New Mexico politicians paid lip service this election cycle to a landmark education ruling about inequities in public schools. But no one was drawing a line between the Yazzie-Martinez case and an issue that’s had students walking out of classes this fall – climate change. Verland Coker, a 26-year-old Albuquerque school board candidate, makes that connection, calling out the hypocrisy of an education system here that relies on oil and gas money.
It was election night, and Verland Coker was at Lindy’s, a cozy diner on Central, watching results roll in with a challenger for the local city council race, Robert Blanquera Nelson, and his supporters.
The server told Coker they were out of blueberry pie, so he went for a slice of Boston Cream, with ice cream on the side.
Coker recently quit his part-time job at Pizza Hut – to free up time to attend more education meetings – so the pie is a splurge, he says. Despite losing his race, tonight he’s celebrating. The T.V. screen says over a thousand people voted for him.
"That’s a lot!" Coker said. A friend reminded him he was still coming in "dead last." "Yeah, yeah," he replied, "but I mean, I'm a nobody. I’m a high school dropout. I shouldn’t have any votes."
A child of activists in the American Indian Movement, Coker says he always bristled against authority and struggled to engage with White-centric schooling that felt out of touch and often racist.
"You know, I speak very White," he said, smirking, "but I am wholeheartedly Native."
Part of the judge’s ruling in that landmark case was that Native American students aren’t receiving an adequate education in the state, and that’s illegal—a violation of the New Mexico constitution.
"Every day, I don’t see myself reflected in the educational system," Coker said, "neither in the teachers, the administrators, even the secretaries or the school board members."
Coker, whose mother is a longtime technology teacher, does a lot of self-education, and he often cares for his younger brother who has Down syndrome. He’s become a regular commenter at Albuquerque Public Schools board meetings.
His big thing is 21st Century Education, which pushes for student-centered learning based in real-world context and collaborations with businesses and community organizations. It’s no silver bullet, Coker says, but it usually relies on open-source materials and therefore could cost a lot less. For him, that means getting away from oil and gas money before climate change reaches the point of no return.
"That deadline is being expedited by the Amazon fires, the African fires, the oil spill in North Dakota," said Coker. "And we aren’t really prepared to transition out of oil funds as it is right now."
With extractive industries booming, the state had extra cash, and most of that went to trying to improve education here. Even so, Coker says divesting from oil and gas as soon as possible is the first step to creating a viable future for kids.
"Everything we work towards for education is to give [kids] the tools to combat the unfairness of life. But at a certain point, the world is not gonna be able to support that," said Coker. "And what’s most frustrating about it is that every single school board member that’s up there isn’t gonna be alive to see that, but I will."
Sitting to Coker’s left at the diner table was Julian Trujillo, a socialist community organizer who shares Coker’s urgency to see students preparing for a post-fossil fuel economy. “We need to educate a new generation of electricians and engineers and power plant people that can actually run solar farms and wind farms," he said.
Trujillo’s preferred local candidates lost this time around, but he said he’s glad to see Coker out alongside other people who are pushing for change. "This is where you build relationships. This is how you do community organizing," said Trujillo. "I like to be in this kind of room."
"If you’re in hip hop spaces [in Albuquerque], if you’re in prison abolitionist spaces here, there are highly intelligent, highly engaged people who are actively working to make a difference," said Coker. He said he sees a lot of power that status-quo leaders don’t recognize or value.
"There’s been deliberate efforts to split everyone up, and it reinforces this idea that we have in this city that everyone’s out for themselves," said Coker. "But as soon as you enter the community, it’s very much the contrary."
Climate change, racism, poverty, failing schools – Coker argues that those are interconnected issues that will require communities working together to overhaul systems. He knows his mission to get APS off oil money may not be easy or popular, but he trusts that he won’t be in it alone.
Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Coker's brother has Down syndrome.
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