Power, politics, and a Barbie cartoon: A new trustee learns on the job

After a historic election, Teri Westerby learns politics requires a new approach

Learning how to do any new job takes time.

You can listen to your more experienced colleagues. You familiarize yourself with your surroundings, your material, and your organization. You find where you can make a difference, and where you’re better off relying on those with more knowledge and training. But doing everything right can only get you so far.

Sometimes you need to screw up. Even (or especially) when you’re a politician.

The start

It’s early November of 2022, and Teri Westerby is sitting at a coffee table in downtown Chilliwack when I arrive. It has been two weeks since Westerby was elected as a school trustee and he’s only starting to process what his new job means. He has agreed to meet me several times over the course of a year to talk about his new job.

Every four years, British Columbians elect a handful of their neighbours to the least glamorous job in local politics: school board trustee.

Being a school trustee means overseeing a massive organization tasked with shaping the lives of thousands of children.

Understanding the scale and scope of a school district itself takes years. There are the schools and classrooms one immediately thinks of. But there are also counsellors, transportation plans, human resource policies, food procurement deals, Indigenous learning agreements, air conditioning systems, playgrounds, sports teams, operating budgets, and meetings. A lot of meetings.

A trustee gets a say in how schools operate and what resources and services are available to young people trying to find their place in the world. And they get a platform to publicly highlight both problems with schools and solutions to make those facilities better.

But the job also comes with significant limits: boards don’t determine the size of their own budget. Instead, they are handed a huge chunk of money from the province that they must then divide across myriad facilities and programs. A variety of provincial rules and policies also regulate everything from school curriculums to class sizes to service levels for students who need more help.

There are also obvious political limitations. Each trustee is only one of a group. Chilliwack’s school board has seven trustees, meaning that for any work to get done, at least four people must agree on that thing.

These are the reasons I’ve asked Westerby if we could talk regularly over his first year in office. Westerby. I want to see how a new politician adapts to a new job—and how that job changes the politician and their perspective on life, power, and service.

And that’s what happens. By the time a year comes and goes, Westerby has learned about schools and programs, encountered the funding challenges that stall progress, and wrestled with how to co-exist with political opponents. But that’s not all. Because midway through his term, Westerby will make a mistake that will bring a new awareness of not just the school system, but about his own, changing relationship with a nebulous and potentially dangerous thing: power.

• • • • •

A couple weeks following his election, Westerby was processing what it meant to be a trustee and to have a job without a direct superior and clearly defined duties.

“As an elected person you don’t actually have a boss,” he tells me. If voters are technically a politician’s boss, they are a boss of the most hands-off sort, with hiring and firing power only every four years. For the bulk of the time, they have to trust that their elected representatives will act in the public interest.

That brings an obvious level of freedom beyond your average gig, but it also requires newfound politicians to realize that the job is what they make of it—and that they have to hold themselves to account if they really want to make a difference. For Westerby—whose day job is that of a United Way community organizer—that demonstrated itself immediately when he didn’t check his brand new email account for a couple days, only to open it and find a flood of items needing his attention.

“I was like ‘No one told me I was supposed to start working yet!’” he said. “It was this moment of: OK, this is so much more elevated than a job.” It had instantly became clear that being a trustee would entail “a completely different way of working.”

What to do

A seat on a school board and a school district email account wasn’t the end goal when Westerby ran for office. The position was the means by which Westerby would try to advance the policies he believe will make life better and safer for vulnerable kids.

When they run for office, every trustee candidate is asked what they are going to do to make a difference. But the question doesn’t go away after an election is over. And the answer is unique to every politician’s situation—and involves both personal and group dynamics.

Prior to his election Westerby was most known around the Chilliwack as the president of the Chilliwack Pride Committee and one of the community’s most prominent and vocal advocates for policies and programs to support the local queer community.

