people’s lives easier. Some programs that I help fund help children be safer. Also when I refer constituents to resources or contacts in the school district, the County, or the city – I get to connect people with others who can help them.

Public service can be challenging when funding is limited and we need to make tough decisions. It also can be challenging to bring consensus and work on building relationships among different groups. Something important that they don’t teach as much in engineering schools is that building coalitions and getting a buy-in for the best solution is key. This is something I find both rewarding and challenging. My tendency to just focus on the solution is tamed with my understanding that public service starts with the public and ends with the public. We have to speak to constituents and understand their concerns; we have to vet the solution with both experts and the public before we implement the solution.

Q: What are your hopes for the future? How do you maintain hope?

A: I hope that I can continue playing a role in public service that leaves my future grandchildren and their friends and neighbors in a better place than where I am. Our life expectancy and quality of life is getting better overall, but gender, racial, and geographical gaps are growing larger and larger. If we don’t care for the welfare of our farmers, people in the cities will starve. If we don’t care for our Latinax and immigrant communities, everyone will suffer. I am hopeful that we can make Oregon the role model for a sustainable and resilient economy with great quality of living and ample opportunities for people to learn and grow.

Q: What do you feel are the biggest issues facing the local community?

A: We need to make our local community a thriving and inviting one for people from all walks of life. We need to work on housing and childcare affordability, and a sustainable and resilient economy. This starts with strong public education and public higher education funding that supports our children and youth in achieving their dreams. Working families are feeling the weight of an increasing cost of living. We need to help those who want to work and live in Corvallis at the same time.

Q: As a school board member and educator, what do you feel are the biggest issues facing the school system? 

A: The most critical issues that our children face is the need to invest in social and emotional learning and mental health. I am proud that our budget for this school year supports key investments in this field. This includes professional development, recruitment of a mental health coordinator, and skills trainers at our elementary schools.

We also have more work to do on racial and economic equity. Student identity (race, culture, socioeconomic status, language, ability, gender, or sexual orientation) should not predict or predetermine success in school. The School Board and the superintendent worked together to develop 2018-2023 board goals that include strategies to get us there. When our Latinx, Immigrant, students on [Individualized Education Programs], and [English Language Learner] students succeed, everyone succeeds.

We are also moving forward with the facilities projects funded by the 2018 bond.

Q: What are you impressed with about the local schools?

A: I am impressed by the talented and passionate staff and leadership we have in our schools. We also have great community support. We passed our $200M facilities bond with nearly two thirds of the votes in 2018. This is an indication of the community’s commitment in providing safe, secure, and healthy spaces for our children. We are preparing future collaborative thinkers and civically-engaged citizens. The saying goes that public education is the foundation and cornerstone of our democracy. I am reassured that our democracy will continue to be strong if the children of our schools continue on to be its future voters, social workers, and public servants.

Q: How do you feel about the state of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] education locally? What do you feel are some of the most effective approaches to inspiring youth to become interested in STEM fields?

A: We have some promising ideas and local initiatives, including innovation grant programs that are developing STEM-based education projects that connect students with nature, real-world applications, and the arts. These programs engage our children from an early stage. As a STEM educator myself, I’m impressed by the quality of these programs. With the full funding of measure 98, we will be able to provide career and technical education that inspires our youth to pursue STEM careers. Such initiatives are shown to increase graduation rates.

Q: What advice would you have for someone who is interested in effecting change or is considering running for public office?

A: Let’s meet and talk about what excites or motivates you most and find a project that speaks to the issue you are interested in.

I recommend for anyone interested in effecting change to start local and not be despaired by the national rhetoric. Start with knocking on a few doors to break the fear of meeting and connecting with strangers. I started my public service in school and as a citizen committee member in a budget committee. If I had stopped when I only received 10 write-in votes in my first campaign for public office, I would have missed so many opportunities to serve my community and would have never received a landslide 67% win. The ‘Biden story’ of winning every election in your life is not applicable for candidates from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. You will lose some races. You will have your ideas dismissed no matter how good they are or how much support they have from your friends. Keep going and continue doing what matters most to you.

I am reminded by the advice I received before my first run. In 2015, despaired by the disparaging remarks of a presidential candidate about Muslims, I interviewed Americans from the Albany, Oregon train station all the way to New York. I asked random people, if their future self was running for office, what advice would they give them. There was a surprising theme of ‘be honest’, ‘be yourself’, ‘care about your people and listen to them’, and to ’speak up’. This is what it takes to be a public servant.

Q: What strategies do you have in place to handle the situation when people direct derogatory language at you?

A: I speak up gracefully if necessary, though it may be safe or wise to ignore derogatory language at times. You need to focus on the work and not be distracted by people who want to get attention by saying derogatory things about you.

