Over 100 parents from around New Jersey travelled to the State Capitol to share a unified passion for free high quality public education, local control, choice and empowering the voice of parents.
When the day was over, I felt encouraged. Even as a veteran of many political campaigns, public policy initiatives, and as a former elected official, it was powerful to see the democratic process in action.
Organizing a day like this takes a great deal of work when it comes to logistics – organizing busses, dealing with schedules, etc. What often is lost are the issues that happen once on the ground.
As the week now ends, and I reflect on the events of Monday, there were so many great lessons from the experience. Though I have always tried to be a workhorse, not a show horse and often stay behind the scenes even as a City Council member in Newark, there were some clear strategic lessons learned that I observed when it comes to outreaching an elected representative in Trenton:
Lesson #1 – Stories Are More Effective Than Signs
Our strategy on Monday was simple – to share the personal stories of parents. We deeply believed our collective perspectives and experiences would be valued by electeds. In contrast, we found other groups in the Capitol attempting to share their point of view through silly stunts like holding up signs and disrupting events. We stayed away from these kinds of tactics for a variety of reasons – most of all they are not effective. Embrace your authenticity when meeting with an elected in Trenton.
The Trenton Takeaway – Facts matter. Ideas matter. Personal stories matter. Do not minimize your issue or passion with snakiness in Trenton. Come prepared with more than a slogan.
Lesson # 2 – Hope Overcomes Hate
Right before we left for Trenton a few parents shared their personal stories about the education system in New Jersey through op-eds that were published in a variety of publications. As a response, a blogger named Bob Braun tried to bully one of those parents for sharing her story. He posted her photo on his blog and then tried to destroy her credibility by stating lies about her. The woman Braun attacked was an amazing African American single mother of five. One of my colleagues, Matthew Frankel, stated on the record that Braun’s way of doing things was “pathetic,” but to be honest I wanted to do much more than respond with a quote. As an African American man, I wanted to defend a struggling, but striving, single parent. For good reasons it bothered many of us who traveled to Trenton and it almost even became an issue we were going to highlight in our meetings. However, by the time we arrived in Trenton, we chose to put this aside. We made sure it would not sidetrack us. In the end, we found that electeds were much more responsive to our message of hope, rather than responding to hateful blogs.
The Trenton Takeaway – When planning an outreach event to Trenton expect unfair critics, but do not let them get you off your game. Don’t take the bait. Stay focused.
Lesson # 3 – Represent Everyone
The main reason we found success on Monday was that we were organized to represent many areas like Newark, Camden, Patterson, and Jersey City. Had we only represented one area, like Princeton, we would not have been able to have addressed the inequality of our education system and the school to prison pipeline as effectively. By providing voices throughout the state we were able to provide a stronger point of view, not a limited one.
Trenton Takeaway – A trip to Trenton is an opportunity to bring people together. Don’t limit your actions by representing just one location of the State. Organize and bring people from across the state to share your message.
Lesson # 4 – Talk to Everyone – You Never Know What You Will Find
During Parent Day we met with a series of legislators, some who completely support our view, some who did not. Two of our best meetings were with State Senator Ronald Rice and Assemblyman Patrick Digenan. At times we did not completely agree, but both showed great respect, they listened and we had a great dialog. I know the personal stories we told had a real personal effect on both men. I am grateful for the time they invested in us – and I left both meetings with great optimism that we can come together.
The Trenton Takeaway – Don’t come to Trenton only to talk to supporters. Invest time in everyone. You may be surprised who will listen and how open electeds are to building newfound commonality.
Oscar James, Jr. serves as Director of Operations for the Parent Coalition For Excellent Education (PC2E). From 2006-2010 he served as South Ward Councilman of Newark.