Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Battle of Charlottesville: The Battle for America's Soul

Flower Power, 1967, photographed by Bernie Boston on October 21, 1967,
while he was sitting on the wall of the Mall Entrance of the Pentagon

I was raised on God, news and newspapers, and there was a daily ritual for all of them. If I wanted to watch television, I had to watch what the adults were watching, twice a day: the news. There wasn't just one paper in our house, there were three. Oh how I wished The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal had comics. Pray, read, watch, talk: politics and religion. And yes, our holiday dinner tables were battle grounds.

I was eight when this picture was taken. With two older sisters, the anti-war movement and the civil unrest of the 1960's was imprinted on me as they clashed with my Republican father and grandparents who tried to feed us a steady diet of, "Blacks and Jews are destroying the world" and "Kids today are slovenly, lazy, cowardly drug addicts." The civil unrest of the new generation had shaken heir post WWII, comfortably numb lifestyle to its core.  

In many ways, things haven't changed.

Like many of you, I was shaken to my core yesterday. Glued to the television and Twitter, my anger and anxiety ratcheted up in direct correlation to the unfolding events in Charlottesville. How could this be happening? Nazi flags? Torches? Chants of "blood and soil"? Armed protesters? David Duke vowing, "We are determined to take our country back" (from whom?) Violence! Is this the start of a Civil War? This is not my country! Then, Trump's vapid, vacuous response sent me over the edge:

But my friend Mel, a young woman wise beyond her years, brought me back down to earth:

She is right. Sadly, this is my America; it always has been. I don't like to think about that, but that's the problem: I must. We all must because, as Mel reminded me, the United States of America is a country founded on prejudice, slavery, bigotry hatred and fear. "Veni, vidi, vici", was "How the West Was Won". And until we confront the effects of that head-on, re-write the history books, change the curriculums, come out of our dark corners and speak the truth, things will never change. 

But, that doesn't mean that we don't stand up to hatred and bigotry. Far from it. 

These symbols have no place in our country (neither does a president who refuses to denounce them), except maybe in an educational setting. Millions of people died under their oppressive regimes, and millions more gave their lives to end them. If these people think this country would be better off if these flags flew over the White House, I suggest they move to one of these lovely places.

Photographer unknown

Neither do these:

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Notice what it says at the bottom of the banner: "Screw the Klan..." Read the signs in the background: "Make Racists Afraid Again". A banner that said, "Fuck Fascists" was prominently featured in video clips of the clashes. While the majority of the peaceful protesters were peaceful, these sentiments are not. As Ghandi said, "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."  

I don't claim to offer any solutions to this mess. No matter how bad things get, humans always have the gift of hope. And I do hope the elected officials in DC will work this out. 

Naive, eh? Yes and no. I alone can't solve these problems, but here's what I can do: stand up for my beliefs in a non-violent way. Violence will only beget violence. That picture at the top of this post may be cliché, but non-violent protest was at the core of Dr. King's dream. 

By last nite I was emotionally drained. People I spoke to were, too. But, the collective unconscious was humming because by the time I woke up this morning, there were already two peaceful protest events scheduled in my area for today. I will definitely be at one of them.

What will you do today? Tomorrow? In the coming weeks and months? Will you turn off your TV? Pretend none of this is happening? Or will you try to make a difference in your part of the world? If there are no events scheduled in your area, start one. Stand on a street corner with a candle and tell passers-by why you're there. Get more people to join you. Write letters to the editor. Volunteer. Educate. Activate. Motivate. Speak out. Make an appointment with your state and federal representatives and demand they denounce this hatred and bigotry. 

Be the change you want to see in the world.

But whatever you do, do it peacefully. Remember, when you point your finger at someone, there are always three pointing back at you. What will they be pointing to?

Monday, July 17, 2017

#TrumpWorld & #USWomensOpen: This Is Not Normal

Members of SOMA stage a peaceful, silent protest at the LPGA Women's Open at Trump National Golf Club, Bedminster, NJ, July 16, 2017

First, congratulations to all the women who participated in the LPGA Women's Open July 14-16. Golf is their job, their passion, their life. This post is not about them.

