It may seem that, as the youngest trustee ever elected to the Edmonton Public School Board, Michael Janz, ’08 BA, has life all figured out.
But the 28-year-old former Students’ Union president and current University of Alberta graduate student insists that, as far as his own future is concerned, he’s still got a lot to learn.
“Really, I don’t have a clue where I’m headed next,” says Janz over a gigantic cup of coffee at Roast in Edmonton, which he managed to squeeze in between his part-time job on the school board and his full-time course load in the Faculty of Education, where he’s working on a master’s degree in Education Policy Studies. “I’ve been very blessed that I’ve had a lot of interests and found opportunities to pursue those interests, but I don’t have a roadmap.
“If you told me 10 years ago that I would be running a dodgeball league with as many players as the NHL, managing multimillion-dollar budgets, meeting with the minister of education, going on to be a school trustee, and leading the Edmonton Gay Pride Parade, I would have laughed and said, ‘Wrong crystal ball!’ ”
If it weren’t for his boyish looks and utter lack of guile you might assume he’s being insincere. His resume reads like the perfect how-to guide for becoming a political wonderboy: Lister Hall president, SU president, U of A Board of Governor’s representative, researcher for the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta, marketing director for the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues and, since 2010, school board trustee for Ward F.
But it’s like he says: 10 years ago, none of these achievements seemed to be in his future. In those days, Janz was working at a steel factory in Calgary with little sense of what he wanted to do with his life. “It was a decent job. It paid alright,” he recalls. “But I was lonely. I wasn’t meeting new people. I wasn’t academically stimulated.”
Then, he came to visit a high school friend who was attending the U of A and experienced dorm life in Lister Hall, staying up all night chatting with people in the lounge. “I immediately fell in love,” he says. “I knew this was where I wanted to be.”
“What brought me to the U of A was the social life but what kept me there were the student leadership opportunities.” Michael Janz, ’08 BA
Janz credits his years at the U of A with making him who he is today, both personally and professionally, opening his mind to new ideas and new possibilities.
His first day on campus, Janz remembers meeting A.J. Krause, ’05 BA, his floor coordinator, who was openly gay. “When I came out of high school, I was pretty closed-minded,” remembers Janz. “Initially, I was quite a jerk and inconsiderate, but getting to know him destroyed all my stereotypes and misconceptions and pushed me to be an equality and equity advocate.”
In fact, Janz has done such an about-face on the issue that last year he helped the school board pass a new policy on sexual orientation and gender identity that earned national attention and garnered him an invite to serve as grand marshal of the Edmonton Pride Parade.
Janz also met his wife, Brittany Kustra, ’10 BA, at the U of A. “It was my last abuse of authority,” he jokes. “She was one of the incoming councillors so I told her I had to take her out for coffee to orient her to ‘complex student government processes.’ She assumed I did this with all of the councillors, but I gave a little more personal attention to her.”
Also while SU president Janz got to know Don Iveson, ’01 BA , who worked for Janz at the SU as head of advocacy and communications. When Iveson left in 2008 to embark on his own campaign for Edmonton city council, Janz became a “loyal foot soldier, knocking on doors, delivering flyers and doing the hard work of democracy.”
The experience taught him a lot about city politics, and, when Iveson won the seat from a longtime incumbent, it showed Janz that young people can have a seat in government. “Here was a young guy who had a vision for his city, who said, ‘I’m not going to wait until I’m 40 or have kids. I’m going to put some ideas forward, and if they resonate with people, they’ll vote for me.’ ”
A few years later, Janz took a page from his friend’s playbook and, at just 26, ran for the Edmonton Public School Board. Like Iveson, Janz faced a great deal of criticism because of his age.
“If you’re a young person that’s always the card against you,” says Janz. “A lot of people didn’t get it because, traditionally, the school board trustees were older, retired from the profession. But because I could show my experience through the U of A in dealing with billion-dollar capital budgets and in building relationships through the community leagues, it gave me street cred.”
His previous experience turned out to be the perfect training ground for his job today, helping to oversee a $900 million budget, 200 schools and more than 80,000 students and 8,000 staff.
The secret to landing a position of responsibility at such a young age was not being afraid to plunge right in. “The main thing is don’t wait,” he says. “There’s this sentiment that you have to wait until you’re done your degree or have these credentials or be this old. But if you express an interest, you’ll be amazed by how many people there are who are so eager to mentor you and support you along your way.”
Now, Janz is looking to pay that mentorship forward by serving on the U of A’s Alumni Council and the Student Alumni Council—and by writing a book on student government, to be published by Henday Publishing. “The point of my book is to help students get the most of their high school and university experience, and give back to their school and their communities and realize that sense of agency, as I feel I was able to.” If he had read such a book in high school, he might not have had that lonely gap year in Calgary. But hindsight is always 20/20.
As for his own future, Janz says he’s still “figuring it out.” With so much currently on his plate—the school board, his master’s degree, a book—it’s understandable that he hasn’t looked ahead more than a couple of years. But despite speculation about him running for Edmonton city council or the legislature, Janz insists his plan is just run for another term on the school board when his current term is up in 2014. Beyond that, who knows?
“When I think about when I was happiest it was when I was working on student government and with young people and doing that coaching and mentoring,” he says. “If I could be involved somehow in that capacity, it would be awesome.”
And with those parting words—and the last dregs of his over-sized coffee—he’s out the door into the snowy afternoon.