Take 10 with Justin Ohlemiller, ED

Who We Are | 01/14/2020

Justin Ohlemiller
Executive Director

As we celebrate the 10th year of Stand for Children Indiana, we will take time each month to ask our hard-working employees their favorite memories, education dreams and words of wisdom. This month we take 10 with Justin Ohlemiller, Stand for Children Indiana’s Executive Director.

  1. What is the most exciting or fulfilling part of your job? Without hesitation, it’s seeing the parents affiliated with our organization speaking at a school board meeting or advocating for their children in other ways. I could list so many parents who had never attended an IPS board meeting who are now regularly testifying for causes that matter – both in IPS and at the Statehouse. And more importantly, their stories are having an impact with decision-makers who don’t often hear the perspective of parents.
  2. How long have you been at Stand Indiana and why did you decide to come work for this organization? I’ve been at Stand for nearly seven years. My decision was driven by a desire to ensure children of color are granted the same educational opportunities I had growing up in a middle income, white family. My education was so important to my development as a person and professional, but I’m fully aware that my ZIP code and skin color afforded me access to a quality school that so many others are not getting. I wanted to serve as an ally with parents in some of our underappreciated communities and do what I can to help them dismantle the systemic inequities that are holding their children back, from an educational standpoint. All kids are capable of greatness, but the opportunity to reach their full potential is only granted to a privileged few. That has to change.
  3. How do you think education in Indianapolis specifically and Indiana overall has changed since you arrived at Stand Indiana? On average, two or three parents are speaking at IPS school board meetings regularly. They’re making requests, holding leaders to account and telling stories about their child’s experience. Rewind six years ago, parent testimony was a rarity at an IPS board meeting. And moreover, the parent advocacy is having a real impact – from parents pushing for turning around struggling schools, to influencing the district’s strategic vision, to parents standing up to elect education leaders who actually listen to their needs.
  4. What is the best part of working alongside Indianapolis parents? The best part is just getting to know them and hear their stories of challenges and how they’ve fought to overcome them. The parents we work with are by far the most inspiring group I’ve had the opportunity to work with in my professional career.
  5. What is your favorite Stand Indiana memory? It has to be the memory of seeing parents at School 93 push for a school turnaround model, which has since transformed that school from an F-rated school to a consistently A-rated school. The campaign led by Ashley Thomas, who was a first-time parent advocate at the time, and Eugenia Murry, showed me that parents can be a driving force for positive change. It was the campaign that showed me how our parent organizing program should look. And it told me we were on the right path with the approach of supporting the growth of tremendous leaders in our community who are parents in the very schools we need to push to improve.
  6. What do you see as the biggest challenge facing education in 2020? The systemic racism and inequities that still pervade our public education system across the country. The fact is, if you’re white and middle-income, the chances of accessing a quality public school are much, much higher compared to the opportunities granted to a child of color. Related, I think the continued segregation of our schools plays a big role in these inequities. Diverse schools, with children from all backgrounds and income levels, are much more likely to be quality schools. But schools like this are rare, as we still see many schools comprised of 70 percent or more children of color. Or the reverse – where some of our magnet schools are 80 to 90 percent white. School integration is a challenging issue to tackle, but it’s one we have to discuss if we’re to address inequity.
  7. Who was your favorite teacher in school? Why? I would have to say Donna Biggs, my high school math teacher. It’s funny, because I’m in no way a math whiz. But Mrs. Biggs truly loved working with young people, and it showed. She was that teacher who went beyond teaching the lesson plan, caring about how we were developing as people. Mrs. Biggs also made learning fun, even math, which I struggled with. Her enjoyment for learning was infectious, and I’ve never forgotten her influence on me.
  8. What subject do you wish you would have paid a little bit more attention to in school? Why? I took four years of Spanish and failed to retain much of it. That troubles me to this day because we work with many Spanish-speaking parents. It would be so valuable to be fluent in Spanish and improve how I’m communicating with families. Thankfully, we have a great team of bi-lingual organizers, who do a great job of ensuring our Spanish-speaking parents are included in this important work.
  9. What advice would you give to a young child in school who may be reading this? My advice would be to focus on developing good communication skills. Read a lot. Write a lot. Focus on not only creating good ideas, but hone the skills needed to articulate those ideas. If you’re a great communicator, the chance at success in whatever field one chooses is much higher.
  10. What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t at work? Not a surprise for someone working for a parent-focused organization – I love spending time with my family. My wife and children are my top priority, and they are the source of so much happiness for me. Nothing beats getting home from work and having my kids jump up and hug me when I walk through the door.
  11. EXTRA CREDIT: It seems small, but if you had an extra 10 minutes in your day, how would you spend it? Working out for sure. I used to be much more physically active, but with kids and a busy job, it’s a challenge to find time. But I’m much more productive and zoned in when I do take the time to be active.

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