San Diego voters will put two new members on the five-person San Diego Unified Board of Education in November. Click here to read about the candidates in the race.
On Earth Day in 2019, a Facebook post made by Cody Petterson, who is running to represent District C on the San Diego Unified School Board, went viral. In it, he detailed his attempt – and failure – to single-handedly replant a forest of conifers the 2002 Pines Fire had destroyed on a 300-acre patch of land he owns near Julian. It ended up garnering tens of thousands of reactions and shares and led to a BBC article about his “one-man crusade” and the dramatic effect climate change has had.
Petterson broke down sobbing in his car upon realizing he wouldn’t be able to save the forest he’d once hiked through as a kid. It was simply too dry. Too hot. His seedlings baked in the sun, or were eaten by gophers, rabbits and rodents. And beyond that, the Goldspotted Oak Borer, an invasive beetle native to Arizona, was also laying waste to tens of thousands of oak trees in the region.
“The whole millennia-old forest was dying, as far as the eye could see,” Petterson wrote. “The sadness, the fear, the despair comes over me in waves when I think about it,” he continued.
“I took personal responsibility for repairing, conserving, stewarding my half-mile square of it, and it finally hit me – what I’d been wrestling with unconsciously for a long time – that I can’t save it. No amount of wisdom, or sacrifice, or heroism is going to change the outcome.”
This kind of Quixotic pursuit and fatalistic sadness have defined Petterson’s life and political goals. At once, he believes sweeping, systemic change is the only way to preserve a prosperous, livable future, but he can’t seem to shake the worry that it may be too late. That the problems we face are just too big and too intertwined.
But he also believes the one place his efforts may have a real effect is on the school board. And thanks to widespread support from Democratic officials and school labor unions, he may be headed there.
Petterson’s opponent in the race, Becca Williams, poked fun at his environmentalism, like his being able to name five species of trees and birds in a KUSI interview. But in that interview, Williams also identified one of the most striking things about Petterson – his frankness about who he is and what he believes.
Petterson was born and raised in San Diego and attended elementary, middle and high school in District C schools in La Jolla. His two children now also attend elementary school in the subdistrict. He got his bachelor’s degree in English at UC Berkeley and after a detour to the Midwest to do an MFA program at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, returned home to complete a doctorate in anthropology at UC San Diego.
His resume features a long history of environmental-tinged political involvement, including a stint as a White House intern in the Clinton administration during which he split his time mostly between the newly formed Climate Change Task Force and the National Economic Council.
But the birth of his daughter eight years ago made him worry about the world he was leaving her, and it inspired him to re-engage in politics. In 2016, he supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination, but when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, he thought “Oh, wow, we are really screwed now.”
He went to his first Democratic Party club meeting, and he felt like the party had lost its way.
“We needed to get back to empowering working Americans, and I really felt like inequality was at the core of a lot of what was happening in America,” Petterson said.
That disillusionment with the party pushed Petterson to get involved with a dizzying list of local political organizations. He’s a trustee on the La Jolla Town Council and has served as a member on the San Diego Progressive School Board Coalition and a delegate for the California Democratic State Central Committee. He’s also spent five years working with Educate for the Future, a local group that does everything from organizing workshops and trainings on progressive school board policies like social-emotional learning and restorative practices to state level LCAP and LCFF budgeting. Additionally, Petterson is a lecturer in UCSD’s anthropology department where he teaches a class on the politics of environmental change.
In 2021, he began working as a senior policy advisor for County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, specializing in areas like K-12 education, SANDAG and environmental and climate sustainability issues.
That history of involvement, his progressive politics and his support of, and membership in local unions led to a cascade of endorsements from Democratic officials and many of San Diego’s most robust unions, like the San Diego Education Association, which represents SDUSD’s teachers.
But that hasn’t translated into campaign donations. Williams has lapped Petterson in fundraising. He has raised only around $32,000 and spent around $28,000. Meanwhile, Williams has raised around $71,000, $5,000 of which she loaned her campaign, and spent around $55,000. Ultimately, that imbalance may not amount to much, as union support is often the primary barometer of success in school board races. And given the liberal political lean of the region, Williams’ conservative positions also may end up being a liability for her campaign, even with recent raucous pushback against board policies.
Williams has tried to capitalize on the frustration of some SDUSD parents about the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the time it spent educating virtually. But Petterson is much more likely to hedge on that topic.
“I would never dismiss that anecdotal experience of what happened for any individual parent,” he said, but his “inclination is to not even get involved in the sort of battle of anecdotes.”
“I have not yet seen concrete data, like research quality, peer-reviewed quality data on the educational outcomes and the impact of COVID,” Petterson continued, but if he were elected to the board, he said he’d want to instruct staff to conduct a “robust research analysis of what the outcomes were of COVID” on Day 1. Even so, Petterson said he didn’t detect any significant delays in learning in relation to other comparable districts, and that he doesn’t generally hear from other parents or from teachers that they’re dramatically concerned with the potential learning loss.
He acknowledged that some parents and students were disoriented by the transition, but also expressed admiration for the district’s efforts – like providing 80,000 laptops to students and standing up a system of virtual learning. As far as whether closing schools was the right decision, Petterson said it would have been preposterous not to.
