Flattered to be included in such wonderful company, my panelists included:
-Shari MacDonald Strong, Sr. Editor of Literary Mama and Editor of the upcoming anthology The Maternal Is Political featuring essays from Nancy Pelosi, Anne Lamott, Susie Bright, Anna Quindlen, and of course, the brilliant Shari MacD.
-Helaine Olen, co-author of Office Mate, freelance writer for LAT, NYT, WSJ, Salon and the Washington Post and contributor to The Maternal Is Political
-Alana Ruben Free, Editor of Mamapalooza’s literary publication The Mom Egg, and creator of her one-woman show, “Beginner At Life”
-Our panel was chaired by Harvard Lecturer and Psychologist Paula J. Caplan, PhD, author of Don’t Blame Mother.
My piece, "Rocking The Public Schools," began by sharing the state of public education in California, what it was like to be a mom up at the State Capitol lobbying against the pending budget cuts, then shared the story of our little neighborhood school’s community-building and revitalization efforts, viewed as a snapshot of a much larger underground revolution of parent and community activism that can be seen bubbling up at public schools all across the Westside of Los Angeles, and perhaps around the country. I closed with a call to action, hopefully inspiring others to use their collective voices to be part of the change they want to see in their own communities.
It was a thrill to be a part of such an incredible collection thinkers and writers, and it had also been nearly a decade since I had been back to NYC, a town I used to call home for almost 10 years.
Good I went first, first thing in the morning so I wouldn't have time to think (or over-think) what I was about to be doing. Seeing as I had pretty much written the entire thing (7 or 8 pages) over a 32-hour period before nearly missing my flight east, there was no time to think. Just to do it and go for it. So that's what I did. My presentation sparked a fantastic dialogue and people approached me afterward from all over the country wanting to hear more about our story. Public school revitalization seems to be a very timely topic these days...in NYC as well as LA, Ohio, Wisconsin, Maine and elsewhere.
Other inspiring panelists I had the good fortune to meet during the conference were:
Joanne Minaker, PhD
and of course, the Grande Dame and mastermind behind the entire ARM soiree, Ms. Andrea O'Reilly.
I am sure this is just the beginning of more to come, but for now here's an excerpt:
Rocking the Public Schools:
How a Community of Mothers Take Back Their Neighborhood Schools
By Tanya Anton
Education isn't a sexy topic. It isn't as devastating as war, or as immediate as an economic recession or as hotly contested as the presidential candidates.
But it does affect the future of our children.
In Los Angeles, one of the wealthiest states in the nation if not the world, our public schools are ranked near the bottom of the country. We're 46th in terms of per pupil spending. As mothers, we will not tolerate it nor will we stand idly by and do nothing, waiting for some shift in district power, or a handful of Republicans to make up the 2/3 majority vote in order to restore our school budgets or fix our broken system.
It's 4am pitch dark outside as slip into my black power suit and heels, doing my best not to wake my sleeping husband and child down the hall. In lieu of sleep, I've been cramming key players and issues, committee members and faces for the last 48 hours in preparation for something I've never done before. Lobby the state capitol.
Heading south towards the airport, streets are eerily void of traffic as I meet up with my team of local parent leaders to fly up to Sacramento with the UTLA, the LA teacher's union. There's only one goal: to fight for our public schools.
This is taking parent participation to a whole new level!
Let me be clear. I'm a mom not a politician. My daughter's barely through Kindergarten at a local public elementary school and I'm mad as hell.
I, along with many others, have worked tirelessly for the past several years, speaking to hundreds of stressed-out parents, trying to raise the profile of our neighborhood public schools. To explain their public school options. To get the public back into the public schools again. To reinvest in them and revitalize them instead of flee them. To share ideas and resources, and steer others into the fold.
We have made much progress in our little Westside communities. Some of our schools are downright thriving with the influx of new energy and new ideas. Parents are throwing their hearts into organizing community drives, fundraisers, work days, book fairs, volunteering in the classroom, writing grants, writing to their district leaders, painting murals, planting trees, whatever they can do to make their schools a better place for their children.