However, this post is about women--and men--standing up for women everywhere. It's about exercising our Constitutional right to stand up to the Misogynist in Chief, the liar, the cheater, the narcissist who pretends to want to 'Make America Great Again', but only if it starts and ends with his bottom line; who sees the presidency merely as a career move; who is an embarrassment to all this great nation stands for.


Every weekend that Trump stays at his golf course in Bedminster, protest motorcades, led by this guy, drive past the entrance, and culminate with a rally at the corner of Rt. 206 and Lamington Rd. 

Somerset and Hunterdon Counties (Trump National Golf Club is in Somerset but borders Hunterdon) are smack dab in the middle of what I like to call the 'healthy, wealthy and white' NJ suburbs. Once mostly horse and agriculture farms (Jackie O rode here), they survived the McMansion invasion of the 80s-00s, and are now, thanks to a great deal of farmland preservation, still mostly green. However, their political bent is far more red. Lamington Rd. is a combination of one long driveway after another snaking toward houses that can't be seen (and the owners like it that way, thank you very much), bucolic horse farms, and quaint, old farmsteads that managed to survive the suburban explosion. Once a year we have a hot air balloon festival, and that's about as much crazy traffic as we want in this part of the most densely populated state in the country. But since January 20th, it's been Situation Normal: All F'd Up

I participated in the July 4th weekend motorcade. Lamington Rd. is a popular cycling route, and on that day, some cyclists gave us a thumbs up, most had no reaction, but one in particular flipped us the bird and shouted, "F--k you! Freedom!" Whose freedom? His? Ours? Our country's? Funny thing about some Trump supporters: they think they have the market cornered on patriotism. They so quickly forget that this country was founded on patriotic protests and civil disobedience. And in one of the reddest parts of a traditionally blue state, the protests were about to get a lot more creative.

Ratcheting up the actions

Much as they tried to keep the protesters off Lamington Rd, event organizers weren't able to squash the message. In addition to the anti-Trump signs placed on the Rt. 78 overpasses leading up to the golf club exit, and a protest motorcade outside the club entrance, three other actions were carried out inside the event on Sunday despite organizers putting the kibosh on signs and any large bags that they may have been stashed in. But hey, who needs signs? In the spirit of golf and out of respect for the players, all actions were silent.

First, a group of us from the motorcade, who also belong to Progressive Hunterdon Democrats, NJ7Forward (a grass roots organization working to oust Rep. Leonard Lance in 2018), and NJ Working Families among others, secured a block of tickets to the event. Dressed in pink, in honor of the Million Women's March, and sporting pink umbrellas, we staged a photo op outside the clubhouse, adjacent to the bullet proof viewing box.

Second, SOMA (South Orange/Maplewood Action) staged what I thought was the most effective event of the weekend. Once inside, they donned these shirts, posed for pics, then walked arm-in-arm through the crowd: 

One event supervisor politely reminded the women that walking arm-in-arm could be distracting to the players. He also wished them a "good time". But notice in this video how the paid thug security guard tried to block us from shooting video. It was in this area that we received the most push-back from spectators--and the most support, with one police officer saying he supported us. And speaking of police, suddenly there was a noticeable presence in our immediate area--including bullet proof vests. In the second video in this link, you can hear me talking with the officer who apparently had to put it on, in 90 degree weather, before coming to speak with us. But it was a friendly exchange, and overall, they wanted to make sure we were safe. 

We love our police officers!

The Grand Finale

The grand finale was a demonstration by members of the national anti sexual violence group, UltraViolet. After being on my feet for almost five hours in 90 degree heat, I didn't stay for their action. But they clearly had the most impact as they staged it at the closing ceremony, just as Trump entered his bullet proof box and waved to the largest crowds of the day.
Hope Singsen of New York City was one of those demonstrating for UltraViolet, who earlier in the day staged a motorcade outside the grounds to express their displeasure with the U.S. chief executive. 
"Like millions of women and men I am the victim of sexual violence," Singsen told Reuters. "I've been nauseated by the fact that somebody with this guy's past and pleasure in abusing women is in this position of leadership. 
"Anything that I can do to bring about a change in that situation, I will be there doing it."

