Anyone who has seen Berkeley’s Board of Education in action has to feel a little bit sorry for this year’s student representative Lily Dorman-Colby.
In return for access to power and a guaranteed head-turner on her college applications, the 17-year-old senior will be asked to sacrifice alternate Wednesday nights to a school board known for shutting down after most local pubs.
But those late hours might be a thing of the past, said Dorman-Colby, who has plenty of incentive to keep the board on schedule.
Her wrestling tournaments are Thursdays. After years of passing through foster homes and vanquishing boys in her 120-pound weight class, the ninth-ranked female wrestler in the country last year isn’t afraid to twist the arm of any school board director that stands between her and a full night’s rest.
“These meetings are ending at 10 p.m.,” she said, tongue partially in cheek. “If they have questions I’ll tell them, ‘Talk to me before the meeting, I’ve got a tournament tomorrow.’”
The role of student director, although lacking a formal vote, is still vital to the board, said Director Shirley Issel. “It keeps us in touch with the kids,” she said.
When the gavel falls, the school board can expect a different brand of student representation from Dorman-Colby, who hails from a more progressive student slate than Bradley Johnson, last year’s representative.
Though Johnson has given Dorman-Colby some insight into board politics, the two disagree on the most divisive academic issues facing the school.
For one, Dorman-Colby is a critic of Academic Choice—the high school’s semi-autonomous program that picks its own teachers, promises more rigorous coursework and traditionally attracts mainly white students. The problem with it, Dorman-Colby said, is that the program sucks up the best teachers and widens the achievement gap.
“Students who can’t do the advanced stuff end up with a poorer teacher when they need a better one,” she said.
Dorman-Colby also supports Identity and Ethnic Studies (IES), a mandatory class for freshmen, that critics, including Johnson, have labeled a dispensary of political correctness and academic fluff. Last year, the board, against Johnson’s urging to scrap the whole program, voted to rename the class and beef up the curriculum.
When the subject moves outside the classroom, Dorman-Colby promised to unify students against unpopular board actions like last year’s decision to implement a new get-tough attendance policy.
Nearly universally condemned by student leaders, the policy calls for truants to lose a letter grade for every five unexcused absences they record in a semester. Three tardies count for one absence.
“Wealthy parents won’t let their kids lose a letter grade. It will only make the achievement gap worse,” said Dorman-Colby, who has lobbied the administration to broadcast the new policy during daily announcements so students have fair warning.
Although Dorman-Colby’s vote on the board is only advisory, she plans to use the bully pulpit of her position to pressure directors to heed student concerns.
“I embody student morale,” she said. “If I say a lot of good things parents will think the high school is doing well. If I say bad things they’ll say the high school has problems.”
To ensure that she isn’t a voice in the wilderness—a place Johnson found himself last year debating the attendance policy—Dorman-Colby is organizing student council elections early this year and formulating a student e-tree so students can be mobilized to defend their interests before the board.
Dorman-Colby got her start in student politics in seventh grade by protesting, of all things, pepperoni. As a vegetarian who qualified for free lunch, she started a petition drive to force the Longfellow Middle School to offer a pizza without the meat-based topping.
At the same time she began to grasp her natural strength.
She joined Longfellow’s football team, but excelled most in mercy, the schoolyard tradition of locking hands to see who can bend their opponents’ wrist backwards.
“I beat everybody, the whole boys’ basketball team had to challenge me,” Dorman-Colby said.
After taking a pounding against boys twice her size her freshman season on Berkeley High’s junior varsity football squad, she took her love of tackling to the wrestling mat.
Dorman-Colby won just three matches her freshman year, but skyrocketed to sixth in the country among girls as a sophomore. Last year she placed ninth in nationals and first in North California and Oregon in her weight class. Against boys, the 5-foot, 2-inch Dorman-Colby finished second in her league, but wasn’t allowed to advance to a regional tournament which didn’t allow inter-gender matches.
While Dorman-Colby shot up the wrestling ranks, her homelife took a tumble. When she was 12, the county removed her and her three brothers from their parents’ house and split them into different foster homes.
“I moved five times in two years,” said Dorman-Colby, who now lives at a friend’s house and visits her parents periodically.
Having never had parental discipline, Dorman-Colby adopted her own strict code of conduct, based on personal responsibility and healthy living. “I’ve never had anyone to rebel against, so I never had a reason to drink or smoke pot,” she said.
Dorman-Colby said her experience both as one of the few white kids in her South Berkeley neighborhood and then as a foster child at the home of an African American family in East Oakland has shaped the beliefs she will take to the school board.
“When you grow up poor you see how African Americans are treated and how no one stands up for their rights,” she said. “I live in a lot of different worlds; worlds that aren’t represented at the school board.”
Dorman-Colby thinks her wrestling career will probably end after this year, but insists her public life is just getting underway.
“I want to be a politician,” she said. “I want to change the world.”