Westerby’s personal background is also unique—he is a trans man who grew up in Maple Ridge and is extremely familiar with the challenges faced by trans youth and adults. Running to be a school trustee meant seeking to move beyond advocacy to have a direct say over issues like the lack of gender neutral washrooms in Chilliwack’s schools. Westerby wanted to make the city’s schools more inclusive for queer and trans students, and educate teachers who might lack the training on how to deal with sensitive issues that were rarely talked about a decade or two ago.

During the election, Westerby—who isn’t obviously and visibly trans—had to decide how direct and clear he would be about his beliefs and who he was. During the election, Westerby had to choose between two different photographs to adorn his largest election signs. In one, he wore a rainbow bowtie. In the other, the bowtie was gone.

Undecided, he asked a group of supporters to vote on which they preferred. The bowtie narrowly won. And Westerby agreed to wear the tie, even though it seemed like a risk.

“I was nervous at first,” he said. “But I really felt that if I didn’t make a bold statement about who I was and what my position was, I was going to get lost—especially as I appear as a white man.”

“I didn’t want to blend in. I wanted to say ‘This is my point of view. You’ll know right away because this is who I am.’”

Once he was in office, who Teri Westerby was would inform what he would try to do. But whether he would actually be able to change anything would also depend on who everyone else was—and what they believed and thought.

Any school board decision requires support from a majority of trustees. Fortunately for Westerby, the 2022 election also brought victory for four other likeminded candidates,.

The progressives had narrowly controlled the Chilliwack school board since 2018, even though a conservative wing featuring Barry Neufeld often drew the most attention from outside the community. On election night, Westerby and his four allies all won seats, solidifying the progressives’ control of the seven-member school board—and increased the likelihood that Westerby would find support for the policies and changes he wanted to see.

Early on, though, the attention was less on policies and more on Westerby, the person. Observers and reporters far from the Fraser Valley focused on Westerby, and the fact he may have become the first trans man in the entire country to be elected to a school board—and that he would be replacing Neufeld, who had lost his bid for re-election.

Westerby was profiled by news outlets far from the Fraser Valley, and suddenly had become maybe BC’s most famous school trustee. If that isn’t exactly fame, it showcased another important aspect to Westerby’s election.

In a country and world where there are few trans role models for those seeking political office, just being seen has its own value.

Election night had brought a sense of fear and foreboding, he told me.

“I was really terrified that I would let down the whole community in Chilliwack, that it would be a massive disappointment, and that trans people would feel like they would have to go in the closet and that they were right to be scared.”

But his election showed even supposedly conservative Chilliwack was open to electing a trans politician.

In December, Westerby was in a Vancouver hotel room lobby, getting ready to return from a conference of school trustees when he was stopped by a colleague from another district. The colleague explained their child was trans and that they were grateful to see Westerby demonstrate the range of possibilities available for their kid.

“Congratulations,” Westerby replied. Then the pair hugged.

That interaction—a parent telling BC’s most prominent trans politician about their own child’s coming out—has been repeated a few times.

“Usually they get very emotional, they’re very proud, you can tell because they say it with pride,” he said

Westerby usually delivers his simple “Congratulations” line. He sees in those parents echoes of his own family.

“I feel so grateful for those children, that they’re loved by their parents. And to see the sense of pride on [the parents’] faces, it almost is cathartic to me because I know my parents are proud of me and so I get to see it through the lens of another child and through the eyes of a parent.”

Doing stuff

Westerby, though, ran for a seat to do more than be a symbol of progress.

Westerby ran after participating in Chilliwack’s diversity and inclusion task force and hearing the challenges facing queer kids—and educators wanting to help—in the city’s schools.

“There were no gender-neutral washrooms,” he said. “There was major bullying. There were kids being misgendered. There was major suicide rates.”

Although SOGI resources were available, Westerby said using them was a “hush hush” topic.

Westerby said he ran to push things forward and “change the culture.” But victory brought the question: how could Westerby actually do that?

At the start of his term, Westerby was still getting to grips with a bureaucracy, a library of policies, and a world of processes that, frankly, can be opaque and abstract to the average person. But, at least in interviews with this reporter, he seemed at ease, and sometimes giddy, about learning about the tangle of policies and rules.