This is why we march. This is why we protest. This is why we resist. This is not normal. 

Photo credits: 
The photo of Tim and Dominae Levielle was taken by Philadelphia Inquirer staff photographer, Marcus Hayes.
The photo of the UltraViolet members and the protest sign were by Larry Fine of Reuters.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Where Have All the Democrats Gone? Part I

This post is the start of a series. I don't know how many parts it will eventually be. Guess that depends on how long Democratic elected officials at the state and federal levels continue to make bone-headed moves like this...

Guest post by Susan Cauldwell Carlsson, Executive Director of Save Our Schools NJ

Image may contain: one or more people, suit, wedding and indoorThe NJ Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Senator Nick Scutari (pictured with Senate President Steve Sweeney), conducted two very shady hearings on Governor Christie’s nominees to the State BOE. These hearings exposed how broken our legislative process is, and how power is concentrated in just a few legislators, like the Senate President. The public, rank and file legislators, and democracy are the losers in Trenton. Accountability and transparency are nearly non-existent.
On May 25th, the Judiciary Committee, upon the recommendation of the Governor, voted to remove State Board President Mark Biedron, and State Board VP Joe Fisicaro. Their replacements are the Governor’s former law partner, who has no background in public education, and a Moorestown BOE member, an ally of the Senate president. This nominee apparently did not understand that she could not keep her local board seat while serving on the State BOE! A third member, former teacher Edie Fulton, was also scheduled to be removed, but an incredibly sloppy background check on her replacement scuttled that for now. To date, no explanation has been given for their removal. We can only posit that this is retribution for these members' independent actions, that have obviously not pleased the Governor and/or Senate President.
Three SOSNJ members questioned the timing of these actions, given that the very unpopular governor has just seven months left on his term and is no friend of public education. We suggested the existing State BOE remain in place until the next Governor is seated. We also questioned why nominees are not being interviewed publicly, as has been past practice. 
All our requests were denied. Chairman Scutari twisted himself into a pretzel trying to explain why he did not need to interview nominees publicly, all under the watchful gaze of Senate President Sweeney, who just happened to be sitting on the dais for the hearing.
Last Thursday, it was deja vu all over again. This time, the Judiciary Committee voted to approve Governor Christie’s request to give five current members of the state board new 6-year terms. The Senate President again dropped into the hearing. Senator Scutari DECLINED to take public testimony and called for a vote on the nominees, even though two SOSNJ members had signed up to testify. The voting had begun and was nearly concluded when one of our members requested to be heard. Reluctantly, Senator Scutari agreed to hear us. We again questioned the timing of these appointments and requested that nominees be required to appear in public and be interviewed by the Committee.
Our testimony caused two Senators to change their vote. Unfortunately, several Judiciary Committee members had left the hearing early, and did not hear our testimony. In the wacky world of Trenton politics, members can let the committee chair know their vote on a matter if they are not present when the vote is taken, and the vote is counted and entered in to the record. We wonder if our testimony would have changed others' minds.
We thank Senators Gill, Weinberg, and Pou for listening to and considering our testimony.
Do you think State BOE members should be interviewed in public? Does the public deserve to hear the qualifications and beliefs of a board that is responsible for the education of more than one million school children? We think so. We urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to take its responsibility seriously and call on the full Senate to reject all nominees until a new Governor is seated in January 2018.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Star Ledger's #FakeNews On NJ Charters

I swore I wasn't going to do this anymore. I wasn't going to respond to irresponsible editorial boards that make grossly inaccurate claims about public and charter schools because they will never change their minds anyway. But then, this little tidbit dropped front and center on the Star Ledger's Sunday editorial page yesterday, and...

So, let's give this a go...

