Librarians Are Great

Finished the February board meeting. Looks like I have one, or maybe two library board meetings left, depending on whether I get elected to school board and when those results get certified; I can’t hold two board positions at once, so I might have to step down from library board a month early.

I’m totally mopey about leaving the library board. If you get a chance to work with librarians, take it. They are so great. šŸ™‚

Who I’m Endorsing for Oak Park Library Board

I realized I hadn’t yet made a public statement about whom I was endorsing for the Oak Park library board, now that I’m finishing my term. I want to take this moment to thank everyone who supported my campaign and voted for me; I hope I have justified your trust in my care of the library and its patrons. It has been a tremendous responsibility, and an honor to serve.

For this next election (early voting is open now, with the election on April 6), I’m endorsing Matt Fruth, Sarah Glavin, Madhurima Chakraborty and Saria Lofton. (There are four open seats on the library board.)

Re: Matt in particular, our current board president, knowing he’s likely to be re-elected gives me reassurance about ending my time on the library board. He has been a champion of equity, and is always questioning himself, pushing to do better for the library, and for the community.

There’s a bit in West Wing, when Toby is asked whether he’s ready to go into a meeting with the people who want to defund public television. He says:

“I was raised on Sesame Street. I was raised on Julia Child. I was raised on Brideshead Revisited. Their legacies are safe in my hands.”

That’s how I feel about Matt and the library — its legacy is safe in his hands.

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You can read public statements from the library board candidates in the Activist Toolkit voter guide: https://www.activisttoolkit.org/2021-oak-park-voter-guide

Scheduling Some Zoom Meet-and-Greets

I’m trying to schedule some Zoom meet-and-greets for my candidacy in the upcoming D200 election — if you’re a local voter and would like to participate in one, please feel free to drop your time preferences (weekdays during the day, weekday evenings, weekends, more specific if needed) in the comments. Thanks!

I hope to have a schedule of events posted by tomorrow (Tues 2/23).

Activist Toolkit Guide

The Activist Toolkit Guide is up for River Forest. which includes me, since the high school covers both Oak Park & River Forest. In addition to the candidate questionnaire I sent them answers to, they include several relevant links. So much work they’ve put into this. We’re very lucky.

https://www.activisttoolkit.org/mary-anne-mohanraj-2021-district-200-school-board?fbclid=IwAR3J4apJ8OFX20UQGveHRdlCdBveFTuAieSQs1rznMUqP8gLu2pWrBqKnxY

I Survived the Candidate Forum

I survived the candidate forum (2 hrs, due in part to some technical difficulties), and I think it went well. Honestly, we have a very strong slate of candidates at D200; we’re lucky. The League of Women Voters said they should have video posted by Monday, I think — I’ll link to it once it’s up.

Photo so you can be amused by my candidate / elected official drag — I haven’t worn a suit jacket in some time. I will confess that after a year of pandemic sitting at home, the sleeves are a little bit tight! šŸ™‚

League of Women Voters D200 Forum

Morning, folks. Plan for today — I have an iGov meeting at 9 (intergovernmental collaboration), then hosting co-writing from 10 (or a little after, depending on when the meeting ends) until 1, then at 2 p.m., my first candidate forum, for the League of Women Voters. If you’re interested in the high school board race, check it out, details below!

I’m still trying to figure out some of the specifics of this campaign — I thought I used ActBlue for fundraising last time around, but I got a note from ActBlue that they’re not set up yet to accept funds from the D200 race. So I’m not sure what candidates use for campaign fundraising if not ActBlue — just a GoFundMe? That seems kind of unprofessional.

This shouldn’t be a very expensive campaign — the whole thing will happen in the next month, with the election upcoming on April 6th. I’d like to raise a few thousand dollars to cover a designer’s costs + yard signs + buttons + mailers. More on that soon. (Marcy Grant, fyi — I think we should just move ahead with the design, even though the fundraising piece isn’t in place yet, so I’m planning to send you those files today.)

