Vineland – Stephanie Risley, 21, is the youngest Board of Education (BOE) member in Millville’s history. Her vision — to help the city’s children receive the type of education that will empower them to become future leaders — is what inspired the community-minded Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) Justice Studies major to run for the BOE.
“Our children deserve more, and we need to do more for them,” said Risley, whose campaign slogan was “For the Youth, By the Youth.” As a student at Millville High School, she was a participant on the school’s mock trial and model congress teams and was always drawn to politics. To Risley, it was a surprise, but not a surprise, that she’s currently in this position.
“I always knew I wanted to get into politics. I didn’t think the first step would be the school board,” Risley admitted. “But, it kind of logically made sense to start off there. It helped me to get more familiar with policy and board governance.”
The RCSJ–Cumberland campus student, who made Millville BOE history when she won her seat by more than 1,000 votes, described the frenzied nature of the electoral process. “It was crazy because 2020 was not a normal election year,” Risley stated.
Due to some technical difficulties with the vote count, “I didn’t actually find out that I had won officially until almost two weeks after the election,” she disclosed. “When I finally got my Certificate of Election from the Board of Elections, I think that’s when it became real. I actually cried and I was like, okay, this really did happen. My name is on the certificate. ”
Risley approaches her responsibilities on the board with mindfulness and empathy. “My job is to stay as informed as possible and do my due diligence to make sure that I understand what’s going on in the district, what our teachers and parents need, as well as any other staff and administrators,” she said.
Millville’s youngest BOE member presently serves on two committees: The Board Governance committee, where she helps review policies, and the Curriculum, Instruction and Technology committee.
“We’re making sure that we are getting our students access to technology and to the newest curriculum and instruction methods,” said the Phi Theta Kappa honor society member, who sports a 4.0 GPA.
“I mean with COVID-19 and how everything has been virtual, we’re making sure that it’s still a fair and equitable education for every student. It’s important to make sure that we’re not promoting equality, but equity.”
As a board member, Risley, who proclaimed she “nerds out” over anything dealing with policy and legislation, also makes it a priority to attend community events. “I think it’s super important that our parents and our kids know that we’re here and we’re supporting them,” she said.
Risley’s deliberate involvement in neighborhood activities goes beyond sitting on the education board. She also wears the hat of director of Community Outreach for Our Future First.
“Our Future First is a youth-based nonprofit,” Risley explained. “We focus on helping youth overcome barriers to success that they may see in their lives. A lot of times, those are systemic issues. Sometimes they’re socioeconomic.”
An unfortunate and all too familiar tragedy was the spark that brought the nonprofit into existence. “It was founded in 2018 after I lost one of my best friends, Maurice Lewis, to gun violence,” Risley said, with a hint of sadness.
Sean Thom, educator and executive director of Our Future First, shares a common bond with Risley as they were both good friends with Lewis.
He is confident in her capabilities as a leader.
“Stephanie actually takes the time to listen to her community, to genuinely hear what the needs and issues are instead of just assuming that she knows what they are,” Thom said. “I know the work she does now as a board member will have a lasting and profound impact on the students and educators in our district as well as in our community. Her selflessness, dedication to her community and to herself, and perseverance are exactly the skills needed to create lasting and meaningful change.”
Risley has found the BOE experience fun, exhilarating, and rewarding. She also noted she was welcomed by her fellow board members with open arms. Interestingly, the one-time Thunderbolt is in a unique position as she now interacts with her former teachers on a different level.
“I’ve had so many teachers say it’s so weird to have a former student in front of me,” she revealed. “And it’s, like, so weird to have a former teacher in front of me, in this position, affecting their lives.”
Risley, who only has two classes left to take before she graduates from RCSJ, is an advocate for community college. “I think it’s super important to remember that county college is a great option,” she said. “I know that there may sometimes be a stigma, but at the end of the day, I’ve met some great professors, great classmates, great colleagues and lifelong friends who I know that I will be close with forever. I’ve had such a great experience here and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Visit https://www.rcsj.edu/LawJustice for information about RCSJ’s Justice Studies program.