First, read Jersey Jazzman's piece that blows the roof off every single cockamamie claim made by the Ledger by presenting facts and figures:

  • Students in Newark and Camden charter schools are less expensive to educate because they have fewer special needs than their TPS counterparts
  • Newark and Camden charter schools enroll significantly less students who are Limited English Proficient
  • Newark and Camden charter schools employ significantly less experienced teaching staff than their TPS counterparts
  • Newark and Camden charter schools have much higher administrative costs than their TPS counterparts
  • Newark and Camden charter schools do have access to public funds as well as private, philanthropic money

But facts and figures aren't the only things the S-L gets wrong:

In Newark and Camden, where parents have fled failing district schools by the thousands, charter schools have been one of the great social successes of the past decade.

I guess that's true if you count 'success' as discriminating and segregating. The S-L has reported countless times about those thousands-deep charter waiting lists with nothing more than charter cheerleaders saying so. But this isn't surprising in the era of fake news and alternative facts. 

The truth is that in Newark and Camden, thousands of students have been forced out of their beloved neighborhood public schools, communities up-ended, and families scattered because their state-appointed superintendents have deemed them as 'failing' or simply not worth saving. Or, as in the case of Newark, which has the one-two punch of being underfunded by Christie and bleeding millions to the charters, they have had to hold fire sales. This is state-sponsored destruction of democracy, and you are paying for it.

But the Ledger consistently supports this.

What about parents who want to save their local public schools? They vote with their feet, too—by marching in protest. But they still have no say. There are no billionaires lining up to write nine-figure checks to save their schools. And in both these state-run districts, their boards of ed are powerless. In Camden, the appointed board members are nothing more than head-nodding minions of the local Democratic political machine. In Newark, the board has been reduced to 'adivsory' status, with no real power. So much for government of, by and for the people.
Yet the Democratic candidates in our governor's race are all curiously skeptical about charter schools. Each is departing from former President Barack Obama's courageous support for charters that defied the teacher's union, which is a real threat to this progress in our cities.

Maybe because they're looking at the facts that say well-funded, neighborhood public schools that are open to every student, supported by the community, and employ highly-educated, well paid teachers do, in fact, succeed? 

I've said this before and I'll say it again: President Obama, the first African American president, whom I voted for twice, did more to segregate public schools than any other president in this modern era. He completely turned his back on the core Democratic Party principles of equality and social justice. And he wasn't alone. Many Democratic leaders, from the local to national level, have stood with him in supporting state-sponsored segregation. As Diane Ravitch reports in The New Republic
The Obama years saw an epidemic of new charters, testing, school closings, and teacher firings. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 public schools in one day. Democratic charter advocates—whose ranks include the outraged [former Newark mayor, now Sen. Cory] Booker [D-NJ] and [Sen. Michael] Bennet [D-CO]—have increasingly imported “school choice” into the party’s rhetoric. Booker likes to equate “choice” with “freedom”—even though the entire idea of “choice” was created by white Southerners who were scrambling to defend segregated schools after Brown v. Board of Education.
Whether they're in it for the 'reformy' donations (Booker, Bennett, Govs. Cuomo, Brown and Malloy among many) or just political revenge as is the case with NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney vs. NJEA, far too many democrats have turned their backs on their core base of supporters and their party's founding principles. The fact that the democratic gubernatorial candidates are taking another look at charter regulations is (maybe, possibly) a sign that they are looking at the facts instead of their campaign account balance sheets.

Oh yea, and while newspapers like the Ledger and others shill for the anti-union, 'reformy' elite, this has quietly been happening all across the country:

As the saying goes, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.' And then make 'em better and stronger!


My high school alma mater, Queen of Peace, in No. Arlington, NJ announced it's closing its doors come June 30. The S-L/ posted several articles about it. It's a Catholic school, and the lack of funds and declining enrollment made it unsustainable. I was sad. I have a lot of memories of that place, both good and bad, and some very dear friends still to this day. Back then, every good Catholic who could afford it—and many who couldn't—sent their kids to Catholic school. The area was solid middle-to-upper middle class White from Scottish, Irish, Italian and Polish descent. Everybody knew everybody. 

How must it feel for those current students and parents whose lives are now completely upended? Where will they go? What will happen to friendships? To their community? What will happen to academic goals and dreams? What about the staff? Where will they go? What must it feel like to suddenly have all that ripped out from under them? 

