Got a local issue? Here’s how to organize

by Sue Muncaster

I hated to go to yet another meeting, but when a friend described a new educational advocacy group as “a book club with a mission,” I agreed to join.

Over red wine and good food, a handful of us lamented our underfunded, under-performing rural school district, where the biggest news in years has been the public uproar against changing Teton High School’s “Redskins” mascot. We have real problems, and one of them is that too many of Teton Valley’s high-achieving kids are schlepping over the hill to nearby Jackson, Wyo. Addressing this “brain drain” quickly became one of our top priorities.

Then, just a couple of months after our inception, a book-banning incident sparked another fierce community debate. The drama started after a Mormon Sunday school teacher complained on Facebook about the profanity in a book her son was reading in sophomore English class. The book was the classic Chicano coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. Other parents agreed with the woman and complained to School Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme, whose daughter happened to be in the same English class. Woolstenhulme responded by bypassing the principal and English Department – they’d assigned an alternate book -- and blocking the book, mid-semester, mid-read.

Our new group was furious, but we realized that if we wanted to take the conversation out of the living room and into the boardroom, we needed to get good advice and act fast. After a quick Google search, we made contact with the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the National Council of Teachers of English. All provided talking points, cited legal cases, and followed up with powerful sample letters to the school administrators. We decided to focus our research on our school district’s strong written policies on controversial issues and educational freedom, curriculum selection and grievance procedures.

We drafted letters to school administrators and local newspapers. We posted the district policies in question, supplied email contact information for the administrators, and shared relevant stories, quotes and photos on a new Facebook page. Within hours, we had over 100 “likes.”

A week before the next school board meeting, we circulated an online petition through change.org, which The New York Times has dubbed it the “go-to site for Web uprisings.” This helped us narrow our petition (and restrain our tendency to rant) until eventually it simply stated: “Teton County Public School District: Adhere to your current policies on ‘Controversial Issues and Educational Freedom’ and reinstate Bless Me, Ultima.”

We combined our email contacts and used the free MailChimp newsletter service to design and deliver group emails encouraging more people to sign the petition and write letters. Finally, on the day of the meeting, we used eztext.com to send reminders to 650 taxpayers.

Despite low temperatures –– more than 20 degrees below zero –– that caused a district-wide school shutdown earlier in the day, the elementary school auditorium was packed for the school board meeting. After a passionate defense of the book by the English Department and comments from courageous students and parents on both sides of the issue, we presented our change.org petition with its 445 signatures and 125 individual comments.

At that point, Superintendent Woolstenhulme humbly acknowledged how important it was to maintain trust and autonomy with his staff, agreed that he didn’t follow district policies, and ordered the book promptly reinstated.

While we can’t take all the credit for the reversal, our hard work and publicity gained us a number of enthusiastic new members and a request from the school board to help organize a community-wide “visioning” project. Teachers, administrators and parents from “across the fence” have since contacted us with ideas for collaboration. Although our intimate evenings around the fire may become a thing of the past, we believe that what we’ve gained is worth it.

For those who are interested, here are some tips for organizing locally:

•    Meetings don’t have to be a drag: the best ideas come from a walk with a neighbor, dinner and drinks, or a play date at the park.

•    Declare a truce in the culture wars and reject the way issues have been framed by national parties. Give up the idea of “winning” and focus on workable solutions.

•    Seek out people who can relate to multiple community factions. Encourage face-to-face opportunities for conversation where people generally remain civil (vs. social media).

•    Support from professional organizations is vital. Local government officials are rarely experts.

•    Should you prevail, stay humble.

Though Twitter has been instrumental in global uprisings, we weren’t savvy enough to make good use of it. Another useful tool is signupgenius.com, an online platform where you can note the tasks that need doing (i.e., “Wave signs on Main Street at 3 p.m.”), and the members of your network can volunteer and receive reminders with minimal effort on your part. Good luck!

Sue Muncaster is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a freelance writer who lives in Teton County, Idaho.

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