Thursday, January 31, 2008
My Hero: Rachel Norton
I know it's a little early to publish my endorsement of a candidate for the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education race. But I feel so strongly about this candidate, and know her abilities and accomplishments so well, that I can 't keep silent any longer. And I have a privileged perspective on her campaign, from even before she announced it officially. That's because Rachel Norton is my younger sister.
How far do I go back to illustrate the qualities that I know will enable her to not only gain a seat as a commissioner, but bring common sense, intelligence, and vision to the Board of Education? Rachel has never been afraid to ask the uncomfortable question--the one everyone wants to know--as when as a young child at the wedding of our parents' friends, she went around to every guest asking "What did you do BAD when you were a kid?" Asking the tough questions served her well when she became editor-in-chief of the newspaper at the women's college we both attended. She has always had an uncanny ability to zero in on where the power resides in a situation, and ascertain, sometimes before anyone else, who gets to make the decisions. This is probably why she is the one to initiate political discussions at our family gatherings. Knowing where the power lies also served her well as a journalist at Reuters News Service and the New York Times.
The quality that has fired Rachel to run for the Board of Ed, however, is a combination of fierce compassion and determination not to let those who are often dismissed or ignored be overlooked. I saw this quality begin to take hold in her struggles to identify and obtain the necessary special education services for her own child. As she evaluated therapies, navigated the special ed offerings, and networked with other parents of children with special needs, Rachel's focus widened. Her initial goal to find out everything she could about special education--not only in the SF school system but in the whole state of California--became a quest to educate other parents and advocate on behalf of all our children, not just special ed students, and not just her own children. This quest led her to volunteer and consult for Parents for Public Schools, and serve on the school district's Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. You can read about her other advocacy work, and her campaign platform, on her website.
Rachel began her advocacy work when my children had already been in public school in San Francisco for five years; my oldest was about to enter middle school. I was burned out from the hundreds of volunteer hours I had logged at their elementary school and couldn't bear to attend one more glum PTA meeting on "what to cut this year." But Rachel inspired me with her enthusiasm and connection with a fresh wave of parents dedicated to participating in and supporting public schools, many inspired by the work of PPS. I began to feel more hopeful, especially about the positive changes the school district had made in the enrollment process, and how newly empowered parents were transforming schools I had once written off. I joined PPS, and reengaged.
The first question people ask me when I tell them about my sister's campaign is, "WHY is she running?" but with an incredulous tone, as if they were asking why she would take up the notion to, say, stick her head in a lion's mouth. The words "crazy," "thankless," and "target of every nutcase in San Francisco," usually come up next. What I haven't heard much of, despite the whiff of Camelot in the air around Barack Obama these days, are the words "public service," "civic duty," or "moral responsibility." Are these words just too embarassingly idealistic to apply to our public school system with a straight face? For most of us, it's easier to get caught up in the ideals of democracy on a grand scale than it is to confront the needs of the public school down the block. Sadly, I feel it is a sign of how much people have given up on public education that is is assumed no sane person would run for the Board of Education.
I can vouch for Rachel's sanity, and I think she is brave to run for political office. She is sticking her neck out--not into the lion's mouth, I hope, but she is taking a risk. By running, she exposes herself and her family to scrutiny and possibly personal attack. Education is a lightning rod for society's discontents and she'll get an earful of those discontents. Over the next nine months, she will devoted hundreds of hours to getting elected, and if she is successful, she will devote hundreds more hours over the subsequent four years wrestling with some of the most tangled, controversial, and dispiriting issues our society faces. I feel incredibly proud of her and in awe of her conviction and courage. I plan to support her all I can, with whatever I can do as a fan and as her sister.