Author Archives: Pui Ling Tam

  1. Hearing Youth Voices

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    We’re committed, at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, to youth — especially the youth of Oakland and San Francisco. What’s more, we know that young people are brilliant and have the perspective, empathy, analytical skill, and capacity to lead us all to a brighter future. Youth, we believe, are possibility personified.

    One way we have expressed this commitment and belief for the past three summers is through our BAY Fellowship, hiring Oakland and San Francisco public school students as part of our grantmaking team. BAY Fellows learn about philanthropy, have a well-paying job, and make decisions about how we, as a Fund, act. The following post comes from one of this year’s BAY Fellows, a recent graduate of Balboa High School in San Francisco, and someone who has spent the majority of their high school years navigating the greatest public health crisis in the world.


    My name is Noah S. and I believe it’s important to include youth voices in all conversations. I graduated from San Francisco’s Balboa High School in June 2022, then worked with the Walter & Elise Haas Fund as a summer 2022 Bay Area Youth (BAY) Fellow. As a BAY Fellow, I participated in meetings with Fund staff, partners, and grantees where I discussed recent changes in my community. For example, I was able to share my perspective on young people’s experiences throughout the pandemic as well as which programs proved helpful to me during those tough times.

    The Covid-19 pandemic really impacted young people in my community. Many people around my age went through hardships that affected their mental health, physical wellness, and spiritual well-being. Before quarantine, I had a mental health issue and that grew worse during the pandemic. My mental health issue was not noticed by anyone at school, not even my adult allies. I wanted the people who were close to me to know that my mental health was getting worse, but everyone had similar issues to deal with, and they were not able to help me. I responded with negativity — and this affected my friendships and relationships with others. Once we went back to school in person, many of my peers complained that it was hard to focus during classes due to mental health issues. This was exacerbated by our teachers assigning more work to make up for lost teaching time during online learning.

    Mental health is important because it affects how we think, feel, and act. Young people’s mental health was not good before the pandemic — and isolation only made it worse. We need more resources to help us heal.

    Spending a year in quarantine, we had limited interactions with the outside world and lost our connections to each other. Many young people shifted from hanging out with family and friends to having to work multiple jobs to help our families. In my family, my parents lost their in-person jobs. That resulted in them needing to find new jobs, which ended up being lower paying. With them no longer earning enough to feed our family of four, I took on two jobs. One was an internship and the other a job in retail.

    I know I helped my family so much during this time, but at the same time, the pressures of working made my mental health worse. I kept working even though I was already at the point of giving up because there was no other way for my family to make it through.

    I needed to do something, so I made some changes. I quit my internship and joined a program that pays young people while helping them cope with mental health issues and offering career advice. This program — Summer Youth Academic Employment Program (SYAEP) — helped me so much because I could focus on my mental health without worrying about working a second job. They showed me how to cope with my mental health issues and organized in-person events that really helped. I am so grateful that the program helped me but wish that it lasted longer than one summer.

    There should be more programs like this. Young people need more in-person interactions that provide work experience and income. I am glad I can share my experience with the people of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, so they can understand how important these types of programs are. I speak as a 19-year-old on behalf of all the adolescents out there who believe youth voices are impactful and important. We believe our opinions and voices matter, and that we can change the world for the better.

    It is hard to be part of conversations with adults. We feel discouraged when it comes to discussing everyday social life issues as many adults believe we’re too young to have the power to contribute meaningfully. In some organizations and programs, adults take over. They speak for the youth, and make decisions on their behalf, leaving youth left out, unheard, and devastated.

    Every voice needs to be heard and considered and youth voices should be projected or written down. We need to feel that we are an important part of conversations and the communities in which we live.

  2. Reflections on Elementary School, from a Distance

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    This year, going back to school includes all the tumult and uncertainties particular to 2020. What does it feel like to return to the classroom — virtually or not — during a public health pandemic, amidst flaring racial injustice, deep economic hardship, and spreading wildfire? What does education become from the students’ perspective while adults struggle to adapt their work and parenting practices to meet safety protocols?

    All of these questions are too big for one blog post. And so, over the past weeks, we have shared a series of reflections from Bay Area youth, ranging from ages 9 to 18:

    • Melanie, an Oakland public school graduate;
    • Kathya, a San Francisco senior; and
    • Noah, a San Francisco eighth grader.

    Each wrote from their own perspectives about how they are learning, what fears they hold, and how they are adapting. Throughout, their resilience is clear.

