Elisha Smith Arrillaga *09
Emmeline Vu for Ed Trust–West
‘We are here to really contribute to the world around us’

Elisha Smith Arrillaga *09 watched her parents fight for civil rights during her childhood. Her father was in one of the first classes to integrate the University of Mississippi Law School, and her mother helped establish anti-discrimination laws in her hometown after filing a lawsuit over employment discrimination. 

“My parents really instilled in us that we weren’t just here to take up space,” Smith Arrillaga says. “That we are here to really contribute to the world around us.”

So naturally, she gravitated toward helping others. She earned a Ph.D. from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and says she’s a researcher by training but an advocate by blood. Her current work at The Education Trust-West is a perfect marriage of the two. 

The California-based organization supports educational justice, and as executive director, Smith Arrillaga says she’s particularly focused on four areas: diverse and effective educators and leaders; adequate and equitable funding; equitable access and success; and accountability, transparency, and engagement.

Her work helps underserved students — those of color, low-income, and learning English. The goal is to change policies and practices so all California students can thrive. 

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“It’s all about putting data in the hands of students, parents, and communities with the goal of closing the opportunity gap,” Smith Arrillaga says.

When schools shut down this spring due to COVID-19, a plethora of new concerns popped up, including students who do not have access to the internet, mental health, and health in general for students and family members sick with COVID. At colleges, mixed messages and uncertainty around options for the fall are also points of concern. 

Smith Arrillaga’s team has been supporting students through the turbulence. They’ve been encouraging schools at all levels to reassess grading policies and practices, and finding funding to support students and schools. The Education Trust-West has also partnered with organizations to survey families about how they’ve been impacted. 

“What we heard loud and clear from folks is that they are looking for much more interaction with their individual teacher, at least [compared to how] online instruction was provided in the spring,” she says. “Parents are really nervous about the gaps that may appear during this period too.” 

Smith Arrillaga says there have been moments of hope. The Trust joined the growing moment to repeal Proposition 209, which prohibits affirmative action in public employment, contracting, and education in California. When they began working on this in January, there were doubts that this effort would be different from other past, failed attempts. 

This time they’ve had more traction. In June the California State Senate passed a resolution to include repealing Proposition 209 on the November ballot. Smith Arrillaga says she believes the success has been due both to COVID and the refocused attention on racial injustices. “It was so much harder to deny the way structural racism impacts our systems,” she says. 

Although there are so many uncertainties about the future of education, Smith Arrillaga says she hopes COVID can be used as a pivoting moment to create real change. 

“We really have an opportunity to redesign school in ways that it’s needed to be redesigned anyway all along,” she says. “Our hope is that we can really center student voices and help work with administrators to redesign this fall semester so that it engages students in ways they actually haven’t before, and maybe even accelerate them.”