In the wake of the Proviso Together sweep of the D209 board election, I want to go back to the story of how Ned Wagner and Claudia Medina took the risk of running two years ago, and share how the story both shames me and reminds me how God created me to live.
What follows in italics is in Ned’s own words:
I did not want to go to the parent meeting at the Brown Cow back in the autumn of 2014. I felt that I had heard it all before. “We love Forest Park but we have to move out because of the high school.” “We can’t really afford it, but we’re going to send our kids to private high school because of Proviso East.”
Jill [Ned’s wife] really wanted to go but she was sick that night so I went in her place. That initial meeting began in the above fashion, but when it came my turn to introduce myself and I said that I thought it was time for Forest Parkers to look toward Proviso East as our high school and embrace it, no one looked at me with scorn or disbelief. I became hopeful.
We worked out an action plan and different people had different assignments. Mine was to attend a D209 board meeting. One of the ideas was to run a candidate for the board of education but because nominations were due in six weeks and none had any experience with elections and such, I went on record as saying the idea was absurd.
But I went to the board meeting and [after hearing how poorly students were treated at Proviso East] I stood up and made a rambling emotional plea to the board. … This situation was not OK! It was at that moment I decided I wanted to run for the D209 board of education. I didn’t know how or when, but I felt it was my destiny, honestly.
Jill was not exactly jumping for joy when we discussed what I had done, which was basically to unilaterally decide to completely upend our lives because we knew that a D209 election was consuming and difficult (although if I had known the actual extent of the soul-tearing despair that actually entails, I might have given it a second thought). Jill, although not pleased that I had made this decision without consulting, supported me from the start.
Our initial projection was that maybe if luck was completely and utterly on our side, we would win one seat on the board. The plan would then be to continue chipping away one seat at a time until we had obtained a majority of independent, engaged parents on the D209 Board of Education and then we would see what could be accomplished. This was a long range, decade-long projection just to get a board majority!
Little did we know how the community would come together; that people of disparate backgrounds and skill sets would make the tremendous sacrifices necessary to not get one of us elected, but both of us along with Theresa Kelly in a magnificent sweep of the three board seats up for election in 2015 and then perhaps even more improbably, just two years later — and only two and a half years after that initial Brown Cow 20 meeting — sweep the remaining four seats that were up for election in 2017 and completely remake the board of education.
From the very beginning, there was a strong feeling that this endeavor was fated to succeed on some level and because we felt that it was going to be a very long-range effort, it gave us the courage to face what intellectually seemed like sure failure.
The reason Ned’s story shames me is because I was one among many of us who chose apathy instead of hope and courage in response to the situation at Proviso East. The reason Ned’s story reminds me of how God created me to live is that I would have written this same column if Ned and Claudia had lost the election two years ago.
Ned said his wife felt this way about his decision to run: “After the initial shock of my decision, Jill felt relieved. She had so long felt bullied and taken advantage of by the people who were running our schools and now that we were trying to do something about it, it was freeing. She felt that even if we never won a seat on the board, or if we never had any effect on the high school, it was worth it because at least we were doing something about it. It didn’t matter if we won or lost. We had decided to fight the good fight.”
Marshall Ganz planned the ground game for Barack Obama’s run for the White House in 2008. Ganz talks about how the contradiction between how the world is and how it ought to be can create apathy in people — precisely how a lot of us felt regarding Proviso East.
But, he adds, that same contradiction can create a sense of urgency, which breaks through the apathy and motivates action. It transforms feelings of powerlessness in a seemingly hopeless situation into a sense of challenge. Ganz’s favorite story is that of the boy David slaying the giant Goliath.
James Hoggan said of Ganz’s love of the David and Goliath story: “It shows how resourcefulness — fueled by courage, commitment and imagination — can overcome powerful resources as well as the arrogance that often goes with them.”
It’s also a moment, he writes, “when we can grasp the meaning of our lives and deaths.”
Lest we are tempted to canonize Ned and Claudia — for everything I say about Ned applies to Claudia as well — what changed despair into hope for Ned was his discovery that literally hundreds of residents of Forest Park and Proviso Township not only felt the same way he did, but they were also willing to invest thousands of hours and dollars into this effort to provide a quality education for our children. He was no longer alone and tilting at windmills. With an army behind him, there was a plausible though slim chance that, together, they could pull this thing off.
And they were right.