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What is a School Board for and why the outrage about Talauna Reed?

The Olympia community made National news when some Olympia School District (OSD) parents reported to news outlets concerns and objections to the Board's decision to appoint Talauna Reed as its newest member. Their objections were based on comments Ms Reed made in 2021 during a protest where she referred to the Police as pigs and also due to her having a criminal record. They argue Ms Reed is an extremist and isn't a good role model for our community.

Talauna Reed, featured in the center of the photo wearing the striped shirt, with fellow Olympia School Board members (courtesy Daily Mail)
Talauna Reed, featured in the center of the photo wearing the striped shirt, with fellow Olympia School Board members (courtesy Daily Mail)

As a community member with two children in the Olympia School district I am invested in the future of the district and feel compelled to contribute to this important conversation. Simply put, I believe this is yet another example of how white suburban meritocratic and classist cultures work to ostracize a woman of color who would bring much needed insight to the board. Let me explain.

First, It is critical that we answer the question “What is a school board for”? Is it a place to collect role models? Or is it a place where the diversity of lived experiences and perspectives within our community is brought together to inform thoughtful and comprehensive policy and decision making to positively impact the experience of all children at OSD? If the latter, I would posit that both Ms. Reed’s criminal record and expressed anger might actually be of great value given the function aforedescribed.

I do not personally know Ms. Reed, and while I do not condone the use of dehumanizing language towards those we perceive as enemies or perpetrators, I can understand how human it is to express anger when one feels deeply hurt. Most parents understand that when there is a family fight and a child screams “I hate you” it doesn't have very much to do with hate, but rather an unfiltered and raw expression of the hurt experienced. Unfortunately, upper white middle class culture does not express nor receive expressions of anger very well. The need to project self control and sophistication often suppresses the cathartic human need for emotional honesty. As a result, those among us who are unfiltered and raw with their emotions are often frowned upon and labeled as less “cultured”, less civil and less respectable.

The irony of it all, as illustrated by the analogy of a child who, out of their hurt screams “I hate you”, is that those closest to the pain inflicted by social injustice are raw and unfiltered with their expression of anger. And there lies the cultural disconnect and friction with upper white middle class: such authenticity is uncomfortable.

The truth is there is a chasm within our community and many are too far removed from the violence inflicted by poverty and injustice to a point they are unable to empathize with the daily pain of those in our midst who struggle to make ends meet while coping with racial discrimination, classism and the killings or arrests of loved ones by police.

A street festival in Olympia pre-Covid. (City of Olympia)
A street festival in Olympia pre-Covid. (City of Olympia)

According to a recent study conducted by the city of Olympia, I quote "34 percent of children in our community may be living in households struggling to meet their basic needs". An in depth study of Olympia’s poverty data reveals "1) our poverty rate is much higher for those with less than a high school degree and no college, telling us something about the power of education, and 2) our poverty rate is especially high for single-parent (primarily female) households, which tells us that an emphasis on assistance for these households may be warranted."

From what I gathered from Ms. Reed's lived experience, she lived at the intersection of many of these statistics and experienced their violence. Our school district needs someone like Ms. Reed to help us understand what many of the children in our midst might be experiencing and need.

Dr. Brian Stevenson teaches us that it's only proximity to those on the margins of our social silos that can help us extend our circle of human concern to those not like us. If we are to find better solutions to the community problems birthed by our blind spots, we need to be slow to judge, and we need to commit to sit in discomfort next to those who embody and display the uncomfortable scars of the trauma our society inflicts on the marginalized.

Our community is not just composed of white upper-middle class individuals. Many of us were not raised in two parent-households with likely intergenerational wealth. Many of our families have not had all their ducks in a row. Instead, we have single parents who are battling the odds stacked against them. We have those facing domestic violence, those with criminal records, and those who are overcoming various traumatic experiences.

Ms. Reed is a member of our community, who, in spite of her trauma, wants to invest in our organizations and systems and make us better.

Rather than throw stones of judgment I suggest we lead with curiosity, empathy, gratitude and ask ourselves the following fundamental questions:

  • What does this outrage reveal about our assumptions about what a school board is for ?

  • What does this outrage reveal about our beliefs regarding a person's fallibility and ability to change ?

  • At which point does society stop punishing a person for a past mistake they have already paid for?

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to keynote the Breakfast for Belonging for the South sound YMCA. I titled my address "Row 32". My ask to participants was to be more intentional with seeing, hearing and collaborating with those in our midst who are having a row 32 flight experience. For those who are not familiar with row 32 on commercial airlines, it is a row that faces the bathroom and as such results in a very unpleasant customer experience for those passengers. Let's not further marginalize those who have had a row 32 experience in our midst.

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