Growing up in New Westminster, Gurveen Dhaliwal, currently serving as a School Trustee with New Westminster Schools and elected Chair of the Board of Education, never thought she would run for office.
“You never see people like me, so you just think that it’s just not a space for [you],” said Dhaliwal in an interview with 5X Press.
Gurveen, a South Asian woman and daughter of immigrants, says that for her, the most important thing about running for trustee was that it was something she was passionate about.
“I feel like I experienced a lot of the same challenges that children of immigrants have, in the sense that my parents experienced hardship navigating the school system, and they put a lot of trust in the school system to advocate for their children’s best interest,” she added.
“Growing up, schools were not as culturally sensitive. There were no conversations about racism, or gender and sexuality, and how to navigate any of those things.”
On the topic of diversity, she says she often felt embarrassed at times, having to hide parts of herself in order to feel accepted or to even have friends, which is something she regrets when she thinks back.
“Throughout the school system I had to learn how to advocate for myself and figure out what the best path was for me on my own,” said Dhaliwal.
She says some of those experiences were hard life lessons, because she didn’t really feel that the school system understood the experience of children of immigrants, and some of the nuances that they face as they navigate different cultural worlds.
This lack of institutional support within the school system is a key factor in what inspired Gurveen to run for office. She wanted to ensure that all children, regardless of their backgrounds, felt they were supported by their schools and that their needs were being advocated for.
Building trust within communities has also been extremely important in her role.
“Community can mean so many different things, and we’re all a part of different communities. For me the theme overall is that community is about connection over shared experiences, and a potential for it to translate itself into collective support,” she added.
“I think it’s also about recognizing how we all crave a sense of belonging in these different communities that we exist in, and it’s about doing that work and uncovering common ground, developing empathy and compassion for one another and fostering an environment where we can show up for one another.”
Gurveen is currently the elected Chair of the Board of Education for New Westminster schools. A position she began this past November. When asked about this newly acquired position, she said it has been challenging.
“It’s definitely been a learning curve. Not only as the Chair of the Board but as a 29-year-old brown woman navigating this space has required a lot of intentionality.”
“I think you have to navigate issues and sometimes contentious issues, in a way that brings everyone on board without compromising your personal values.”
Even as the elected Chair of the Board of Education, Gurveen says there have been points where she has doubted herself, but managing that pressure as a woman of colour has been very important.
“I feel that imposter syndrome is very real, especially when you’re in a space that was never meant for you while trying to create belonging and changes for those to come after you as well.”
“It was a lot of trial and error and figuring out what type of leader [I] want to be.”
She says she’s had to figure out what is her voice and how she will be the most effective in creating change.
“As a young woman of colour, I’ve been told that my lived experiences have limited value in professional settings. However, my experience as a daughter of immigrants in a school system that lacked proper supports for its diverse students is exactly the perspective we need in positions of power to create meaningful and systemic change,” said Dhaliwal.
Having a great support system has also been integral to her journey. Gurveen tells us that Nadine Nakagawa, a New Westminster for City Councillor who she met through local connections, was the person who asked her to run and supported her throughout the process. Without Nadine, she says she wouldn’t have run for office.
Gurveen’s journey in this case, is another story of women supporting women, especially diverse, progressive women doing the work trying to change politics.
When it comes to student well-being, Gurveen says her priorities haven’t changed much since she was elected in 2018.
Increased mental health support for students and fostering positive and supportive relationships between school staff, students, and parents have been major areas of focus for her.
On building an equitable school system, Gurveen stresses that transparency is important.
“We have to be able to identify the issues and seek the data. We can’t be afraid of exposing the inequities that exist within our public schools because how else are we supposed to make anything better?”
Although it hasn’t been easy, especially in 2020 and 2021 with the ongoing global pandemic.
“[It] was a really telling year for us. From food insecurity to domestic violence and technological accessibility, we learned a lot about our students. When confronted with those realities, we have to make an effort to continue to address them otherwise we won’t ever have that equitable system,” she added.
“School is such an integral part of the lives of so many families and this has been an incredibly challenging year with so many different phases of schools opening and closing and different ways of teaching and learning.”
When asked what advice she would give to those who want to enter municipal government, Gurveen says seeking mentorship is extremely valuable.
“In the Lower Mainland there are a lot of progressive women of colour that are in positions of power. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Seek out that advice and guidance. It is important that there is solidarity. You want progressive people of colour to be elected to positions and I think there’s a lot of support for that.”
Gurveen’s story is inspirational, especially for those who doubt their abilities to reach for positions of power they don’t see themselves in. She leads with integrity, honesty and compassion, encouraging each of us to do our best in whatever we choose.
About the author: Jasleen is a writer, speaker, and educator. She is currently a Teaching Assistant and Masters student at Simon Fraser University where her research examines the intersection between media, race, and community-based educational programming in Surrey, BC. Jasleen is passionate about community building and is a graduate fellow with SFU’s Community-Engaged Research Initiative. She enjoys reading manga, binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy, and a good game of sudoku.