“This is a global pandemic, closing schools was both good for students and it was very, very good for teachers,” he said.
Though children have low COVID-19 mortality rates, he believes not closing schools could have led to widespread transmission among staff and students who could then potentially pass it on to elderly or immunocompromised relatives – particularly among lower-income students who may live in multi-generational households.
He’s also unequivocal about the benefits of masking and vaccination, which have been significant flashpoints in the pandemic-era battles surrounding schools.
“I wear glasses, I don’t like wearing masks. It’s an inconvenience, and it’s uncomfortable,” he said. “But masking is an extraordinarily modest concession to make to a global pandemic.”
Many of Petterson’s goals as a would-be school board member are informed by his progressive background. He’s an ardent supporter of ethnic studies in schools, which in 2019 the board voted to make a requirement for graduation across the district. Petterson believes ethnic studies are more than just representation in curriculum and educating students about cultures not their own, but that they also play a vital role in informing kids about the contexts and constraints in which they’ve grown up.
“If you don’t have an ethnic studies component, and beyond ethnic studies, a class component to this, you’re leaving students to misunderstand the nature of the trajectory of their life and their opportunities,” Petterson said. “To me it does great violence, not only to reality and truth, but to students’ ability to develop as a full human being and to actually find themselves.”
Like he often does when explaining his reasoning, Petterson recounted a winding story. This time, a conversation with a Quechua man he met while researching for his dissertation in Peru. Petterson said the man was convinced he was inferior to White people because he had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Petterson said he let out a sigh and told the man, “brother, Adolf Hitler was wrong. There’s just one human race.”
All people deserve the significant opportunities and privileges he has had, Petterson said, and they would see the world more clearly and with more confidence if they did.
Petterson views many issues within education, like the achievement gap, whose existing divides were dramatically exacerbated by the pandemic, as symptoms of larger societal inequities.
“When folks talk about the achievement gap, you can get sucked into sort of situating the source of it in the education system, but really the education system is being tasked with attempting from (pre-kindergarten) through (12th grade) with overcoming challenges that are imposed by widening inequality,” Petterson said.
“The reality is, our society as a whole is, in a certain sense, capsizing,” he said. “You’ve got your homeless crisis and folks that have slipped off the deck, but you’ve also got folks at the top who are sitting pretty.”
That inextricable link he sees between the gap and larger societal factors is why he believes reinvigorating the relationship between neighborhoods and schools through building out the infrastructure around community schools – which would expand the role of schools to more fully address the unique needs of the communities they serve – is so essential. Through community schools, which offer wraparound services that can range from universal meals to mental health counseling to medical support, Petterson believes some of the inequities seen from school to school can begin to be tackled.
Even given those broader societal throughlines, Petterson said research shows that high dosage tutoring – which means individual or small group sessions multiple times a week – leveled up summer learning programs aligned with curriculum from the year prior and the year to come, and a commitment to community schools all need to be part of a strategy to begin to close the now-widened gap. To Petterson, these strategies are preferable to holding children back in school, which he said has a disastrous effect on their learning and development.
All of these developments, however, cost money. The bond measure unanimously approved by the board in July, which will go on November’s ballot, and would allow the district to borrow $3.2 billion and levy a property tax of 6 cents per $100 of value, and which Petterson supports, may provide some funds to implement community school developments. But it can only be spent on facilities, not personnel. Petterson is also excited about the possibility of using the funds to expand facilities capacity for SDUSD’s universal transitional kindergarten programs, which he believes is fundamental to fighting the achievement gap.
But, given the spending restrictions on bond money, Petterson said he hopes to increase state and federal funding per pupil to finance other changes he thinks are necessary. He believes the connections he’s made in Sacramento and beyond will allow him to effectively access additional, more flexible funding.
But for all his lofty goals and ideals, there’s a vein of pessimism that runs through Petterson’s politics. It can be most acutely felt in his resigned belief that we may stand little chance of counteracting the deep societal schisms that have stacked along political, regional and racial lines. As with the death of the forest, many of the problems we face may be too big, too interconnected.
In that 2019 Earth Day post, and in interviews since, he’s rationalized his misguided belief that he could single-handedly reshape the fate of the forest as being a product of the Star Wars generation, and the mentality that “there’s a one in 40,000 chance that we’re going to get this, like, photon torpedo into the whatever and destroy the Death Star and you go – ‘Okay, let’s do that,’” he said.
But even while acknowledging the inherent delusion of that thinking, he’s maintained some of that Quixotic drive, and views schools as the ideal outlet to create change.
“Schools happen not only to be one of the last real, powerful institutions standing that has those sort of New Deal values,” Petterson said. “But they also happen to be the institution in which the generation that is going to be left to pick up the pieces is in right now,” he continued.
He won’t be able to solve the problems he’d once hoped to, he said, but he believes he can give kids the tools to solve the problems of the future themselves and develop their own values in the process.
“I am going to take an opportunity to help guide this generation that is going to have to pick up the pieces and build a new world, and not to indoctrinate them,” he said, “but to give them those first principles that allow them to figure out what that new world’s going to look like.”