Now ask yourself how it must feel for the mostly low-income, Black and Brown students and families in places like Newark and Camden who live with this real possibility on a daily basis; who may have experienced this not once, but several times in their academic careers? What about their connections? Their neighborhoods? Their academic goals and dreams? Their futures?

Why don't you write about that, Star Ledger? 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Public Education: Death By A Thousand Retirements

Retirement dinners are bittersweet. We say goodbye to those who have worked for decades, but we also lose those decades of experience. Last week I hosted my county education association's annual retirement dinner. These were my opening remarks:
Tonite we are celebrating almost 800 years of educational excellence. Whether bus driver, maintenance, custodian, classroom teacher, instructional aide, administrative assistant or cafeteria aide, you are part of a learning community and you contributed to the education and advancement of students. And for that, we thank you. 
Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds who ever lived— student and eventually teacher himself—once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” 
In an era where educational success is measured more by what can be counted than what counts, your decades of experience can be counted, but they can never be replaced. 
So, while you all are enjoying your well-deserved retirement, your colleagues will—I’m quite sure—carry on the traditions, wisdom and experience that you passed on to them with their students. That’s what masters at their craft do. That’s what those at the highest levels of their professions do. We pass on our gifts, so they can be given to others, so that excellence can continue. 
I’m not talking about the best ways to prep students for PARCC or how to effectively collect data; I’m talking about what you learned about dealing with students of every make and model over the years. How, through all the chaos of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, testing, budget cuts, the overall attack on our profession and our professional association, you preserved your dignity as well as that of your students. I'm talking about how you took in all the changes and insanity forced on you in your long careers, synthesized it all, and gave it to your students in ways that respected them as individual learners while maintaining your dignity as highly qualified education professionals.

As I was creating tonite’s program, I was looking at your numbers. Five of you passed 30 years, and one of you reached 42 years! You have taught, not just children, but generations of children. And oh how they have changed. And while you may have had to adapt to Pokémon, technology and social media, at your core, you always found ways to touch students’ hearts like no standardized test ever could. 
As a child, I remember laying in the grass in my backyard while my mother hung clothes out to dry, staring at the clouds, and wondering what they were, where they came from, were they were going, and marveling at the different images I saw in them.

I remember lazy summer afternoons with boxes full of random stuff, recycled this, bits of that, crayons, glue, spools of thread, scraps of fabric left over from my mother's sewing, and the uninhibited joy of mashing it all together and seeing what happened. 
Life was slower, kids could be kids.

Students today don’t have that luxury. In an era where they are ‘plugged in’ from the moment they wake up 'til the moment they go to bed—including far too much of that during the school day—you kept them focused on the really important things like kindness, respect, empathy and fairness. You taught them that it’s more important to see what’s in another person’s heart than what’s on their Instagram page. You reminded them that it’s not what score you got on a test, but how much you learned along the way. You taught them how to lay in the grass and stare at the clouds because sometimes we have to just shut off our minds and feel life happening all around us. 
Those things can never be measured, but boy oh boy, they sure do count.

So, thank you for your years of experience and dedication to the most important profession on this earth, and for choosing to practice it in the state that has one of the best public education systems in the country. Your efforts have made it such...
How much longer will we continue to see educators retire with 30 or 40+ years of experience? At the rate education 'reform' is going, not much longer. Our profession can't sustain the assault. 'Reformers' have brought the 'churn' of corporate America to our ranks. Teach for Awhile America markets education as a resumé padder instead of a career. ALEC-funded politicians write bills allowing people to teach without certification. Charters pay teachers less and administrators more. And all across this country, wages are down, workloads are up, and we are continually expected to do more with less. 

Oh yea, and Betsy DeVos is Education Secretary. 

This is what 800 years of education excellence looks like. Will we ever see it again? Not if we don't stand up and fight for it. I'm fighting. Are you?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

#ManchesterBombing: This One's Personal

See that picture? That's my extended family and me back stage with Ariana Grande after one of her concerts. The four little girls in the front are friends of the family. More on them later. 

