Nawwal Moustafa
Middle School Program Director, Open School East
She/Her, Age: 29

High ceilings, natural light, a massive tapestry detailing a lush mountainscape and a wall filled with cards and drawings adorn the walls of Open School East's unofficial "kick it space." While Nawwal Moustafa insists her office is not a place for students to chill and have a kiki, from small talk to tough love, kindness to comic relief, Open School East youth know where to go when they need to be heard.

"I'm open with them. I'm soft and I'm vulnerable with them. And that's how we connect," she explains. "I'll be warm, but I have high expectations. If [they] need a hug, [they'll] get a hug, but I'll still tell [them when they] mess up," explains Moustafa, a self-described "warm demander" type.

Situated in the diverse, multicultural and quickly growing Rockwood neighborhood in East Portland, Open School East provides a culturally specific and responsive educational experience for youth in grades 7 to12. The school experience and curriculum stand in sharp contrast to that of other area middle and high schools. Whereas those institutions have historically catered to predominantly white, middle-class—and affluent— families and function around a traditional one-size-fits-all approach to education, Open School exists for youth and families in need of a culturally responsive alternative. "What I appreciate about Open School," says Moustafa, "is that we are willing to call out and identify systems of oppression that do not allow our students to succeed. We're willing to name that more than some other places that I've been and seen. That's one of the things that drew me in. They're naming it. They're saying it. They're saying they're committed to changing that. I want to be in a place like that.

A young Arab femme, Moustafa says her identity is a source of strength particularly when it comes to building relationships with students who are beginning to figure out and establish who they are. As a director, she has a pulse on just about everything. She supervises and supports eight staff members and the learning curriculum-conducting programmatic activities, such as testing, field trips, family and community partnerships, student conduct and discipline. She engages with community agencies involved with students and their families, like AmeriCorps, the Department of Human Services and Drug Rehabilitation Program. And she is no stranger to working with students through personal challenges, such as last year when three of her students experienced the death of a close relative—or behavioral issues that stem from the trauma of racism. "At a small school, we get to take our time and space to help students build skills and understand the impact of the choices they make—these relationships are close-knit and labor intensive, but we get the opportunity to do things differently."

Bottom line: From their academic to emotional well-being and progress, as the Middle School Director at Open School East, Moustafa oversees and supports her “children,” nearly 70 middle schoolers in a school of 160 students situated in one of the area’s most culturally vibrant yet underserved communities.