    We now complete this series with an interview of Faith, a fourth grader in a South-East San Francisco elementary school. Faith was interviewed by Milo, a sixth grader that she knows through Radical Monarchs. Radical Monarchs is an activism program that creates opportunities for young girls of color to form fierce sisterhood, celebrate their identities, and contribute radically to their communities.


    Milo: How is school going for you?

    Faith: It’s good. I do have one of my friends in my class, and I’m very excited about that. But, it was kind of sad that I didn’t have my other friends in it.  I’m also not sure what I missed learning last year. Since I was in online school for the end of third grade, there were things I didn’t learn — like about units, kinds of thousands, and things like that.

    Right now, school feels different than before. Usually, I am sitting at tables, on my bed, or just somewhere — not at a desk. And then, because I’m at home, I can go get up and get snacks whenever I want.

    Those are two things make school feel really different.

    Milo: Is distance learning fun?

    Faith: Kind of? If we were in school right now, we wouldn’t be able to see our classmate’s dog on Zoom. Zoom can be very cute.

    Milo: How do you feel about logging into school every day?

    Faith: My teacher is really fun so it’s very fun. I like reading a lot, and right now I get to use a reading app which I really enjoy. Sometimes, the app reads the book out loud to you, and then you read along on your own. You can get reading awards. And if you don’t know a word, you can point at the word and the app zooms in on it to help you read it.

    Milo: Do you feel like you are learning as much as you can on Zoom?

    Faith: Yes, because I am actually good at using computers. When I was in school in person, I could only use the school computers on certain days. I am better at using computers now, but I still can’t really type without looking at the keyboard.

    Milo: If you were Principal of your school, or Superintendent of all the schools, what would do?

    Faith: If I was the Superintendent of all the schools in San Francisco, I’d make it so people can see each other. I would let students schedule meetings where we all meet in person, and see multiple classmates.


    As an adult, a parent, and an education funder, one thing these student voices remind me of is that schooling is constantly layered. It is an intensely individual experience — missing friends, finding the cute, the ways a school schedule orders your life — layered within a larger system.

    In that way, this anomalous moment isn’t that different from other, more regular times.

    I’m reminded of how schools are places where people come together and where we’re expected to connect. Movement through the halls, random interactions over lunch, the chats before class — all that is mostly missing in our distance learning model.

    Young people know it and, as these blogs consistently show, it’s what they miss most: each other.

  3. The Ups and Downs of Virtual Eighth Grade

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    Hello. My name is Noah and I am an 8th grader in San Francisco.

    School has always been a bit of a struggle for me. I never got very good grades and I never loved school, but I know that going is how I can become educated, forge my own career path, and hopefully have a joyful and impactful life. I hope to shape a better future for myself and the world through my education.

    This school year, however, education has changed.

    Online school and being in a classroom are very different — so different that it is hard to compare them. On one hand, being in a classroom, where you can ask questions and be more engaged, has its benefits. It also can cause lots of stress and anxiety. In my opinion, distance learning is superior. As long as I manage to stay focused on the lessons, there is far less cause for anxiety. It suits my learning style far better, even with its downsides.

    One issue with distance learning is the amount of time I spend looking at a screen. Although online lessons only last three to four hours a day, teachers make up for less frequent and shorter classes by assigning lots of online work. People, it seems, don’t realize that having shorter classes doesn’t equal less screen time.

    Another downside is virtual classes make it far harder to communicate with teachers and fellow classmates. If I want to ask my teachers a question outside of class, I need to email them and it may take some time to hear back. Also, online learning makes it so that I can no longer communicate with my friends during school. I’m social, and it gets lonely. It has been hard not to be able to talk to my friends at school for the majority of the day.

    During distance learning, my grades have gotten better — and I can say the same is true for a good number of my classmates. I believe this is because we feel less pressure and we have time allocated to do our work, which is very, very helpful. Also, in lots of my in-school classes, I had trouble organizing and keeping track of what felt like a million pieces of paper. With distance learning, I no longer have that problem.

    Distance learning brings certain topics to life, too. For example, in history class, this year, we might look at a slideshow or create a fake social media profile for a historical figure. Previously, we would have just read pages out of a textbook. It’s more engaging this way — and I believe that’s one of the main reasons why my grades have gone up.

    Although distance learning has its positives, it has its concerning aspects, as well. On top of the amount of screen time required and the lack of social interaction, it’s too easy for students to do something that they shouldn’t be doing during class time. It’s up to us as individuals to remain focused, and that’s hard. The quality of the education may be lesser, too. We seem to cover less material in distance learning and that could affect my future. For example, we skipped a little bit more than one-third of what we were supposed to learn in history class at the end of the last school year. I’m not sure how we will ever get a chance to cover content that students in normal, non-pandemic years would learn.

