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Our Turn’s Kayla Romero Morais: Helping students change the education system

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  • Kayla Romero Morais is an extraordinary individual and leader, stepping boldly into the world, challenging the status quo, and making a lasting, positive impact on society. @EducationNC @OurTurnNC @OneDay_NC @plc_colorado

Editor’s Note: On Friday, Kayla Romero Morais became the chair of the Board of Directors of EducationNC. She is has been involved in the work of EdNC since our very beginning.

This is her story.

Kayla Romero Morais, now the Chief Growth Officer of the national organization Our Turn, grew up a long way from here in the unincorporated community of Beulah, Colorado.

When she graduated from high school, Morais moved from Beulah to Boulder, entering the University of Colorado at Boulder as part of the Presidents Leadership Class, which “shapes extraordinary individuals to step boldly into the world, ready to challenge the status quo and make a lasting, positive impact on society.”

Morais describes her move from rural America to a large state university as culture shock.

“I obviously knew there was a world outside Beulah,” she said. “But Boulder is a school that brings in so many people from out of state, especially wealthier families, so there was culture shock happening on multiple levels.”

Her freshman year was hard, she says. Morais was used to being at the top of her class, and the university classes were increasingly rigorous.

She was encountering imposter syndrome, questioning her worth at her university and doubting her many abilities.

It took a year, but Morais says she came to realize the problem wasn’t her, but instead the systemic inequity found in America’s educational system.

“It was kind of one of those things that once you see it, you can’t unsee it,” says Morais. 

“just as the moon
i am still learning
to stand fully
in my whole power.”

— posted on the Facebook page of Kayla Romero Morais, quoting the poetry of Danielle Doby

Her journey into teaching

As a political science major, Morais didn’t learn to teach while she was an undergraduate, but she wanted to teach so she applied for Teach for America.

She was accepted. Placed in a school in Charlotte, North Carolina, she prepared for the cross-country move.

It was 2010, and Morais remembers hitting I-25 and seeing the city of Denver behind her when she got an unsettling call. She had not passed the Praxis, a teacher certification exam.

She was shocked, but continued heading east. Morais worked as a nanny for a year and prepared to take the test again.

After she officially passed, she found herself placed at Ranson IB Middle School, part of Project L.I.F.T Charlotte. There she quickly found her voice not just an educator, but as an advocate for her students.

Her principal, Alison Harris Welcher who is now at Chiefs for Change, and assistant principal, Erin Nicole Barksdale Coles, became leading forces in Morais’ teaching and her life.

Morais says they “supported the rebel” in her, paving the way for her to feel inspired and supported in the classroom.

She watched them create an environment where students and faculty could be seen and heard at the school.

With their support, Morais says she felt like she had the “opportunity to be creative,” which was the creative spark she needed for the theme of her classroom: The Revolution.

 “As soon as I got in the classroom, I just felt this sense of purpose and passion that I had never experienced before,” says Morais.

She went on to establish the Revolutionary Club, an all girls club designed to uplift and empower students through the acquisition of life skills from financial literacy to SAT prep. Morais saw students finding their voice and engaging on issues in their communities.

After her third year teaching, Morais attended a training on community organizing. She realized her real goal wasn’t just to teach her students how to navigate their education system, but how to change it.

Her belief in student-led action

Morais ended up leaving the classroom looking for an opportunity to do just that.

While she was working as a recruiter for Teach for America, she heard about a new opportunity at Our Turn, which at the time was called Students for Education Reform.

Morais remembers the excitement she felt reading the job description. She felt like she had finally found what she had been looking for. It seemed too good to be true, she remembers.

Not only did she get the job and not only would she be a youth organizer, but Morais was the first person on the Our Turn team stationed in North Carolina. 

She spent her first years working hard to establish the credibility of Our Turn, since it was new to the state. She worked to build up the youth base across North Carolina, starting in Charlotte and then over time expanding to HBCUs and community colleges. She wanted to make sure she was reaching students at all levels of education. 

Morais now finds herself working on a bigger campaign through Our Turn — the campaign for tuition fairness for undocumented students.

“Our theory of change centers young people’s leadership, collective power, and lived experience to reimagine an equitable and just education system where all students thrive,” says Morais. “Our programming is designed to strategically build a network of youth leaders who will lead a movement for educational justice, build local power and ecosystems through member-led campaigns, increase public knowledge about education, and inspire commitment from allies.”

She believes in student-led action.

She understands relationships with those in power are needed to create change, and she knows how to build those relationships.

She knows that igniting a revolution in the education system starts with igniting the desire to lead in young activists in communities across the state and across the country.

Living out the mission of the UC Boulder Presidents Leadership Class, Morais continues to show up as an extraordinary individual, stepping boldly into the world, challenging the status quo, and making a lasting, positive impact on society.

She leaves this message to those of us touched by her leadership:

We belong.

Our voices do matter.

You can organize change.

Gabriela Ramirez

Gabriela Ramirez is a graduate of the honors college at Appalachian State University, where she was in the 2020 cohort of Diversity Scholars.