Written By: Akash Krishna and in collaboration with FIRST Washington
For the past three years, a committee of FIRST® students in Washington state have collaborated with FIRST Washington to ensure that diverse student voices and needs are not only heard, but celebrated.
“It’s really important to me that people like me are fairly represented not just throughout FIRST Washington, but in general,” said Rachel Kollarmalil.
Kollarmalil, a high school junior on FIRST® Robotics Competition team 4131 “Iron Patriots,” is in tune with the challenges many students face regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their day-to-day lives. Through her role as the current FIRST Washington DEI Committee President, Kollarmalil is able to speak out about these important issues and uplift those around her.
Juli Malit, a FIRST alum, began sparking discussions around DEI with FIRST Washington in 2020, hoping that having these important conversations with staff members could lead to positive changes for all.
A Positive and Productive Collaboration
The FIRST Washington Student DEI Committee was formed in 2020 when a group of students were inspired to make a difference in the FIRST Community through DEI. The student-led committee has four elected positions (President, Secretary, Education Chair and Membership Chair) and students are also able to join as general members, or those who want to support new students on their own FIRST teams. General members can attend committee meetings to learn about team resources and opportunities.
The committee meets once a month via Zoom and is managed by Mara Kealey and Erica Beckstrom from FIRST Washington. Kealey has also set aside a portion of her budget to support the committee’s various efforts such as providing pronoun buttons for events and printing mental health resources for students.
“The partnership between the Student DEI Advisory Committee and FIRST Washington allows our students to dream as big as they can and innovate new solutions beyond just their individual team,” says Kealey. Malit added, “Students are the foundation of any educational program and have valuable firsthand knowledge about what it takes to achieve equity.”
Elevating Student Voices
With the foundation of the FIRST Washington DEI Committee came a triumphant culture of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion – with student voices at the forefront.
“We make sure that DEI topics are talked about throughout FIRST Washington, and we make sure those values are upheld at every district event in the Pacific North West,” Kollarmalil said. “Our main objective as a DEI committee is advocacy.”
The committee brings their ideas to FIRST Washington staff and together they discuss the feasibility. They ask solutions-oriented questions, such as: Do they currently have the necessary student/staff/volunteer power? What is the cost? Are there barriers that may make a solution less effective that have not been considered?
If an idea is too big to implement right away, the students discuss steps for making the idea feasible or try to find a compromise. Anything they do, they have the opportunity to lead.
Through monthly meetings with FIRST Washington staff, this focus on advocacy is front and center. Sit through a committee Zoom Meeting and you will be amazed by the wide array of voices, perspectives, and opinions brought to the table by high school students speaking on behalf of themselves, their teammates, and the larger communities they represent.
“Students on the DEI Committee serve as advocates of their own experiences as well as the experiences of students like themselves,” Malit said. “They serve as ambassadors to their peers who can be equipped with resources and channels of communication to better address inequities.”
In addition to regular discussions with FIRST Washington, another aspect to the committee’s advocacy is education on a variety of DEI topics. Through putting up informational booths at competitions, creating social media posts that raise awareness, and starting DEI conversations on their own teams, the committee worked eagerly last season to inform the community and showcase the FIRST Core Values as they relate to DEI topics.
“As a part of the officer team, I helped plan out what would be appearing at our DEI tables at district competitions such as planning pamphlets on certain topics we were focusing on, like inclusivity for the LGBTQ+ community,” Kollarmalil said. This inclusivity has extended to teams building community beyond their own circle. FIRST Robotics Competition team 1318 “Issaquah Robotics” has partnered with the FIRST Washington DEI Committee for two years to organize teams to march in the Seattle Pride Parade. This summer, they gathered over 100 people across multiple FIRST teams to be a part of the Seattle Pride Parade in June 2023. Students on the committee express great gratitude for the opportunities it provides them.
“One of my favorite parts about being on the committee is being able to make a difference in people's lives at competitions and making sure everyone is included,” Kai Grant, FIRST Robotics Competition student and recently appointed DEI Education Chair, said. “It feels great to know I'm helping others like me.”
“I love the community it offers,” Kollarmalil said. “I’ve gotten to know so many people from different teams through being on this committee. Having that space for people to share ideas to make FIRST Washington a better place for everybody is really important to me.”
Starting Your Own Student-Led DEI Committee
So the question arises: how can student-led DEI committees like these start up in more Program Delivery Organizations across the world?
It takes students that are passionate and willing to take the initiative to contact their local FIRST Program Delivery Partner to get involved. They must articulate the goals for the committee and should be ready to help make sure it runs smoothly. Start by setting up a meeting with your PDP and discuss your plans for the committee, demonstrating that this is something that students in the area desire.
“Get the word out about your committee,” Kollarmalil said, explaining that a past struggle of FIRST Washinton’s DEI Committee was not enough representation from a large variety of teams.
“When we’re doing a completely student-led committee like this, we want to make sure we are including voices from as many places as possible,” Kollarmalil said. “No two teams are going to have the same experiences with inequity.”
FIRST Washington students have taken a large step in starting this committee, and hope to see more student-led DEI committees started in the future.
“Our committee leadership and members go above and beyond for our FIRST Washington community, and for the broader FIRST community. They are making lots of small changes to program culture that will compound to make a massive difference for students, long after our current members have graduated and moved on.” says Kealey.
With a closing message, Malit emphasizes the importance of valuing DEI, especially in FIRST:
“It's our duty as a collective, as peers, teachers, mentors, coaches, and parents, to live out the FIRST® Core Values and inspire change. When matters of equity and inclusion are put first, we all win, together.”
For more information about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, initiatives, and resources at FIRST, please visit https://www.firstinspires.org/about/diversityinclusion or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.