This Idaho Teen Won Elected Office to Fight Far-Right Education Policies

Shiva Rajbhandari is straddling two worlds — one in which he’s a high school senior balancing college applications and classes, and one in which he’s an elected official serving on the school board that makes decisions that affect his own high school.

Shiva, 18, won a seat on the school board by defeating the incumbent candidate, who had been endorsed by the Idaho Liberty Dogs. The Liberty Dogs, who say they were founded because of a “spread of Marxism,” have accused librarians of providing students with pornographic books and promoted book bannings.

Although Shiva’s opponent, Steve Schmidt, never publicly embraced the Freedom Foundation, he also didn’t disavow them, according to reporting from The Intercept — which Shiva tells Teen Vogue shows a “lack of understanding of the threat of extremism to our schools and a sympathy to the hateful and violent intimidation tactics.”

Shiva, a climate and gun violence prevention activist, has advocated against state policies aimed at restricting what students can learn. In 2021, Gov. Brad Little signed a law that blocks funding for schools that “compel students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” the idea “that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is ‘inherently superior or inferior” or “that individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.” The state also created a task force to look into “indoctrination” in public schools, according to EdWeek.

Teen Vogue caught up with Shiva — who turned 18 just days before the election — to talk about why local government matters, what it’s like to be a high schooler and an elected official, and what gives him hope for the future.

Teen Vogue: What made you want to run for office?

Shiva Rajbhandari: We came into English [class] last year and had an assignment that was all blacked out with Sharpie like a CIA document [due to policies stemming from the Idaho “Indoctrination” Task Force]. We were fighting in the legislature and media and organizing. A lot of the teachers said they felt isolated and alone in this fight against some of the most powerful people in our state. Students are the primary stakeholders in our education and we were being treated as a nuisance and that’s when I knew there was a dynamic that needed changing.

TV: What is it like to be an elected official and a high school senior?

SR: It’s surreal. When we won the election, I was watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in my basement. We had an Election Day party but heard the results would take a few more hours so I was like, let’s go to my house and we watched that movie and sat nervously. When they came out, it was certainly very exhilarating and humbling to be surrounded by all the people who made this possible. Boise Schools and my teachers made me who I am. They told me my voice matters and I can make a difference. What’s really cool is I’ve brought this level of democracy to our school that wasn’t there before. None of the other members have been in school for [a long time]. This week, I got this letter from a girl I tutor of all the things she and her friends wanted to see in our school and community and I sent it to our board members. That’s what students deserve: representation. Students belong in all places where decisions are being made but particularly where decisions are being made on education and schools.

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