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How Changemakers fellowship inspired one participant

Editor’s note: Rathi Casey is one of 20 graduates from the inaugural class of Changemakers, a nine-month fellowship that equips New Mexico community leaders with the knowledge and skills necessary to have a positive impact on the state’s K-12 public education system.

Rathi grew up in Hong Kong and has lived and worked in several of the world’s great cities, including Paris, New York, and San Francisco. She moved to Albuquerque in 2014. She is CEO of UKUU Creative, a design studio.

New Mexico Education spoke recently with Rathi about her interest in education that led her to Changemakers, and how the fellowship has changed her perceptions and motivated her to keep volunteering her time working on improving education in New Mexico. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Changemakers is currently accepting applications for its 2022-23 class. There are five monthly, half-day sessions as well as a two-day out-of-state trip, an opening reception, and a graduation ceremony. The 2022-23 program begins on Sept. 13 and concludes on May 9. 

The program is free for those selected to participate. You can apply here

New Mexico Education: Please tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in education issues.

Rathi Casey: I’m originally from Hong Kong, and we have such a great education system there. I came to the States and got an architecture degree from Rice University in Houston. I’ve traveled and lived quite a bit around the world, and my husband’s job brought us here to New Mexico. When we got to Albuquerque I noticed pretty quickly that everyone was troubled by the education system here. Rather than just going off of what everyone was saying, I really wanted to experience the education system firsthand. And so I joined the Governing Council of Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School (a charter school authorized by Albuquerque Public Schools)..

I’m so fortunate that Cottonwood Classical was my window to public education in Albuquerque. I’ve been on the board for three years and am currently its president. It has been a great stepping stone into how things can be done well, and I’ve become very passionate about what else I can do, now that I understand how it can be done right.

NME: How did you get connected to the Changemakers program?

Rathi: Through Amanda Aragon (who co-directs the program). We’ve gone for coffee so I can learn more about her organization and she can learn more about Cottonwood Classical. When she launched Changemakers she contacted me and asked if I’d be interested and I did not hesitate.

NME: Can you describe the experience of being in the first cohort of the Changemakers fellowship?

Rathi: I really appreciated the open conversation, open dialogue. People were able to ask questions. It wasn’t just sitting in a seminar getting information thrown at you. It was a great two-way dialogue. They would present information to us, but we had so much opportunity to ask questions and challenge things and I loved the way all of the sessions were facilitated.

Before Changemakers, I had never been to an APS school. So actually walking through the buildings of schools that are doing things well, schools that have struggled and are working to overcome those struggles, it was so educational. You walk the building, you meet the leadership team, you meet teachers, kids in the classrooms. You look at the facilities, the conditions that everybody’s working in. There’s no substitute for absorbing everything firsthand.

A major highlight was when we took a trip to San Antonio. It’s a school district that actually has fewer dollars per student than Albuquerque, and has more English language learners, yet is having more success. It was such a great comparison for us to go and see how they’re doing things. They were in a similar situation to APS a few years ago and to hear their story and learn about their trajectory of how they got to where they are today was just amazing.

You know, here in Albuquerque I kept hearing these excuses about resources, excuses about not having enough money. And I think those myths were busted by the trip to San Antonio.They aren’t excuses.

NME: How do you see yourself using what you learned in Changemakers going forward?

Rathi: As the program came to an end, I talked to (co-director) Scott Hindman and Amanda about that. I’m nearing the end of my service to Cottonwood. I will have spent four years learning about how charter schools operate and learning about the Public Education Department and the public school system here. Now that I’ve taken the Changemakers program, what is the next step? 

I’ve spent quite a lot of hours each week on the charter school board work. And so when that’s gone away, I still want to keep those hours dedicated to this kind of work. We’ve talked about a slew of things. Potentially joining another board, how I could be more engaged in policy work. That’s what I’m exploring.

NME: What pitch would you tell someone who is thinking about applying for this next cohort of Changemakers?

Rathi: I think everybody should take this program. People say they’re too busy, but I run a business and I serve on five boards. I have two children. Saying you don’t have time to make a difference in the education system is not a good excuse. You have time and if all of us don’t do our part the system isn’t going to work. 

The Changemakers program is so valuable for learning about what the problems are, and possible solutions. You can read articles, you can talk to friends and neighbors. There’s all this information floating around. But going through a program like Changemakers helps you truly understand where the challenges lie.

NME: As more cohorts go through this program, how do you see the graduates affecting public education in New Mexico?

Rathi: It’s going to be very helpful. First of all, I think 90 percent of the people in my class were parents, so this made them even more passionate advocates. As we build a database of people who have gone through this program, we will have a growing group of people who are connected to one another and have become committed and passionate about making a change.