Andy Levine is drawing on his experience and connections as a longtime community organizer in his political campaign for the Fresno Unified School Board.
The youngest of the four candidates for the Area 5 special election, Levine, 38, wants to represent the Fresno High area where he has lived most of his life.
As the child of educators who now himself teaches part time at Fresno State, Levine says his educator mentality sets him apart from two of the other three candidates in the race. In addition, he said, his father Robert Levine, a longtime Fresno State social psychologist, “made sure that I learned how to just listen and bring people to the table to make sure that everyone’s wisdom and expertise is valued. And so I believe as trustee, I’ll bring the community together to make sure that we address the issues that we share in common.”
The other three Area 5 candidates are retired teacher Russ Allen, retired firefighter Andrew Fabela, and retired administrator Daniel Renteria.
Big Lead in Campaign Donations
Levine, who is probably best known for his work with Faith in the Valley, a faith-based grassroots community organization that focuses on equity issues, has been getting campaign support from many of the city’s more progressive voices.
Based on campaign finance reports through Feb. 5, Levine has the fattest campaign chest so far with more than $37,000 in donations. His donors include former Assembly Member Juan Arambula and his wife, Amy, and son Diego, former Assembly Member Sarah Reyes, former City Councilman Oliver Baines, McLane High Area 4 Trustee Veva Islas, and Levine’s mother, Trudi Thom.
Levine said his life experiences growing up in Fresno, his education, and his career have prepared him for his run for the School Board.
Educated by Fresno Unified
Although Levine grew up in the Fresno High area, he attended the magnet program at Edison Computech Middle School and Edison High School. It was there and later at the University of California at Davis, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, that Levine started to process the inequities he had seen between himself and his peers at Edison and in Fresno.
He credits a mentor in the sociology department, Dr. Milmon Harrison. “I was really wrestling with how do we address the broader issues in our community, the inequalities that exist in Fresno and cities like it around the country? And he helped me to see that education was a place where that inequity played out, obviously, as much as anywhere else, but a place where we could actually level the playing field, that if we got some things done differently and right in schools, it could actually impact our whole communities.”
After graduation Levine went to work in Oakland for the nonprofit New Leaders, which prepares high-potential teachers to become principals in high-need schools. That job experience exposed him to educational policy, he said. He moved to New York to work for the national organization while studying for his master’s degree in sociology of education at Columbia University.
He said that helped sharpen his focus on how schools can provide not only the educational opportunities for students to be successful in college or career, but also as community schools where they can provide support for families through healthcare, mental health services, and other resources.
After earning his degree Levine returned home to Fresno and founded Faith in Community, the multi-faith nonprofit that would eventually become Faith in the Valley. The group has pushed for a number of reforms, including improving substandard housing in Fresno and gun violence issues.
He went from being executive director of Faith in Community to Fresno County chapter director of Faith in the Valley, and later deputy director of the organization.
Involvement with Fresno State
In 2020 his role with Faith in the Valley changed again when he became a senior advisor. That year he started teaching at Fresno State, where he also is working with Dr. Amber Crowell as co-directors on the crowd-funded Center for Community Voices at Fresno State. The center’s goal is to amplify the voices of members of marginalized communities, and the first demonstration project will be in support of a guaranteed basic income program in Fresno.
Such projects have been tested in other cities, including Stockton, and shown how providing just $500 a month can improve the health and happiness of recipients, and give them enough breathing room to improve their job and economic prospects, he said.
With the vacancy on the School Board after the death of longtime Trustee Carol Mills, Levine said, he saw an opportunity to have an impact on setting educational policy in Fresno Unified by employing some of the same practices that he’s used in community-based organizing.
“That’s something I hope to model when I’m on, if I’m on the board of Fresno Unified, is how do we actually bring community and teachers and our trustees together to make sure that we’re addressing the shared (issues). We all know that a lot more needs to be done for our students, that our students’ proficiency numbers and our scores reveal that there’s far too many of our students that are falling through the cracks. And so that’s what I hope to model on the board, is bring community together.
With substantial funding coming now to Fresno Unified from the state and federal governments, trustees and district staffers will face many choices of how best to allocate resources to make the biggest improvements possible in what is now one of the state’s lowest-performing school districts, he said.
Holding District Accountable
Fresno Unified’s challenges and poor outcomes aren’t limited just to the tenure of Superintendent Bob Nelson, Levine said.
“I think as a system Fresno Unified has not been doing what it needs to do for a long time. And I think that I saw that when I was a student,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s necessarily so much different now, decades later. And so I think we all need to be held accountable to that. And that’s not just the superintendent. That’s us, if I’m a trustee, I need to be held accountable to that. But I think it starts by recognizing where we’re at and not trying to just put a positive spin on everything.”
During his campaign canvassing, Levine said, he’s heard concerns from a lot of people about the controversial Fresno High mascot change that replaced the longtime image of an American Indian with a line-drawing of Royce Hall and also the letter “F”.
Levine said he tells them the mascot change is a done deal.
“What I think is really important to refocus on is, that’s reflective of a pride in the history of Fresno High,” he said. “That’s beyond a mascot. It’s about the campus and the school itself that I think we can all agree on, and I think that’s actually what’s important to remember in this moment.”
Another political hot button these days is Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed COVID-19 vaccination mandate for school children once the vaccines receive full FDA approval. Levine said he has been fully vaccinated and received the booster, and he believes that all people who are able to be vaccinated and boosted should do so in order for the pandemic to end more quickly. But he said he understands that parents still have questions and concerns about the vaccines’ safety for their children.
“Probably more than anything is, they want to make sure that there’s a full authorization in place before we go down that path,” he said.