By June, the board had passed several new policies related to issues in Westerby’s wheelhouse. Those include an inclusion policy, a safe schools policy, and a change to the policy so that the district office could display special occasion flags, including the Pride flag.

But Westerby also saw how changing those rules and regulations—the stuff designed to set the stage for real, on-the-ground change—can be impacted by the real world perspectives of actual humans.

The province—in an example of how the ministry can dictate certain rules to all school boards—ordered that menstrual products should be made available to all students, regardless of gender. The “all students” component was a signal that supplies should also be available to trans students.

The district staff sought to write a new policy that would lay out how Chilliwack’s schools provided those products to students who need them. The policy was created with the province’s new guidelines in mind. But when that staff brought the new policy to the board, it simply suggested that products be available in washrooms. That, for Westerby, missed the trans-access component entirely and could allow administrators to overlook facilities that served trans students.

So Westerby suggested the school district make clear that the products should be in “all variations of washrooms (Male, Female, Gender-Neutral).”

Westerby’s colleagues, even some of his progressive allies, weren’t initially convinced that such specificity was required. But the board surveyed students, and the vast majority of those who responded gave their thumbs up to having the products in male washrooms.

Much of the discussion revolved not around appropriateness but potential cost, with staff suggesting adding product dispensers to just a single male washroom in every school would cost as much as $17,000. It was eventually suggested that purchasing smaller dispenser units could bring that cost down.

The board passed Westerby’s amendment, with the episode demonstrating how a single trustee with specific knowledge and background can help shape policy that might have an impact on students who may previously have been overlooked.


The debate also revealed the single limitation that makes it so hard to change a large institution like a school district: the fierce competition for limited money.

“If I had a magic wand, I would eliminate money and make all the schools reflective of the needs of the students,” Westerby reflected a year into his term.

Westerby does not have a magic wand. And neither does anyone else who wants to improve schools in BC.

Chilliwack, like many Fraser Valley municipalities, has seen portables multiply outside local schools as the area’s population has swelled at a rapid rate. But the school district relies on provincial funding and approvals to create new schools, leaving them at the mercy of decisions made in Victoria.

School districts do have more leeway to make smaller, more affordable changes in schools to better serve students—especially those who may not have been considered when a building was first constructed. But they can’t do everything that’s needed. A dollar spent on one program is a dollar that can’t be spent in another area.

Not too long ago, Westerby was among those advocates calling for improvements and changes to take place as fast as they can. Now, he’s sitting in budget meetings, looking at numbers, and realizing that even if the desire to do better exists, the money limits what actually can be done.

“No one has several trillion dollars to hand over to us to update all the schools and make sure they’re all up to date,” he said. So Westerby has to listen as he asks for patience and talks about “growing pains” and the limits on what the district can do. And he knows that if his advocate-self was on the other side of the conversation, he might not be so willing to wait.

“I definitely would have been frustrated,” he said. “It’s frustrating to even have to say it.”


It hasn’t all been policy and bureaucracy.

The Chilliwack School Board no longer makes provincial headlines but the culture war battles of past years haven’t fully disappeared into the rearview mirror. Westerby has found himself trying to figure out when and how to raise his voice—and when to let a remark or an argument slide.

Early on, the issue came to the fore when another trustee—conservative trustee Heather Maahs—opposed the raising of a pride flag and said the six-coloured rainbow was “offensive” to Christians. For Westerby, the question was not how to respond so much as whether it’s appropriate or useful in a structured meeting where trustees aren’t wrestling with the interplay between religions and rainbows.

Westerby had grown comfortable speaking about extremely delicate issues by the time he entered the political realm. But those conversations occurred in either structured spaces that he could leave if he decided to do so, or with people he knew and understood.

As he began life as a trustee, he found that those conversations were now occurring under very different circumstances. Westerby couldn’t walk away from the trustee table, and the next election was in four years time. He also had to strategize a bit and decide under what circumstances attempting to persuade opponents would be worth the considerable effort.