No, we didn't win a radio station contest. Ariana is my cousin. And what happened in Manchester is personal—but not just because we're relatives. 

I teach in a K-4 school. My students are between the ages of five and ten. Many of them love Ariana, and they know we are related, but they're little, so I get questions like, "Is Ariana Grande really your daughter?" or "Is Ariana Grande really your sister?" They ask if she will come do a concert, if I can get her autograph. You get the idea. 

Her concerts are full of starry-eyed little girls, 'tweens and teens just like some of my students; just like all the little girls in that picture. The Manchester concert was no different. They wear their computer-operated cat ears that blink on and off in sync with the music. They know the words to every song and sing them louder than I remember singing at a concert when I was young (or maybe it just seems that way because I'm older). They worship Ariana because she is a pop star with Nickelodeon roots. She's 23 but looks much younger.

Georgina Callendar and Ariana in 2015
There's a special place in hell for people who hurt children. Children like 18 year old Georgina Callendar, the first named Manchester victim. Or 8-year old Saffie-Rose Roussos, the youngest.

Saffie-Rose Roussos

Earlier today, these young people were still among the missing...

Braces. Pimples. Are they alive? Have they lived long enough to even have their first crush let alone their first kiss? This scenario gets played out far too often: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Syria, and many more I should include, but after a while, my mind kind of numbs out to it all. I mean the victims no disrespect; it's just 6 degrees of PTSD, I guess.

My good friend, Rosi Efthim, of the Progressive blog, Blue Jersey, posted a touching tribute to the Manchester victims, including this poem by Maggie Smith:

This is the reality from which parents in the 21st Century desperately try to shield our children. I think of my own daughter, who will be going to college in another country. The fear of 'what if' knocks at my heart's door, but I refuse to let it in. I have to be strong for her—and myself. I have to show her how to stare down fear with the biggest, bad-ass face of steel wrapped in love and warmth I can muster, because if all she knows is the "shithole" of fear, how could she ever hope to "make this place beautiful"?

Every one of the people who died made a place beautiful for someone just by the very fact of their existence. That's what we have to do. No matter how hard or how painful or how often we want to just say, 'fuck it' and throw in the towel, and give in to the fear and hatred and rage over yet another innocent life lost, we have to continue to go out and make our place beautiful for someone somehow, to show them their lives were not lived in vain, because that is how love wins.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


My blog has been quiet of late, mostly because I've been so busy working on the resistance. And so have millions of other people all over the country.

Like the majority of Americans, the day after the election I was devastated. But my brother-in-law, who is a very wise man, predicted that something good would come out of all of this. At the time, I wasn't sure what that could possibly be. I just couldn't fathom anything good rising up from the rubble of the train wreck that was the 2016 Presidential election.  

But as the weeks leading up to the inauguration passed, and reality set in, something started stirring in the wind. As soon as the Million Women's March went global, that wind became a hurricane. Since that day, there is some sort of protest on any given day in any given city around the country.

Take, for example, my own backyard: Hunterdon County, one of the reddest counties in New Jersey. Since the election, the response has truly been, as Trump would say, 'unpresidented'. People desperate for change have come pouring out of the woodwork. About a half dozen activist and grass roots organizations, including at least two Indivisibles groups, and the Progressive Hunterdon Democrats—whose first meeting drew almost 200 attendees, many of whom had never before been involved in politics—have formed and joined together to stage protest rallies and actions aimed at Donald Trump's racist policies, and Rep. Leonard Lance's far right stance on a whole host of issues. Where once the county Democratic convention would draw a small number of mostly the same people for years, today drew a standing room only crowd. My inbox has exploded with emails from groups and individuals working toward change in the upcoming elections. And my calendar is booked solid with organizing and protest events.

This is the power of the people. This is what happens when hate and fear try to usurp justice and democracy. This is how love trumps hate. 

And we're just getting started.

I am no longer fearful about the future. The majority of people in this country did not vote for Trump, and the majority of people are fighting every day to keep this great country from devolving into a dictatorship.

This is how we make America great again.