You can feel schools popping all over neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
The Mother Shift
It wasn't until I became a mother that I began to think in terms of "we" instead of "me." I began to think in circles, rather than dots. I began to connect with other families virtually and in my community, to build a network of support since we had no extended family close by to rely on.
This sense of community we forged, through our babies, borne in the trenches of the messy life-altering transformation that is Motherhood, became the vital thread of inter-connectedness that had been missing in my life. Surrounded by the support and nurturing of other mothers allowed us to not only survive, but thrive, individually as well as collectively. And it wasn't until I began looking at the world through my child's eyes, and through the wider lens of the community of children around me that my sense of civic responsibility and longer-range vision developed. This wasn’t about me. This was way bigger than me. This was about our children, and they deserved better.
Perhaps it's because I'm older now. Perhaps as a mother I feel a need and a responsibility to contribute to the community, to improve our society, to be involved and hopefully make a difference. Or perhaps I've been through so much now, that I just don't care what other people think. If I see a way, I'm going to go for it.
The Call to Activism - What Happens When You Are Called?
When I first got involved at Walgrove, it seemed daunting. I was in way over my head. Everywhere I looked, we needed something. We needed leadership. We needed funding. We needed inspiration. We needed tangible examples to draw from. We needed help. We needed a spirit of unification, of inclusion not of separatism. Not us vs. them, but us and us.
Part of me resentful, tired, I ask myself, who am I to solve this? Who am I to carry this? Who am I? Why me??? This little school has been sinking for years, why did I think I could help save it?
And yet…and yet…
…you seem to be called forth, puny little you. You, with no qualifications or obvious background. You, called out of the fog, the veritable haze of denial and inefficiency around you. Because you can SEE it.
Little you (or is it the bigger you?) sees a way…a path...the thing you must do…the right thing to do. And you aren't afraid to just go in and make it happen, because, after all, you are a doer, a make-something-from-nothing kind of person, a person who doesn't fear the blank page but instead knows that through a combination of inspiration and perspiration, anything can be achieved because as a creator, you've already been witness to that process hundreds and hundreds of times, and as a mother, you know the process of creation, so you know it IS possible. Anything is possible. And, it is necessary.
And you also, instinctively know, that if enough people believe, and you rally them to join you, mountains can be moved, perceptions can be shifted, transformations can occur so incredible that even the thousands of district employees and hundreds of previous families and tens of teachers and all the drive-by lookie-loos, combined with those who ran screaming any which way they could, the same ones who couldn't see fit to make things happen, the ones who couldn't solve their own problems, who didn't know how or didn't care enough to try, all fall by the wayside, and now YOU are a part of the change.
YOU are making change happen. You are bringing it in. You are facilitating it, orchestrating it, nudging it along, gathering strength, collecting the team, drawing them in, reinforcing their abilities, they reinforcing yours, rocking the old systems, forcing improvements, even though you haven't been paid a dime, and frankly, you may have actually paid for it dearly with your marriage, your finances, your well-being, your sleep, your ability to be frivolous and social and devil-may-care, or self-obsessed on career advances and bringing in income and finding paths to affluence so we too can run screaming to the better district up the hill…the one where the streets are lined with gold and the academics, the programs, and enrichments are so glittery and shiny that it's painful.
It starts with getting angry. All change has to. You can't fix anything if you are smiling and nodding and saying things are fine, good enough, no worse than anywhere else. That's just taking it. That's just being afraid. Afraid to change. Afraid to grow. Afraid to take risks! Being fearful and small.
No! Small-mindedness is not growth. It's denial.
As we begin to see ourselves, as we transform our selves, our families, and the way we parent, so too will our schools, and our communities transform by the very bodies and energy and spirit of those who inhabit them.
But still, what can I do, you ask?
Something shifts when we realize that each one of us has power. As an individual, as a neighbor, as a resident, as a constituent, as a parent, one who has influence in the home, locally and collectively, guiding our children, our classmates, our community, the future of the country. We can no longer look at ourselves as isolated, alone, unimportant. We have a voice, and together, it is all-powerful. We can no longer stay silent. We ARE no longer silent. We ARE the change. We ARE the future.
© 2008 Tanya Anton