Photo depicting a shadowed hand dropping a ballot into a dropbox.

OPINION: School Boards and Local Elections Are Ground Zero for Our Values

by Shasti Conrad

Local elections don’t just matter: They are a matter of life and death for far too many in our communities. 

About a month ago, I learned that my hometown of Newberg, Oregon, became the center of attention for all the wrong reasons. The local school board voted to ban symbols such as Pride flags and signs declaring that “Black Lives Matter,” calling them “political statements’’ and therefore inappropriate for school. What they really did was politicize humanity and, in the name of “neutrality,” help the oppressor. 

As someone who also had to navigate predominantly white spaces as a student of color, my heart went out to students who, in that vote, witnessed representatives of the community invalidate their entire existence as a mere “political statement” that didn’t belong in a classroom setting. 

The fact that Newberg is my hometown galvanized me to take action. And I am now working with people in Newberg to hold school board members accountable for this, by supporting recall efforts for Brian Shannon, and making the Newberg School District more welcoming and equitable. And while the story of Newberg is deeply personal to me, it is also far from unique. These incidents are happening in schools all around the nation and in our own backyard. 

In Bellevue, candidate Faye Yang peddled dangerous misinformation straight from the eugenics campaigns of the early 20th century — including claims that certain races have lower IQs. In Kent, there is a school board candidate amplifying the dog whistles of QAnon candidates — an action harmful in and of itself as Kent is one of the most diverse cities in the entire nation. Constituents of Kristiana de Leon, councilmember for Black Diamond, Washington, have told her horror stories. She and I work together at my consulting firm. 

In Enumclaw, a lone school board director resigned after less than a year into her appointment during fall of 2020. While her official statement claimed she resigned because “this last year, particularly the last 6 months, has been incredibly difficult for all of [my family] and ultimately I need to do what is best for [them],” the full story is that this director was harassed at work, including in her neighborhood, namely for wearing a mask and defending the school district’s practice of acknowledging Indigenous land and peoples, an agreement reached in partnership with the Muckleshoot people. 

This director brought her husband to school board meetings because parents followed her to her car, verbally abusing her. De Leon recalls attending one of these meetings, saying “The vitriol during the board meeting was overwhelming. The amount of anger directed at masking, which rolled directly into tension over the acknowledgement of Indigenous communities, was palpable.” 

PTA volunteers and teachers in the Tahoma School District, including community members of color, have also been doxxed, harassed, and threatened over everything from masking to using pronouns to attending trainings on equitable teaching practices. The teacher union president also received threatening and abusive voicemails over a comment she made about her choice to discontinue patronizing a local establishment as a result of the owners’ political actions. 

“From conversations with constituents, educators, and neighbors, it was clear that this was a coordinated attack from the QAnon school board candidate. Much of this organizing happened on the private Facebook page, of which Kyle Meyers is an admin,” said de Leon who went on to explain that much of this reaction is traced back to controversy of critical race theory (CRT) in schools. She added that she had seen screenshots from coordinated online efforts to “get rid of any educator” seen to support CRT. “It’s absolutely shameful that instead of putting forth policies, these people are running on a platform of terrorizing PTA parents and educators.”

There are countless more stories throughout King County alone, to say nothing of the national narrative that echoes similar themes. A recent Salon article described how the GOP — and the QAnon movement as a whole — are regrouping to make school board narratives “the new battleground.” If this feels coordinated, it’s because it is; it is the newest chapter in the playbooks of the Heritage Foundation, ALEC, and beyond. Indeed, while the Koch brothers claim to disavow “anti-CRT” movements on paper, their long-standing history of antagonism against desegregation and basic safety measures such as masks in public schools, as well as ongoing contributions to conservative organizations, suggest otherwise. This is the monster that was decades in the making.

This toxicity is nothing short of an ongoing insurrection to terrorize people — particularly Communities of Color — who are working to increase equity and inclusion — whether in schools or local elections. While some mobs build gallows and draw guns, others chase down teachers and threaten school board directors’ lives. Rather than taking responsibility to regroup their members, the Republican Party openly embraces this violent hostility while hoping that burned-out liberals and moderates will shrug off the dog whistles blowing louder and more fervently. 

So, what can we do? 

We can take what happened to King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert as an example of how we can organize to tell both ourselves and our elected officials that “this is where we draw the line.” Lambert signed off on her campaign’s blatantly racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic mailer that sought to demonize her opponent by villifying King County’s only Black councilmember, Girmay Zahilay, as well as two additional People of Color and Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish. 

The literature lit a fire under voters, elected officials, and activists alike, and the maelstrom of outrage was channeled into one central focus of demanding Lambert to apologize, and when that didn’t happen, asking those supporting her to decide if they stood by her actions and words. While I was part of that effort to hold Lambert accountable — resulting in her losing not only campaign endorsements but committee assignments — the final say on accountability rests with voters. 

Do not sit out this election. Vote like your lives depend on it, because they do. Defy the projections that voter turnout is predicted to be abysmally low. The future of healthy democratic institutions depends on us defying those odds and defying the rising tides of violent extremism that seek to silence us.

Editors’ Note: Identifying information about community members facing harassment and intimidation was removed to protect their privacy and keep them from further harm.

Shasti Conrad is the first WOC chair for the Martin Luther King County Democrats in Washington State, the fourth-largest county party organization in the country. In 2020, Shasti founded two organizations — Opportunity PAC and CTRL Z. Among her other credentials are serving as a senior staff assistant in the White House during the first term of the Obama administration and as a briefings manager on the 2012 campaign.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.

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