    It has also been particularly hard for me to understand assignments sometimes; when a teacher asks me to summarize or organize notes in a certain way, it is very hard to know exactly what they want. Something else to take into consideration are the pressures put on teachers. Many of my teachers are getting behind on grading and often do not respond to emails because they are too swamped creating lesson plans and taking care of their own families — their children are distance learning at home, too.

    In conclusion, I would like to reinforce two things adults should know about how distance learning impacts young people. The first is how lonely distance learning can make us feel. Lots of kids’ social interaction comes at school, and when students cannot really talk or have recess together, we feel lonely and sad. The second thing is that the amount of screen time is rough. A full day of being in online classes can make us feel super depressed and irritable. If you are a parent and your kid has just had a full day of computer time, take them outside.

    Thanks for listening,



  4. On the First Day of a New Kind of School Year

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    If, on the first day of my Junior year, you told me I was experiencing my last first day of high school class in person, I would have laughed. But here we are, and no one’s laughing. During this pandemic in which millions are jobless and we’re required to wear masks and keep our distance from each other, youth and teachers are all logging into virtual classrooms to begin our first week of school.

    KathyaMy name is Kathya and I am a senior at June Jordan School for Equity. I am on track to becoming the first in my family to graduate high school. Education has been valuable to me for as long as I can remember. It is the most effective way I have to impact positively the course of my life. I see so much value in education that I was elected to sit on the San Francisco Unified School District’s Board of Education as a student delegate.

    But things have changed dramatically.

    In this school year, the first week of school means a reality where I can virtually raise my hand and a teacher can mute me with the click of a button. Practically no one could have predicted that classrooms around the country would be closed down, and yet here we are, learning to adapt to a socially-distanced norm where students participate solely through their screens, and many of us don’t show our faces. It feels impossible to accept that this is what my last year of high school will look like.

    One week in, all I can think is, “How are we going to make it?”

    For years, researchers, doctors, and well-meaning adults have scolded people of my generation for being buried in their screens. Today, even the best teachers can’t avoid requiring us to stare at a screen for hours in order to get the education we need and deserve — even if that education feels as remote as it is.

    We’ve been told, “This is all we can do for now,” and “We don’t know when this will end,” and “Forget the old normal because it is long gone.” While some students watch their loved ones die without being able to hold them, others watch their parents lose the jobs that kept food on the table, and more — or likely even the same students — receive daily reminders from police and the government that their lives don’t matter. Amid this, we must open our phones or laptops to learn about Founding Fathers and ancient civilizations that are long gone. We are expected to do our best but have little way of telling our teachers that, although it may not meet pre-pandemic expectations, students, too, are doing the best we can do under the circumstances.

    This pandemic shines a spotlight on the inequities this country has long lived with: food deserts, lack of healthcare, homelessness, poverty, racism, discrimination, and other things that make living in this country feel impossible. I can’t help but wonder; are we taking advantage of this moment in history? Are we ensuring that communities such as schools will lead us into a better future? Are we offering students financial, emotional, and physical support? Are we teaching students that they must make the change they want to see in the world?

    The school I have known for twelve years feels very far away. My classrooms feel disconnected from the strong community I’ve been proudly part of at June Jordan School for Equity. And yet, I maintain my optimism. I’ve seen teachers become more open minded than ever before, teaching more creatively, creating more accessible spaces for more youth, and being willing to learn from students in new ways.

    Whether we like it or not, classrooms everywhere are changing. It’s in our best interest to make sure those changes are for the better — because the students opening their laptops or phones to log in for their first day of school are the future, and we will not be stopped.

    I hope you are inspired to play a role in ensuring students across the nation receive a great education, even during a pandemic: we deserve it.



    Kathya is a leader in her school’s Peer Resources program, where this spring they launched QuaranTeen, a blog to raise up youth voices during lockdown. Listen to past episodes here, and be on the lookout for Kathya’s podcast featuring this blog post.

  5. Public School, Pandemics, and the Future of Girls of Color

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    For many in California and beyond, these last weeks of August mark the first day of the public school year. And, for most, those first days, weeks, and months will be held virtually. While this is not as we’d hoped, it is an eventuality that doesn’t surprise us: the Walter & Elise Haas Fund launched the Education Learning Lab back in April so that community members, across generations, perspectives, and avenues of action, could mitigate this and other emergencies through collective thought and action.

    That need continues, and so does the work of the Education Learning Lab.

