By Nona Tepper
Proviso Together is gearing up for another election by reflecting on its past. Connie Brown, chairperson of Proviso Together, and Michelle Woehrle, communications chair, said the experience campaigning has expanded their worldview and empowered them. Now, with local elections gearing up for the mayoral, commissioner and, of course, school board races, they feel excited to see more residents than ever involved, particularly women and people of color.
"A couple years ago there were not a lot of people running for anything. Now, just seeing the explosion of interest, I think whatever side you end up picking it's going to facilitate a really interesting conversation," Woehrle said. "Now we're seeing so many people, women, people of color, people who are not straight, who are standing up and they're saying, 'You know what? I have a piece of this too.' It's about representative government, and just being an active part of the community, whether it's a small community like Forest Park, or a larger community like Proviso, Illinois and the country."
At least two slates — including Proviso Together, which is aiming to re-elect Claudia Medina, Nathan Wagner and Theresa Kelly to the D209 board — have announced candidates for the Proviso board this next cycle. At least eight people are running for village commissioner, two have announced runs for mayor, and D91 faces its first competitive race in years, with at least six people running for three open spaces.
"I think that for a long time the belief was your elected officials were going to do what you wanted them to do because you elected them. But if no one ever is present in the moment where those decisions are being made, and if things are not going the way we want them to go, it's totally our fault because we're not paying attention," Brown said.
The Proviso Together movement started in the fall of 2014 at the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor — which Brown owns — and was spurred by a conversation about the schools that started on Facebook.
When Brown and Woehrle moved to Forest Park, both said their realtors assured them they could just send their children to nearby private or parochial schools, like most parents in the village. Brown said she believed the schools would be fixed by the time her oldest, Keegan, was ready to graduate from eighth grade. But when that time came, the schools still faced a host of problems.
"Academics were not an emphasis for the [D209] administration; most of the time, energy and money spent were based on contracts and patronage," Brown said.
Woehrle added: "It's a story that Cook County knows well, and Illinois knows well, but it should not play out in our schools."
A few months earlier, Keegan had circulated a petition among classmates at Forest Park Middle School, urging the administration not to cut its Spanish curriculum. He collected dozens of signatures and eventually presented the document to the D91 Board of Education. Rather than doing away with Spanish language classes as a whole, D91 decided to continue offering the subject as a morning club.
Brown reflected on her son's success, and realized she needed to get involved in the schools too.
Convening at the Brown Cow helped the group realize that many across the community were concerned about the high schools. The group thought about how they could affect the most change and decided to run a slate of candidates for the upcoming school board race in April 2015.
It was both Brown and Woehrle's first time campaigning, and each brought different skills. Brown brought years of corporate communications and project management experience to Proviso Together. Woehrle helped organize the grassroots organization and connect with people, skills she learned from cold-calling in college and working at a nonprofit. Proviso Together filed their petition papers in December and, shortly after, Ken Snyder, of Forest Park, called the group, wanting to help.
Snyder used his professional skills as a community organizer to transform Proviso Together into a political organization. He taught members to canvass — knocking on doors and asking for money. Proviso Together realized they needed to raise a lot more money than they originally expected, and make sure they were comfortable where donations came from.
"If there was a big donation that came in, we had to vet that person to make sure they wouldn't want a contract at the school," Brown said. "I was just floored by how political the school board was. Everybody who had a stake in politics was involved, no matter what the school touched, those people were involved and understood that it was political, and it was scary."
The group raised about $30,000, less than half compared to what their opponents — "the old regime, people really connected to the way things have always been" — had collected, Brown said. Proviso Together turned away at least one donor. Yet their candidates ended up winning. The day they won, Woehrle said she walked around with a lightness in her heart.
"Recognizing that you're inspiring to somebody out there who needs the model that you believe in, particularly women who are stepping up for political office, it shows you can win by staying true to your ethics, knowing what they are in the beginning, and making difficult decisions to stay on the right side of them," she said.
Seeing the positive physical impact of the election — which Brown named as the hiring of new principals for Proviso East and West and new Superintendent Jesse Rodriguez; the nearly $77 million D209 has at its disposal to address physical changes to the schools — can make her cry. She also said she learned to be a far better listener and to not back away from conflict.
"The role models I saw before me weren't women who did what we were doing; they were men. It's not that that deterred me from doing it, but I do hope we are able to show other young women that anybody can step up to do what's right," Brown said. "The work that we're doing isn't just helping all the kids in our high schools, but it's helping them also learn to step up and take charge."