“I questioned myself: ‘Should I put my energy into bringing people along with me, or should I give them space to just be who they are?’ That’s a completely different experience for me because I don’t normally surround myself with people who literally oppose my existence.

“Sometimes, I think the best thing to do is to bring them in and try to talk to them, open my heart up to them and try to bring them up and make them understand why it’s important. Other times I’m like ‘Well, I don’t think you deserve my time.’”

But at some point, sitting on a board means accepting that fundamental—and personal—disagreements exist and yet must be put aside.

“In the bigger picture of governance, it’s a completely different type of relationship [from] where we all agree on something,” he said. “We’re going to have to sit here and have a conversation about big picture ideas. It’s not about how you feel. It’s about what’s right for the district and what’s right for equity…. So the relationship that I have with the other members of the table isn’t even relevant when we’re in that room.”

At the same time, he knew there were other people watching.

“I don't want to be divisive. I don't want to pick fights. It's not relevant to me to rebut any specific points.” But, he said, it was important to be clear what the board, as an institution, believes and doesn’t believe. “It is important to me that people understand that our values as a district, really, truly are safety, inclusion and diversity.”


And then Westerby made a gigantic mistake (that involved Barbie).

In late July, Westerby, shared a Facebook meme that depicted a steamroller about to run over a group of fleeing people. The steamroller was labelled Barbie. The folks about to get steamrolled were labelled “Traditional family,” “Christian values,” “Sanctity of marriage.”

The meme shared by Westerby.

It didn’t look good, and prompted outrage, questions, and anger both among those already opposed to Westerby, and those with only a passing familiarity with him.

Westerby’s ally, school board Chair Willow Reichelt, was forced to explain that the meme was a joke alluding to the over-the-top conservative reaction to feminist messages contained within the uber-popular Barbie movie. The image, Reichelt told the Chilliwack Progress, was intended to point out the absurdity of suggestions that a movie about Barbie, of all things, had the ability to harm the things it was accused of attacking. The meme, as Reichelt explained, wasn’t actually promoting steamrolling the traditional family. It was a take on a cartoon that mocked the idea that queer people were a genuine threat to the public at large. (The meme’s message, though, was also largely dependent on who was sharing it. The creator of the original meme took offence when he saw conservatives sharing the same meme Westerby shared. He interpreted the meme as being an unironic depiction of the threat of the LGBTQ community.)

Whatever the intentions, the posting of the meme was still a big mistake. You don’t want your political ally and the chair of the school board to have to apologize for a meme you share on Facebook. It’s especially awkward given Chilliwack’s history with oversharing school trustee candidates. And the fact “Christian values” were one of the things to be steamrolled was also more than a little problematic, given the religious demographics of the community Westerby represented. It also wasn’t just opponents who were put off: Westerby had to explain the point of the meme to his own friends.

When I sat down with Westerby for the last of three interviews for this story, I asked for his biggest regret from the past year.

Westerby—who had no advance knowledge the question was coming—paused to search for an answer, then spoke about how a lack of time inhibits the ability to build working relationships.

After I reminded him of the social media flap from earlier in the year, Westerby eyes widened and he smiled ruefully—not like he had been caught out, but more like a painfully obvious answer had slipped his mind.

“Oh! That’s my biggest regret!” he said.

Westerby said the reaction to the post surprised him, in part because it revealed just how much his life had changed.

“It was a big shock to me,” he said. “I was like, ‘I just shared a meme on Facebook!’ That’s something I did every day for the last 15 years of my life and until that moment, it didn’t mean anything.”

But Westerby was no longer a community member questioning powerful institutions and pushing them to do better. Westerby had obtained a seat at the table, and that brought with it its own obligations, challenges, and scrutiny.

The meme generated a protest that unsettled business owners, it left other school officials dealing with a slew of angry emails, and it led some to call Westerby names on the street.

Westerby initially felt hurt and upset by the reaction.