    We convened two Learning Labs over the summer. During those sessions, we focused on how, amid this time of upheaval, we might build equity, increase justice, and amplify joy for girls of color in the Oakland and San Francisco Public School Districts (OUSD and SFUSD).

    This challenging, important work was aided by the contributions of Melanie Dzib — one of the Fund’s inaugural Bay Area Youth Fellows. A 2020 graduate of OUSD’s Coliseum College Prep in East Oakland, Melanie took part in a (virtual) six-week fellowship at the Fund. During her time here, she learned about the role of philanthropy in the social justice ecosystem. As a Learning Lab assistant, Melanie researched and recommended grants towards systemic educational change.

    As a recent graduate, Melanie also added her valuable insights to Learning Lab proceedings. She shares the following thoughts with us all:

    Melanie DzibIn the time of uncertainty, prejudice, separation, and fear caused by this pandemic, time spent with others — even virtually — is valuable. That was clearly the case with the two Learning Labs I participated in this summer. Each was composed of diverse, multi-generational groups of 20; half youth and the other half adults working in the education system as nonprofit service providers, teachers, school and central district administrators, or funders.

    The focus of each Lab was on how might we reimagine the future of high school during and beyond the time of COVID-19, with a focus on equity, justice, and joy for cis, trans, and gender non-conforming young women of color. As a collective, we worked towards addressing issues experienced by this population in public school.

    Learning Labs are structured so that youth get both a leading role and the first chance to speak. This is significant, as normally those of advanced experience and age claim positions of power. As one example of how the Lab operates, picture an adult voluntarily ceding their talking time to make more room for youths’ voices.

    This multi-generational space further emphasizes young women of color’s readiness to join (and direct) conversations about their future and how best to address issues of inequity, racial injustice, and mental health. The adults present demonstrated what it could be like to work alongside youth as allies, providing guidance and perspective as needed.

    Opening up a conversation about the public education system’s flaws, and about the injustices experienced by young women of color, clarified the need to empower youth as their own best advocates. Our first hand insight is essential to any progress.

    Young women of color are underserved within the education system — the data clearly demonstrates this. According to Valuing Girls Voices: The Lived Experiences of Girls of Color in Oakland Unified School District (from Alliance for Girls, one of the nonprofit partners in the Learning Labs), girls of color experience missed opportunities and inequalities within the educational system. As one example provided by the report, consider the fact that while one out of three girls in the Oakland Unified School District is Black, two of three girls who get suspended are Black.

    African-American and other Black girls are disproportionately impacted, and that exacerbates the disadvantages they face in pursuing or maintaining their academic success.

    It is essential that we understand the areas within the educational system that fail to support and prepare girls of color. When we do this, we can better redirect and transform schooling experiences.

    For myself, I do not want to fall into the stereotype of being unsuccessful, simply due to having grown up in a low-income community of color. I want to be prepared for a future in which I can be successful. I wish I had had more guidance in accessing programs, scholarships, and networking and internship opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), particularly those that are inclusive of undocumented students and focused on empowering young women.

    With the benefit of these resources, I would be more prepared, confident, and hopeful about creating a better future for myself. Within these opportunities, I would have been able to develop and reinforce different kinds of skills, connections with peers, and career options.

    What young women like me learn, experience, and get taught affects our future in society well beyond our days at school. It manifests our need to provide guidance and to create substructures for young women of color so that we can become leaders, valued by society, and claim our share of major roles.

    Providing safe and welcoming spaces, such as the Learning Labs, is crucial. Our society otherwise leaves voices unheard and — oftentimes — even silenced. During this pandemic, hope and advocacy for change are more relevant than ever. It’s up to us to work towards the improved future we desire and deserve.

  6. Building in the Storm

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    “I’m holding onto hope even though many things are uncertain and scary.”
    -Rapid Response Learning Lab member and SFUSD high school senior

    Two weeks after Bay Area public schools closed due to COVID-19, a dozen community members gathered online for the first incarnation of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund’s Rapid Response Learning Lab — a space we created so that community members, across generations, perspectives, and avenues of action, could emerge from emergency by thinking and acting collectively.

    The change in everyone’s lives has been dramatic and massive since San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) closed its schools serving 54,000 city youth. Since that day, the state mandated that residents shelter in place. Schools became safety nets for residents suddenly without a paycheck, educators began addressing the task of teaching — and reaching — youth remotely, and these seismic changes continue to reverberate. We now know that schools will remain closed through the end of the school year and the ground continues to shift beneath our feet.

    In response, we asked: how might we meet this moment and best serve the youth of the Bay Area?

