Many iJamming! readers will be watching the European Champions League final today between Manchester United and Chelsea. I know quite a few of my South London friends are Chelsea fans and though I’ve traditionally enjoyed our rivalry over the years, I want to wish them luck this afternoon.
At my own end, here in the Catskill Mountains, New York State, US of A, we’re celebrating what feels like the greatest victory of our lives. Bigger, for me, than Palace winning the Cup. (And that’s not a statement I would ever make lightly.) Through a textbook example of grass roots activism, and in the space of barely a month, we took on a powerful school board hell-bent on complete consolidation of our school district and the closure of our beloved Phoenicia elementary school; we formed a slate of four candidates from across the entire school district (at 300 square miles, the second biggest in New York State), we went up against an extremely demonstrative group of business interests who had the advantage of being in power and therefore in charge of the public message, we managed to bring together the people from the towns of Shandaken, Woodstock, Olive and West Hurley (who often only support a local candidate for school board, splitting the vote in the process), we awoke the “other” silent majority (the people who care about their schools, but traditionally forget to vote); we threw fundraising concerts, we borrowed a tour bus, we organized debates, we went on the radio, we went on TV, we threw art events, we wrote a song (well, Ralph wrote a song, “Uncloseable”), we got the support of the older Woodstock generation of musicians and artists and activists, we rallied the young parents who are spread far and wide tucked into their little village hill roads, we found a powerful message, we got it well-designed and got recognizable logos and slogans out into ads, posters, fliers, postcards and business cards, we sent a mailer to every voter in the district, we found people to call almost every one of the 11,000+ voters in the district, and in the last week, we breathed a sigh of relief as it appeared that we had lit a fire under those voters, watching with delights as hand-painted signs began appearing in shop and car windows and listening with equal happiness as people started talking in public about our incumbent school board and their hare-brained plan to close a school to build a school to overcrowd the classrooms and spend $70 million of our money in the process.
And yesterday, on election day, we kicked them out of office. All four of our candidates were elected, each one of them with the highest number of votes in recent memory. Not surprisingly, the town of Shandaken, in which Phoenicia school is based, turned out in record numbers to elect our candidates and prevent the closure of the school, but turn-out was extraordinarily high in the towns of Woodstock and West Hurley (which lost its elementary school only four years ago) too. Votes for the three incumbents (a fourth seat was contested as a decent school board trustee had resigned in disgust a month before the election) were down across the district, even – I should say especially – in the town where all three of them live. Many of those who voted for them three years ago had not expected them to use their power so unwisely.
In the greater scheme of things, a school board election may seem quite minor. But working on the philosophy of Thinking Global, Acting Local, it could be argued that no other election could be so important. Had this school board remained in office and carried out its plan to close a thriving, beloved, successful, happy elementary school as a further step towards complete consolidation of the school district, it would have had an absolutely devastating impact on our community. It would certainly have made a mockery of my family’s own decision to move here and build a house here, and clearly thousands of other families ultimately felt the same way about their own reasons for living here. What was so thrilling about this electoral campaign was that we brought together a group of candidates from across the various towns, so that the usual petty battles that pit one town against another would become redundant, and we motivated a larger than usual number of voters spread across an intimidatingly large geographical area. In doing so, we opened up important conversations about educational values, and we energized people who, even if they do typically vote in the school board elections anyway, now did so with greater passion, a more thorough knowledge of the issues, and an understanding of the potential catastrophe at stake. We also managed to cross both party and generational divides, no small achievement in a typically divided nation. Because the four people who ran for Board (I was not one of them, I just worked on the campaign) are all good people, we even managed to maintain a path along the high road, running a campaign that was not only, obviously, successful, but which was, for the most part, thoroughly enjoyable as a result.
After celebrating at the Boiceville Inn last night, we woke up this morning to realize that we had actually done something quite momentous. During the last few months, as a core group of us attended school board meetings and saw all too clearly the disaster that was coming down the line, we had often felt overwhelmed by what we saw as a nationwide push towards consolidation (a problem ongoing in the UK, particularly on the Isle of Wight from what I understand), and depressed by the many sad stories of people who saw their beloved local schools close and could do nothing about it. We managed to do something about it. We still have to turn around the outgoing Board’s misguided decisions, but we trust that we can do so, save the beloved Phoenicia Elementary School from unnecessary closure, and get back to the process of providing our children here with the best education our tax dollars can provide. That we have brought so many parents, students, and seniors back into the process is an additional thrill. I am so proud of the four fine people who ran for school board, so delighted to have been a part of the campaign, so happy to live in such an (overall) well-intentioned community. I don’t believe I have ever made better use of my time than in reclaiming our school board and, I trust, saving our beloved community schools.
There are so many lessons to be learned from this experience, so many anecdotes I’d like to share. I doubt if I’ll have time to do so, given all the work I now need to complete. But you can get a sense of what we went through by visiting the www.saveouronteoraschools.com web site – which I set up and maintained during the campaign, to the obvious neglect of ijamming.net. Anybody who finds their way here by google search, engaged in their own grass roots battle, please get in touch. We will be happy to share with you our experiences. Think Global, Act Local. It can be done. You can make a difference.