“I felt really sorry for myself, to be honest, that I had to narrow my existence to this public figure,” he said. It grated that the public only could see a portion of him, whether it be the school trustee portion, or the trans leader portion.

Westerby’s unique and symbolic position—a trans person on a school board known to be a cultural battleground—undoubtedly played a role in the reaction. It would be unlikely that a straight person sharing the same meme in, say, Kamloops, would spark such a furious reaction. But Westerby also heard from his own friends who didn’t quite get why he would have posted the meme, or what the image really was trying to convey.

“It took me some time to recognize that, on the surface, it didn't look good and looked bad. I did not mean at all what it meant on the surface,” he said. He said he learned that his actions could have repercussions that impacted many others around his community.

“It was a silly little thoughtless thing that had a much more of an impact.”

His conversations with acquaintances helped him understand a bit more that the meme’s ironic message was not plainly obvious to many, and why it generated such a reaction.

“I'm really thankful that I have friends here willing to be open and honest and ask questions,” he said.

In two previous interviews, Westerby had spoken about school board processes, the policies it worked on, and the bureaucratic issues the board faced. He spoke about the challenges facing LGBTQ+ youth and the work to connect to other students who wonder what he’s doing to also help them.

Westerby came off as someone who, to put it plainly, had their shit completely together.

But “meme-gate,” as he called it, revealed how hard it can be for politicians and leaders to retain their personal voice and individuality when the things they say are no longer just of interest to friends and family.

“I'm always afraid of being judged,” he said. “It’s human nature I guess… I’m trying to be as authentic as I can to my true self to say this is who I am, raw and true—and hope that people see that and give me praise for being a human being.”

The incident also revealed that Westerby’s position in the world had dramatically changed the moment he was elected to public office.

Westerby lived most of his life as a trans person in a world often ill-suited to people like him. He has pushed to give trans people more freedom and ability to be themselves, safely, within their community. And many of those struggles remain for trans people.

But even as many of those challenges remain for trans people, Westerby’s election changed things for him personally. He was no longer just an advocate calling for change. He was a politician with very real authority and power to actually make that change happen. Understanding the ramifications of that would take any politician some time to reckon with. That it was a Barbie cartoon that underscored that shift for Westerby doesn’t make it any less serious.

As he moved beyond self-pity, Westerby realized there was something deeper than just Internet-fueled politics at the root of the reaction to his post. There was a lack of understanding, sure. But there was also the fact that Westerby was no longer the little guy battling oppressive authorities.

“As an advocate and being a member of a marginalized community for the longest time, you feel like, ‘You’re the winner and I’m the underdog’ and you create this ‘Us and them,’ " he told me.

Being elected changed that. It only meant so much that Westerby didn’t mean harm or was still representing a vulnerable group of people. Others felt attacked. And Westerby started to understand that the issue, in part, was because he was no longer that underdog. He was on the other side of the fence.

“I’m in the power position now,” he said. “I might be the ‘oppressor,’ if you will.”

Understanding that, Westerby said, changes how he experiences and participates in uncomfortable conversations.

“It’s given me the ability to check my emotions and my reactions—my triggers to remarks and bigotry—and really listen…and not take it personally,” he said. And in those different perspectives, Westerby says there is hope for finding common ground and shared goals.

Schools and parents and trustees and students are all different. They bring different opinions, backgrounds, knowledge bases and, sometimes, facts to the table.

“Humans are messy,” Westerby said. “We’re messy creatures. We try our best—the majority of us anyways—to do the right thing and figure out how to do right by each other. And we miss a lot of the time.”

It’s in that messiness—the imperfections and irrationalism and self-contradictions—one can also find hope and understanding, if you seek it out. Because if you can’t agree on everything, you also can’t disagree on everything. And if you can make things a little better, then eventually, with some money and some effort, you can make things a lot better.

“Just recognizing that things are not as ‘Us versus Them’ as I had originally pictured, made me open up to listening to those viewpoints more and really try to understand where they’re coming from and address the core issue. That has always been my goal, but I see it more now.

“I feel like I really understand.”

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