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‘Young boss’: 2 years ago she was in high school. Now she’s on the Allentown School Board

Zaleeae Sierra.jpg
Sarah Mueller
New Allentown School Board member Zaleeae Sierra sits inside her grandmother's studio in Allentown.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Zaleeae Sierra said she wanted to make a bigger difference in her community.

Elected in November to the nine-member Allentown School Board, the 20-year-old will now help make decisions about how the district should spend more than $434 million in taxpayer money.

“I understood that to have the biggest impact was to join a board where we're making policies and we're discussing the money,” Sierra said.

“I noticed, for example, paint chipping off of my walls and my schools having an oversized classroom, and teachers can't fix that for us. They need that support as well.”

Sierra was 19 when she won her seat, making her one of the youngest people in the Lehigh Valley region ever elected to public office. Mayor Nathan Gerace of Tamaqua won in 2017 when he was also 19.

“I understood that to have the biggest impact was to join a board where we're making policies and we're discussing the money."
ASD School Board Director Zaleeae Sierra

A William Allen High School alum, Sierra is a youth director with Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, a nonprofit focused on serving children in marginalized areas. She oversees the “I Can Be” program, where she teaches students how to prevent violence, have healthy relationships and develop coping skills.

'My kids look up to her'

She recently received national recognition for her violence prevention work, winning a Rashaw Scott Youth Leadership Award from the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention. Sierra has also received an InnaStar Trailblazer award for her activism.

Allentown parent Ben Torres said Sierra is a role model for his daughters, Ariella, 9, and Juanita, 11. Both attend her youth program.

“My kids look up to her and they love being around her,” he said. “I call her a young boss because she's amazing. She's dedicated to her work. She's dedicated to the youth and she loves it.”

Sierra was inspired to help kids in areas with high incidence of gun violence because of its impact on her at an early age. At age 9, her family was forever changed when her 17-year-old uncle, Kareem Fedd, was shot and killed by a gang member in 2012.

Her mother took her to live in Florida and Sierra moved back and forth between Pennsylvania and Florida, attending Raub Middle School for seventh grade and then William Allen for her junior and senior high school years. She was going to a high school in Oakland Park, Florida, in 2018 when a mass shooter killed 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, just 30 minutes away.

“I was absolutely just traumatized by the whole experience," she said. "And I was very upset, and angry and confused. I didn't understand at that time how someone could do something like that and I felt like that's kind of just how we all felt as a whole, just as youth together."

Making a difference

In October, the Allentown School Board approved installing metal detectors at the city’s three high schools, before Sierra joined the board. She said she supports security measures, but one of the reasons she sought to join the board was to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

Earlier this month, a 17-year-old boy was charged with possession of a gun inside Dieruff High School.

“Why does this youth feel like they need to have a weapon in general?” Sierra said. “Do they feel safe? They sometimes feel, ‘If I don't have this thing to protect myself, I don't know what could happen.’ Some youth are getting jumped in bathrooms. So there's fear.”

Understaffing is contributing to an unsafe environment in the schools, Sierra said.

“For example, you're supposed to have bathroom monitors. There's not enough staff or teachers to be bathroom monitors," she said. "It's an overwhelming job also, for security guards to run all the way up and all the way down, and have to constantly encounter just youth being violent to each other. But really the problem is there's no staff; there's nobody there to monitor those bathrooms.”

“It was beautiful to watch the kids looking up to her and having a positive role model and her being so relatable to a lot of the youth."
Jeani Garcia, director of operations for Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley and Sierra's grandmother

At 17, Sierra came to live with her grandmother, Jeani Garcia, director of operations for Promise Neighborhoods, and began volunteering there. She worked so well with the children that Promise Neighborhoods created a youth coordinator position for her, Garcia said.

“It was beautiful to watch the kids looking up to her and having a positive role model and her being so relatable to a lot of the youth,” she said. “Things that they were going through, she went through some things and she just had livable, relatable experience.”

Goals in office

Entering politics at such a young age made Garcia worry about her granddaughter, she said.

“She would talk to me about it. You know, how she wished she could go and help the kids, what can she do more to help the kids,” Garcia said. “And then she said to me one day, ‘You know, what? I want to try for school board.’ And I was like, 'What?’”

As a school board member, Sierra said, she plans to address staff recruitment and retention, bullying in school and deferred maintenance.

Garcia said she believes Sierra’s age will help bring a fresh outlook to the board.

“I think she brings an amazing youth perspective, being a recent graduate,” she said. “I think she's so balanced, that she can speak and stand up for not just the students and the youth, and the student body, but also the staff.”