June 30, 2022
What happens in Washington is important. We need only to look back over the last few weeks to know that this is true. The Supreme Court’s striking down of Roe is but one example of how deeply our lives can be changed by one decision. The inability of our Congress to pass a meaningful gun control law is but one more. But it would be a mistake to believe that the politics of Washington exist in a bubble. It would be a mistake to ignore their strong connection to a more complex web of political life and power that connects the very local to the very national.
I recently reflected on how conservatives have kept their strategic goals in mind, and not been sidetracked by seeking limited tactical victories and compromises and how they have worked for what they wanted for years. They have also shown us that only focusing on Washington and federal policy change, as important as that is, is not the only arena that we need to be concerned about. They have recognized the critical importance of both local and national advocacy. If the last several years have taught us anything, it is that School Boards, and City Halls, and State Houses may be equally, if not more important than what goes on in our nation’s capital. It is in these arenas people can be energized and where policies can be connected directly to people’s lives. In these arenas, the government is made small enough to be touched and made real. It is in these arenas that an energized political base can be built.
Cherokee County lies just north of Atlanta. It’s schools were the recent venue for our national struggle to come to grips with systemic racism. In 2021, the leadership of Cherokee County’s schools hired their first administrator focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and in so doing, opened up another arena for this battle. News that a Black educator from Maryland would take on this role energized an uprising in protest that illustrates how effectively conservatives have become at mobilizing at the local level.
Here’s how ProPublica described the beginning of a local movement to challenge this school district’s efforts to move forward. “Inside a gabled white clubhouse overlooking the hills of a Cherokee County golf course, dozens of parents from across the county had assembled on a Sunday afternoon for a lesson in an emerging form of warfare. School board meetings would be their battlefield. Their enemy was CRT. One of several presenters at the meeting was Rhonda Thomas, a frequent guest on conservative podcasts and the founder of the Atlanta-based Truth in Education, a national nonprofit that aims to educate parents and teachers about “radical ideologies being taught in schools.” “So, what is critical race theory?” Thomas asked the crowd. “It teaches kids that whites are inherently racist and oppressive, perhaps unconsciously,” and that “all whites are responsible for all historical actions” and “should feel guilty.” She added: “I cannot be asked for repentance for something my grandparents did or my ancestors did, right?” Thomas stressed that parents should form their own nonprofit groups and cut ties with their schools’ Parent-Teacher Associations. “The PTA supports everything we’re against,” she told them. Another presenter, a local paralegal named Noelle Kahaian, leads the nonprofit Protect Student Health Georgia, which aims to “educate on harmful indoctrination” including “comprehensive sexuality education” and “gender ideology.” Kahaian emphasized how to grab attention during upcoming school board meetings. Identify the best speakers in the group, she told them, adding: “It’s OK to be emotional.” Be sure to capture video of them addressing the board — or even consider hiring a professional videographer.”
This meeting and the “grassroots” effort that emerged from it, was able to force the newly hired DEI leader to resign and push the district’s School Board backward, should not have surprised anyone. It emerges from a concerted effort to build organizational infrastructure that can seize on wedge issues and use them to mobilize and act. It is the same infrastructure that filled school board rooms and state houses with anti-vax and anti-mask protestors. It is the same infrastructure that has raised similar protests against Critical Race Theory in other communities. It is the infrastructure in which conservative funders have invested in lavishly.
Well-funded, yes. Well organized, yes. But not unstoppable if we recognize the need to mobilize at every level.
The game plan of conservative organizers often moves from protesting a specific “wrong” like the hiring of a DEI expert to recalling or replacing the local elected officials they hold responsible for the grievance. But if Cherokee County provided an example of the local struggle, it also gives us hope that it can be countered. As also reported by ProPublica, “The two Cherokee County school board candidates, Sean Kaufman and Ray Lynch were defeated by wide margins on Tuesday. They were part of a four-candidate slate attempting to gain a majority for a more conservative school board. That collective effort, dubbed 4CanDoMore, was endorsed by the 1776 Project PAC, a new super PAC that touted victories of far-right school board candidates it had backed in multiple states. The two other 4CanDoMore candidates, Michael “Cam” Waters and Chris Gregory had lost to incumbents in the May 24 primary.”
Mandy Marger, a community member, told us what this victory means in comments reported by ProPublica. “Marger said she was encouraged by the outcome of the runoffs. ’The idea that groups who had such extreme views thought that they could grab ahold of our community was frightening, They made it very clear that those of us who did not align with them were going to have to stand up, and I’m really, really proud of our community — especially today — that we did.’”
This victory is a first step back to where this district was but it is not the end of the struggle. We now know so painfully that the forces of conservatism will see this as just an obstacle to be overcome and will continue on trying to turn this nation back to its bad old days. The forces that won the election cannot rest on their laurels, the organizing that allowed them to keep control of their schools cannot stop.
Local politics are not an unimportant sideshow or minor league. They are the places where we can build support; they are where we can allow people to feel heard; they are where the depressing reality that we have failed progressive leadership at the national level can be overcome. It is at this level where, if we work at it, we can move around the federal political quagmire. The Federal Government allowed the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit to end but across the nation, but cities and states have been able to act in that direction. (here and here for examples.)
National elections matter. National lobbying matters. But as we have painfully learned these are not enough. If we are going to change this nation for the better, if we are to build a truly fair and equitable society, we must double down on our local efforts. It is there that gerrymandering can be overcome; it is there that our confrontation with inherent racism and economic inequity can be moved forward. Of course, it means much more work for us to do, but it is work we must do if we care about the world, which we will be leaving for generations to come.