A self-proclaimed person for the people, Latanya Gater is determined to be the change she wants to see.
“I noticed that the D-7 school district does a lot of wonderful things for the children, but there is a lack of diversity and a lack of sufficient mental health resources and accessibility,” said Gater. “I wanted to be able to advocate for that from a leadership standpoint.”
Gater, running for an open spot as a Dearborn Heights District 7 School Board member, will be the first Black woman on the board if elected.
Dearborn Heights population is mostly white, with over 80 percent of its residents being of Caucasian background. Blacks account for only 8 percent of the population.
Gater says the issue of diversity spans beyond the makeup of the school board, it requires special attention in classrooms as well.
“[It is the school board’s responsibility to] vote for curriculums that are not solely Euro-centric and [it is important to be] able to get an understanding from teachers and staff and from other community members on what type of curriculums they would want their child to learn as it relates to diversity and history,” she said.
“Dearborn Heights is composed of predominantly Caucasian people but there is a heavy population of Arab-Americans, African-Americans, as well as Pan-Asians. And from what I’ve gathered from the community, they would like to see more of their history in the curriculum to better equip their kids for the global economy, to increase self-esteem within themselves and empathy for others.”
The school board candidate says self-esteem and diversity correlate in more ways than one.
“When you know who you are and you know where you come from, it helps you establish a good foundation to understand what you can do now, what has worked in the past, and what may very well work in the future,” she said. “If you don’t know your history or the history of those around you, you can’t advocate for yourself or others properly.”
Conversations on diversity have increased in response to heightened racial tensions across the nation. Gater says the renewed talks on race encouraged many to develop an interest in local activism.
“Due to recent media [coverage], the conversations are more prevalent and the momentum is higher. We’re seeing people in pockets everywhere, especially in major cities, being able to say, ‘Hey this is what I can do to contribute to this conversation in the right way,’” she said. “I’m so grateful for that because that’s what we need — people who are qualified and want to apply and trust you to give them a fair chance.”
With a background in child and family psychology, the mother of one takes the mental health of students seriously. So much so, she’s running on mental health awareness as part of her campaign.
“Due to COVID-19, there has been an increase in anxiety, depression and grief and loss. Especially, with school-age youth and with mental health services not being as easily accessible, I think if we could kill two birds with one stone and have it implemented in the schools or have the current staff trained to deal with that influx of issues, then we could ultimately prevent further mental health concerns with our children and staff.”
With the school board election being Nov. 3, Gater has already researched objectives she’d like to implement if appointed.
“Implementing a school-based model is something that would make mental health services accessible here,” she said. “I work for a community mental health center so I know the effectiveness of the school-based model; the school would agree to a contract with whichever mental health professional group they feel could be supportive and they have those social workers, counselors, psychologists meet with various families or clients while they are at school.”
Gater is referring to the mental health program, TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students). The service was created by researchers at the University of Michigan Depression Center and has partnered with close to 150 Michigan schools since its inception in 2013. The DPSCD joined the list of participating districts in 2019.
A resident of Dearborn Heights for nearly a decade, Gater has immersed herself in the community, working to address the concerns of its members.
“At the various school board meetings, I’ve made a point to be a present advocate for people who typically don’t feel comfortable speaking up, don’t have the right words to say, or don’t have time to attend meetings,” she said. “I’ve made connections with the special education director and other stakeholders who have an investment in mental health. [I’ve also connected with others] as well through personal testimony or citizens saying, ‘Hey, would you mind communicating this for me?’“
Gater says she has also worked to hold the school board accountable to its community.
Gater, who is actively making history as one of the first Black women to run to for the Dearborn Heights District 7 School Board says the pressure to succeed is validating and gratifying.
“This is me leaving a mark for myself and other people. This is me saying you can gain community support, you can make a difference in the community even though you are new at this,” she said. “People are afraid of change, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try your best or try at all.”