Whenever the intentions may seem to be in a good place, but the behavior is unacceptable, I try to separate between the intention and the impact. If people are coming out of anger, I would ask them what angers them and maybe we can empathize with each other if we have any common interests or common values. If their intention is to hurt me or degrade what I’m working on, that is where I have been straight forward in telling them that we are done here, so they understand that I’m only open for a civil discussion.

Last year, an individual wrote about me with anti-Semitic language that left me speechless. I decided to not respond until I found the wisdom of knowing how. I asked a Holocaust survivor what I should say or do, as a Muslim. How should I navigate a situation where speaking up might backfire and where staying silent is likely the safer path?

“You have to speak your conscious. But you have to know that you may say something one day, and the other day, it will be presented in the newspaper in a different way,” he said.

This survivor, who kept his experience of surviving the Holocaust a secret for 50 years, managed to remind me that the worst of humanity has passed. He promised his brother, who died in his arms, to continue smiling and find joy. He managed to survive death and the sight of things I can’t mention without breaking into tears. Somehow, I managed to smile while speaking to him, and somehow, he managed to notice it and say “keep smiling.”

No matter small or big acts of bigotry, I’ll start to call them out with grace and empathy. Sometimes it will backfire. Some people will use our courage speaking up as if we are using identity politics or ‘the racism card’ for personal gain. When that happens, I should never regret speaking from my conscious.

Q: Have you experienced discrimination? If so, what forms does it usually take? How do you respond?

A: My experience with discrimination started when I was a child and teenager. This was by some individuals who believed that I don’t deserve the same rights as others because I belong to a minority Muslim denomination. Those included threats of being beaten up, sued, and expelled from the school’s radio and public speaking activities. It also included some teachers inciting students to physically attack me.

My experience with discrimination in Corvallis was aggravated when I started being in the public eye. Such acts generally happen during campaign seasons if I am on the ballot. Some of those acts where clear attacks on my national origin, religion, and race. I choose to respond carefully to such acts. In politics they say you have to stay on message. My message is, let us not go low and give a platform to people who want to distract us.

People in this town are welcoming and respectful. I knocked on thousands of doors in the past few years. All but one or two were very welcoming and understanding of why I was interrupting their dinner or weekend brunch. People from all backgrounds shared with me what they wanted from their school board, county commissioners, state representatives, and city councilors. Some of them shared meals or offered a cup of juice. Because of this, I feel it’s better not pay attention to acts of discrimination directed toward me, and focus more on what matters to my community.

My handful of unfortunate experiences encourage me to fight acts of discrimination and implicit bias incidents that happen to other people. Some acts of bias are more subtle and may be not punishable by law. I am very pleased that the local NAACP is working with community members to strengthen our awareness of implicit bias incidents.

Q: Would you please tell us a little about your family experience with the immigration system? Based on your experience, family experience, and conversations with constituents, how do you feel about the US immigration system? Is there anything you would like for us to better understand?

A: I have never dealt with the immigration system myself, since I was born in Arizona which makes me a naturally born citizen. However, my mother is currently a refugee in another country, where she is offered the services she critically needs and is being treated with more respect and dignity than what our immigrant constituents are treated with in the U.S.

Locally, both the Corvallis Multicultural Literacy Center and CASA Latinos Unidos help and support our immigrant community. At CMLC, we offer citizenship classes and mentoring that helps our immigrant community as they navigate through the system. Please support us with your donation. This is the best thing you can do to make a direct and immediate impact. Email our congressional delegates and let them know that we want a fair and equitable immigration reform.

We need a win-win system where we gain the skilled workforce we need so desperately while fostering job opportunities for our citizens. Currently, we have millions of immigrants who can’t go through the system and are being dehumanized. This is unacceptable. We are a nation that should open its arms to the poor and tired.

Let’s start having a real discussion that helps everyone. Immigration is not a zero-sum game.

Sami Al-AbdRabbuh is the Corvallis School District Board Chair, the board president of the Corvallis Multicultural Literacy Center, and a member of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition’s Steering committee and the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation. His community service focuses on education empowerment, economic and environmental resilience, and empowering vulnerable populations. He holds two degrees in engineering, worked for General Electric as a projects engineer for safety monitoring systems in the energy and water industries, and is the co-founder of Crispy Science, a startup focused on creating informal learning opportunities for children and youth. Sami teaches engineering economics, engineering computation and programming, project management, and work systems design at Oregon State University. He is a doctoral candidate in Industrial Engineering with a focus on human systems and decision making in emergency management. In his free time, Sami enjoys the outdoors, especially camping and hiking. He also enjoys playing soccer, chess, and salsa dancing.