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"If you believe what the board just did was wrong, come stand next to me."

Dispatches from the Wake County Board of Education 

Knocked down but not defeated

Katja Mulligan walked briskly to the podium. She had been waiting for seven hours and it was finally her turn to speak. She began, but then her face flashed with anger as she observed the nine individuals in front of her. "You aren't looking at me?" she exclaimed. "Please give me respect, and listen!" Her desperation encapsulated the feelings of so many others there that night who also felt unheard.

Matt Duvall approached the microphone next. He was disheveled, tired, and he spoke directly and confidently, looking his interlocutors straight in the eyes. His children's elementary school was now set to double its poverty rate from 42 percent to 85 percent and he was furious. "You just changed my neighborhood school, A LOT," he bellowed sarcastically. "Thank you very much!" His anger and disgust indicative of the tenor of the evening.

We looked around. Dozens of people had tears in their eyes. Some people were shaking their heads, still in disbelief. Others scribbled furiously. We sat transfixed. It was 9:30 p.m. and we had intended to leave hours before. We were hungry and exhausted, but there we sat, unable to budge. We just couldn't leave. The stories were too compelling, the machinations of power too absurd, and the unfolding of human drama too addictive. This was politics uncut, where the personal was political in a crude, real way. This was where interests and ideologies collided, children's futures debated, and raw power revealed. This was a meeting of the Wake County Board of Education.

Growing up and going to public schools in Wake County, we had always taken good, diverse schools for granted. Between the two of us, we attended seven different public schools all over the county—some magnet, some not—and at each place benefited from the quality teachers, well-maintained facilities, and a racially and socio-economically diverse classroom and cafeteria that were common to all Wake schools. We never realized that the entire system could be dismantled by one election, in one meeting.

We were there to help some current high schools students perform a political skit that exposed the contradictions of the new school board majority. We had read about these student activists and wanted to show our solidarity with their inspiring organizing efforts. As local political activists ourselves, we knew that diversity in schools was incredibly important, and understood that it was on the rocks. But the gravity of this decision hadn't yet been made real to us. We hadn't yet seen the way hundreds of parents and students were being steamrolled and ignored or felt the pangs of emotion that accompanied every person's story. We hadn't yet been to a school board meeting.

For nearly six hours on Tuesday, we heard stories from every swath of Wake County: mothers from Southeast Raleigh, N.C. State professors, high school student activists, civil rights leaders, retired board members, and suburban magnet parents. We met activists who had helped lead the fight to integrate the schools in the 1960s. We met young students who were attending their first protest and college students who had returned to show solidarity with their system alma mater. We met school teachers who were terrified of their current school becoming high poverty.

The meeting's hallmark was its overwhelming and diffuse tension. It cut across all lines: race, class, age, and place of origin; and it informed the relationships between every stakeholder group: parents, teachers, students, and board. You could sense the strain during every speech, and see it manifest as parents brushed beside each other, cursing underneath their breath, desperate to get a seat inside. You could hear it when loud arguments broke out in the crowded corridor and a security officer intervened. It was all too obvious, when a minister named Rev. Curtis Gatewood was nearly arrested for demanding to be given his full allotted time to speak. And it was all too dramatic when Board Chair Ron Margiotta attempted to adjourn the meeting without allowing all of the speakers to speak but was interrupted by boos from the audience and a courageous cry of "Point of Order!"

By 4-to-1 margins, the people in attendance supported the diversity policy. Parent after parent and student after student came before the board, begging the majority to maintain the diversity policy, or at a minimum, slow down its destruction. History was invoked and statistical analysis presented. People's stories were told in intimate detail. Each two-minute period brought forth a new colorful character and a new notable performance. Every anecdote was as personal as the next, and every student's and parent's plea made the board's impending decision seem that much worse.

And then sometime around dinner, the stories stopped. Scores of people were still waiting to speak, but the inevitable was to be put off no longer: it was time for a vote. John Tedesco read out loud the yet-to-be-seen resolution to eliminate Wake County's diversity policy. The pro-diversity minority tried to slow down the process and outmaneuver the Chair, but failed. The motion was seconded and the question called. And the resolution passed 5 to 4.

The Wake County diversity policy would be phased out. What amounted to an effective re-segregation of many schools would certainly come as a result. As the Board called a recess, some in the audience began to cry. Others stiffened with anger. During our years of public policy advocacy, we had never before seen so much hang on one vote. We had never seen a government body so blatantly disregard the people before it and throw aside public process so boastfully.

But then something incredible happened: an oasis of calm emerged in the middle of the storm. The president of the N.C. Conference of Branches of the NAACP, Dr. Rev. William J. Barber III, walked to the middle of the room. He spoke quietly and simply, addressing the urgency of the moment. "If you don't like the vote that was just taken, come here," he said. He beseeched all of us again, this time a little louder. "If you believe what the board just did was wrong, come stand next to me."

As a community we came together, at first just a few, and then 30, 40, 50. We got close, held hands, and stood. The Reverend began to give a sermon right there in the middle of the chambers, and pay homage to the struggles against injustice that had come before. He told us to cheer up and challenged us to continue the fight. All of us began to chant: "We're not Going Anywhere," and then "Never Again." It was cathartic, chilling and dissipated our sense of powerlessness.

Then Rev. Barber made a true gesture for diversity, calling the openly lesbian pastor Rev. Nancy Petty of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church to the center of the circle. "They didn't want us to get together," Barber declared, pulling her into his imposing figure. "But here we are: There's no stopping us now." We began to sing the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," softly at first, but then louder. Our song filled the hallways of the Wake County Central Administration Building, serving as a beacon of our community's hope and resolve. We stood together, black, white, Latino, and Asian, young and old, in support of real community schools, where every child was given a good, decent education.

Diversity would lose the vote that night, but the long fight was far from over. Thousands of parents like Katja and Matt had already been mobilized by the board's aggressive stances, secretive negotiations, and cavalier attitude. We could sense that thousands more would soon follow as the board directly threatened the system we and many others had taken for granted for too long. Many people were joining a political movement for the first time, and undergoing a profound transformation as they discovered the value and power of a multi-racial, multi-religious coalition. This was how politicization happened, how movements were formed.

"Power concedes nothing without a demand," Rev. Barber told us, as the board members trickled back into their chambers. "As long as there are people to fight for it, Right will always win." This time, we vowed, we will not relent. We will be out in force at the next school board meeting. We will continue to speak, our letters to the editors streaming in, our names filling up the meeting roster. And come 2011, we will not make the mistake we had made in October, when less than 3 percent of voters elected the new majority and when pro-diversity candidates were out-funded and out-organized. This next election we will be ready.

Chase Foster is the Director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections and Louisa Warren is a Senior Policy Advocate with the N.C. Justice Center. They both graduated from Wake County public schools.

To get involved in fighting the repeal of Wake County's diversity policy, visit www.greatschoolsinwake.org.

  • "If you believe what the board just did was wrong, come stand next to me."

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