    The Rapid Response Learning Lab

    As funders, we have an opportunity and the privilege to serve as a community resource and as facilitators of action. The Rapid Response Learning Lab does both, gathering a group consisting of: two high school seniors; a San Francisco Youth Commissioner; a youth worker; SFUSD administrators; a Board of Education Commissioner; leaders of community-based nonprofits serving youth from birth through age 24; the Director of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF); and funders. This group came together to begin building in the midst of — and because of — the storm caused by the COVID-19.

    The Rapid Response Learning Lab invites youth and community voices to the center of the problem-solving this current crisis demands. We need to hear what youth are living through, so we can be led by them and their needs. But the Lab is not only a space to tell our stories and listen to one another. It is a commitment to act from our particular positions in the world, and to act together. Our differences — of age, race, profession, role — are the opportunity to creatively build together and transform inequitable systems that we each experience differently. We are betting that this kind of collective will break through silos and echo-chambers, alter power structures, and grow trusting long-term relationships that seed future action. We are betting on connected individuals acting together for intentional, nuanced, and dynamic systems change.

    This moment of massive disruption is an opportunity for our truly diverse community to come together and reimagine how schools can be improved when they reopen.

    First Steps: Stories and Reflection

    “I have gratitude for people’s willingness to share stories.”
    -Learning Lab member and SFUSD administrator

    At our first session, Lab members spoke to their new realities:

    • as undocumented folks, knowing they won’t receive federal support;
    • as young people generating income and switching roles with parents who have lost their jobs;
    • as parents distanced from their own children, for everyone’s safety;
    • as educators recognizing their deep loss of connection with students; and
    • as employers furloughing staff that very day.

    We asked ourselves how we could best support and serve our most vulnerable. Loud and clear, the Lab called to prioritize mental health awareness and care. They named the need to work together to diminish youth isolation. Whether a district administrator, a young person, or a nonprofit staff, Lab members strongly agreed that it is critical to ensure that youth-facing community-based organizations remain fully funded and empowered to develop and deliver new ways of connecting: we have to keep the real and virtual doors of these organizations open.

    What Comes Next:
    Commitment to Action

    The first Rapid Response Learning Lab session offered members the stillness to reflect on an abrupt and enormous emergency; the second session of April 8th was laser-focused on taking action. What is the new normal that youth will need when schools reopen 5+ months from now? What is needed, now, to serve, connect, and hear youth and families?

    For the next two sessions, Lab members committed to support individuals and deconstruct systemic barriers, taking action to:

    • Provide hope and inspiration, especially to young people, with reliable information and via youth-designed and led curriculum, and media for which young people are paid to create
    • Creatively poll youth about their needs, so that youth can tell their stories directly to city departments as those departments re-budget for the coming deficit
    • Coordinate collaborative Wellness Checks for youth
    • Support youth workers and teachers in growing their capacity to support youth’s mental health, especially in order to reopen schools that welcome and uplift youth

    Lab members will prototype projects and services in these areas over the next two weeks, to deliver them to SFUSD, DCYF, and other organizations ready to serve San Francisco’s youth in new and unexpected ways.

    Our work in San Francisco is just the beginning. Lab members have identified big goals that move beyond this moment of crisis; they want to redefine success in school, beyond standardized tests, and build upon meeting people’s basic needs. As Lab members put it: “The immediate response from the school district and DCYF has been great. Now what?”

    Right now, the connections made have already had impact, with city staff asking to join to both hear from and work with youth directly, and SFUSD reporting back to youth their actions on school closures so far. Youth leaders plan to pass that information on to their peers, building more cohesive channels of communication and relationships. DCYF, the largest funder of youth development nonprofits in the city, in response to their grantees, has relaxed reporting requirements and is working with the city to extend grantee contracts for six more months, taking burdens off of nonprofits who are struggling to stay open and serve communities in need. The Learning Lab has made their own call to action: “We need to keep centering youth as much as possible: it is time for us to reimagine what is possible. We know our systems are broken, now is the time for us to redesign them”.


    This is the first blog about the creation and purpose of the Learning Lab, in its first iteration as a Rapid Response Learning Lab. We will continue to share future blog updates about the Lab’s progress both in COVID-19 rapid response, and beyond, as we continue to collectively problem-solve for barriers in our education system.

    I want to acknowledge and thank all the members of the rapid Response Learning Lab, and the organizations represented, including HOPE SF, San Francisco Peer Resources, Wah Mei School, Education Trust-West, Denman Beacon Center, the San Francisco Youth Commission, San Francisco Unified School District, and the Department of Children, Youth and their Families.

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