In the only contested Burlington School Board race Tuesday night, newcomer Aden Haji knocked off Keith Pillsbury, the incumbent who'd served 23 nonconsecutive years on the board since 1987.
Haji, 25, earned about 58 percent of the votes (533) to Pillsbury's 41 percent (371) en route to winning the Ward 8 seat.
Haji and his family were the first Somali Bantu refugees resettled in Vermont when they arrived in Burlington in 2003.
“I know everybody brings something new to the table, but I felt like my voice was really needed due to the experience that I’ve had,” Haji said.
Pillsbury, a retired Essex middle school teacher, said he's offered to help Haji in any way he can. While the loss is bittersweet, Pillsbury said serving on the board is a big time commitment, and he was looking forward to having more time to himself.
"I have done my community service," Pillsbury said. "Aden is a success story of the Burlington school system. I wish him all the best."
Unlike city councilors, Burlington school commissioners don't run with a party affiliation, but Haji identifies as a Progressive and serves on a party steering committee. He was endorsed by the Vermont Progressive Party and by Rights & Democracy, a Burlington social justice organization.
The party did well on Town Meeting Day: Progs won two new seats on the Burlington City Council, which gave them a majority on the governing body.
Haji's low-budget campaign was effective. He door-knocked in the ward, which is largely composed of college students, and printed up a few yard signs. He did most of his self-promotion on Facebook by posting photos of people who endorsed his campaign.
Haji wasn't intimidated by the prospect of challenging a long-term incumbent. He said he feels strongly that leadership in Burlington should reflect the city's racial and ethnic diversity.
"I understand how it feels to navigate two different worlds," Haji said. "I want to be able to be a voice for those students who are going through what I went through and let them know they can reach only greater heights."
After relocating to Vermont from Africa, Haji said he struggled to fit as a student at Edmunds School who was trying to learn the language and social norms of a new country.
Haji graduated from Burlington High School in 2014 and earned an anthropology degree from the University of Vermont last May. He now works as a youth coordinator at Spectrum Youth & Family Services, where he helps plan activities and events for the organization's Multicultural Youth Program. The job has given him insight into students' mental health challenges, a concern he wants to address as a school commissioner.
Haji is also an advocate for a student discipline system that is based in restorative justice principles — a model that focuses on repairing harm instead of punishing offenders. He also wants to expand mentorship opportunities for students of color and promote technical education programs as accepted and valuable.
"Traditional schooling is definitely not working for all students," Haji said. "We need to understand that and figure out how can we intervene and what needs to happen for them to feel a sense of success and have something to show for it."
The school board election was Haji's first campaign, but he's not new to community organizing. In 2018, he was part of a group that organized a town hall event to teach New Americans how to vote and to become more civically engaged. More than 150 people showed, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the keynote speaker.