On one of the biggest nights of his life, Shiva Rajbhandari was at Roots Zero Waste Market. The 18-year-old climate activist from Boise, Idaho, described it as “a super cool local grocery store with an event space.” About 30 of his friends and supporters were there, eating “super good food.”
They were there to find out if Rajbhandari would defeat incumbent Steve Schmidt — a 47-year-old engineer endorsed by local far-right extremist groups — in the race for a seat on the school board. Around 10:30 p.m. Rajbhandari saw a tweet that the election results wouldn’t be announced until well after midnight.
“And then I was like, ‘OK, well, everyone can go home or you can come over,’” he recalled. “And some people came over to my house and we watched ’Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.’ And then as it got closer to 1 a.m., we turned off the TV and we just started watching the election-counting livestream, which is super boring. And then finally we had the results.”
At 3:10 a.m. on Sept. 7 — a school night — Rajbhandari tweeted a selfie. It showed him, wide-eyed and smiling, flanked by friends, campaign staff, volunteers and his dad.
“I was just really humbled to be surrounded by all the people who had gotten me to this point,” he said. Rajbhandari, a senior at Boise High School, had just been elected to the Boise School District Board of Trustees with 56% of the vote.
That Sunday, Rajbhandari attended Boise Pride as a trustee-elect. On Tuesday, he put on a shirt and tie, raised his right hand, and was sworn into office.
And on Wednesday, at 3:07 p.m., in the half hour he had free between AP Psych and cross-country practice, Rajbhandari talked to HuffPost about why he ran for office, why more students should run, why it’s vital to stand up to book-banning, gun-toting, anti-mask, anti-LGBTQ extremists who harass school boards across the country, especially in Idaho ― and why he got sent to to the principal’s office that one time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What inspired you to run?
So first of all, I think students deserve a voice, and I think students belong everywhere decisions are being made, but particularly where decisions are being made in education. Across the country, 14% of large school districts have students on the school board. Having folks with boots on the ground in the classroom, honestly, is a no-brainer when it comes to making educational decisions. Particularly now, when there’s so many nuanced issues affecting schools, and oftentimes [the numbers and statistics you read in reports] don’t fully reflect the experience.
I was working with a group of students across four Boise high schools, as well as some of the junior highs, on a collective commitment on clean energy with the Idaho Climate Justice League, which is essentially like a Sierra Club youth group working for clean energy for all. And we were trying to get a long-term sustainability plan for our district, and a clean energy commitment, which — our city has already made a really strong climate action plan — and now it’s time for our district as one of the largest institutions to do the same. You know climate change is the number-one priority for youth around the world, so obviously it’s a big deal for schools to decarbonize and to move away from fossil fuels.
“When I first started to become a climate justice organizer in ninth grade, they used to come to our climate rallies … with AR-15s, and just stand around our rally.”
But basically I was working with the students, and for like two years we were reaching out to our board members. We wrote letters, we did letters to the editor. We talked to our power company. We were on our district sustainability committee. We organized the first city club forum to include youth. We wrote like 300 postcards to the school board. We did it all. And, you know, our school board members, it just seemed like they never had time for us. They never really responded to our emails, or if they did, you know, they kind of deferred us to the sustainability committee, which we were already on. It was very frustrating.
And I remember one time in particular, I wrote a letter to our school board president, who I now work with, detailing our efforts and basically asking for a meeting. All we wanted was to talk about this initiative, which has actually saved schools across the country a ton of money. Energy is our second-largest expenditure too. So it was a big thing for our school, but I never got a response — well I should say in the short term, he wanted me to clarify — I did not get a response for six months to that letter, but I know that he read the letter because a week later I get called into the principal’s office and reprimanded for reaching out to board members. You know, “You need to go through the principal first, it’s a bureaucratic system,” and that was really frustrating to me—