Piedmont schools’ new DEI director also runs mentorship program

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District suggested Takazawa apply to run diversity, equity, inclusion department upon predecessor’s departure

Jean Chen Takazawa says that among her most valuable assets in her new position as the Piedmont Unified School District’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is one that has come at a considerable, painful cost.

As an Asian American woman, Takazawa says she has experienced being “othered” and misrepresented in a society that is increasingly and outwardly volatile, biased and divisive. In a phone interview, she prefers to keep her language positive and not cite specific racial slurs she has heard but said hateful, disrespectful words cause real harm.

“Those words tell me I don’t belong in America,” she says. “I’m degraded with one or two words and no longer have insight and intelligence. Those words don’t tell the truth of Chinese American history.”

Takazawa for the last four years has led the PUSD’s Affinity Mentorship Program and was invited to apply for her new position upon the departure of Dr. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the district’s first diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) director.

The district’s DEIB department (piedmont.k12.ca.us/ref/equity-inclusion-and-belonging) was launched in 2021 to become a recognized anti-racist learning organization and empower adults and students as social justice leaders.

The department’s Affinity Mentorship program centers itself within that broad vision with specific focus on the experiences of students with underrepresented cultural, ethnic, racial, religious, neurodiverse and gender-expansive identities. The primarily student-designed program has high school students interacting with elementary and middle school students whose identities are shared or whose backgrounds are similar. Parents enroll the younger students in the after-school program.

“I create spaces for students and parents where they are comfortable talking about race, dialogical spaces where everyone can enter and not be afraid to say the wrong thing,” Takazawa said of the work she performs with parents, teachers, administrators and students in both of her professional roles.

“Our nation’s people are not able to talk to each other across divides, and that’s not helpful. We must recognize we’re all learning; we are in different levels of understanding. There’s no place for judgement when we need to listen to one another.”

About 60% of Takazawa’s new full-time position will be devoted to running the DEIB department and the remaining 40% to still leading the mentorship program and class. She said what will unite her activities is a belief in student leadership and agency, as has been true since the Affinity Mentorship program began in 2020.

“The intention and purpose was always for it to be student-driven. When we started, we had 10 to 12 high school students. Each year it has grown without my doing any recruiting. The students tell each other about it, and it has grown in three years to this year’s 44.”

Student mentors work in pairs, and more than 120 elementary and middle school students were enrolled last year.

The high school students consistently tell Takazawa they wish they had had similar mentoring when they were young. It is an essential motivator because the program requires considerable commitment from Piedmont students who are often academically ambitious.

“We start in August and end in May, and about December, they begin to feel overwhelmed,” she said. “I help them understand they’ve made a commitment to young kids who have carved out the time to participate.

“I tell them this program is a marathon and not a sprint and help them find ways to better organize their time or to communicate efficiently with their parents about their emotions if that is causing extra stress.”

In the mentorship class currently offered at Piedmont and Millennium high schools, students acquire a variety of skills. To learn about upholding diverse identities and how to mentor younger students, they use Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist” and other books that focus on race, gender and on neurodiverse, nonbinary- and trans-identifying students. Takazawa said mentors understanding their own identities before spending time with younger students is important.

“It’s not just racial and ethnic identity, it’s any part of who they are. In terms of coursework, we don’t have a curriculum per se, but we look at basic responsibilities like how to communicate with children’s parents, setting up meetings, planning 40-minute lessons with kids.”

In the classroom, she said having a common understanding of words, including racial slurs, is crucial but initially scary for everyone. She said diving into the origins of hurtful words and discovering why a simple term or phrase that a student may think is funny actually causes harm is powerful and is the best way to change an inner monologue that previously let a student utter a slur. Mentor lesson plans are intentionally geared to different age groups.

“We have students in kindergarten enrolled, and with them, instead of heavy talk about race, we might mention how their hair is similar to the mentor’s and how great that is. When working with older students, we talk about bias and the racism they may have experienced. The conversations are always held at the readiness level of the students. We don’t push it.”

Asked what opportunities exist for students whose primary identity is White and cisgender, Takazawa said, “What’s important to know is that the program is open to all students. I’ve not had White students, in the sense that it is their dominant identity, but I’d love to have some. I suggest they join my class and learn what everyone else is learning. I won’t actively recruit any group, but any student who comes to me can join.”

Equally important to training student mentors is educating faculty, staff and administrators, she said, noting that part of her work is making sure they have the same tools offered to students.

“They need the language to talk to students or other people in the district. We partner with them to craft language for addressing students or a parent whose child has been harmed. Hopefully, that lightens the load for teachers already called upon to do so much.”

Takazawa said her greatest reward has come from seeing students gain pride in their identities.

“They’ve been marginalized in our community, and once they realize there are adults who understand them and are working to make the community better, they feel hopeful. Teenagers’ growth is exponential, and to be able to end their schooling years in Piedmont feeling hopeful for their city and for themselves will impact who they become as adults.”


PEF thanks The East Bay Times and writer Lou Fancher for permission to share this article.  Lou Fancher is a freelance writer, and she can be reached at lou@johnsonandfancher.com.