I’m going to use co-writing time to keep the focus on the campaign, I think — finish filling out the Activist Toolkit questionnaire, add more to my campaign website, get the calendar of events posted. I do think everyone is running a month or so behind this time around, due to winter snow + pandemic exhaustion, but we’ll get it done. Civic duty waits for no one. šŸ™‚

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Today, 2/20 at 2:00 pm, League of Women Voters D200 forum!

Candidates Tom Cofsky, Fred Arkin, David Schrodt, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Kebreab Henry and Elias Ortega will start with opening statements, followed by questions for both candidates, and ending with closing statements. Questions can be submitted in advance of the forum at lwvoprf1924@gmail.com or by chat in Zoom during the forum. https://fb.me/e/ZDQw6ik9

The Three Biggest Challenges or Opportunities

Okay, in the last hour, I’ve filled out three pages of responses to the Activist Toolkit’s D200 questions, and my eyes are starting to glaze over — maybe the last six questions should wait ’til morning. Is 1:45 a.m. the best time to be thinking about best practices for creating equity in education? Well, better now than never…

Q: What are the three biggest challenges or opportunities you expect District 200 to face in the coming years, and how would you work with your colleagues to address these challenges or realize these opportunities?

1) Adapting to the pandemic and its consequences will necessarily impact both the budget and day-to-day logistical planning; although we can hope that much of the community will be vaccinated before fall semester starts, masking will almost certainly need to continue through the fall, and Iā€™d be looking to science and evidence-based research to guide the board on appropriate actions….

A Misconception

There’s a misconception many people have about what it means to be an elected official. I’d include myself in that group, up until four years ago, before I actually was elected and started doing the job.

When I ran for library board, I talked about my personal relationship to libraries — why I love and cherish them, and think they’re important and worth protecting. (This part, I think is good. People who run for office should care about the office and what it does.)

I also threw out a bunch of ideas I had about how to make the library better — things like pop-up libraries! library of things! makerspace! People got excited about that kind of thing at candidate forums, and that probably helped me get elected, but in retrospect, it shouldn’t have. Not that those ideas aren’t fine (and to be fair, they did give voters a sense of my vision for what the library should be), but the concrete specifics of my ideas ended up being almost irrelevant to the job of being on the board.

It turns out that mostly you’re not actually championing a lot of new initiatives when you’re serving on the board. You spend the first year basically learning the job and getting oriented. By the second year, you have a sense of the shape of the budgeting year, the larger pressures and constraints (with schools, for example, there’s a lot of state and federal regulations they contend with; for all institutions, there are salaries and pensions that generally are the bulk of your budget, leaving you much less discretionary room than the public generally realizes).

I started thinking about serving on the board as ‘shoving the elephant.’ Government — even small, local government — is a large, ponderous beast. It moves very slowly.

(If you prefer a sailing metaphor, if you’re in a little one-person sailboat, you can trim your sails and adjust quickly to the wind, sudden hazards, etc. If you’re a giant metal troop carrier, well, you’ve got a lot of momentum shoving you in one direction, and it’s going to take a long time to turn, even a little bit. You just hope for no surprise icebergs. Or pandemics.)

When you’re on the board, you’re one of seven people trying to shove the elephant. (The staff, I suppose, are the ones riding the elephant, trying to keep it going in its current direction? I’m not saying the metaphor is perfect.)

It’s really rare that you, by yourself, can get the elephant to go anywhere. Not impossible — maybe you’re the board member who comes in, sees a problem in the spreadsheets or an opportunity that’s been neglected, and you point it out. And hey, you’re lucky, everyone else enthusiastically gets on board, and then hooray, you’re all shoving together. The seven board members (plus the management staff) actually CAN shove the elephant pretty effectively…though it’s still usually slow.

(For an example, one thing I worked on at the library was a push to raise the pay of our lower-level staff; I thought it was unconscionable that we weren’t paying all our library staff a decent wage. When I raised the question, the rest of the board wasn’t against the idea in theory. But still in practice, it ended up taking three months of meetings and staff work to figure out how we could make some improvements (among other things, getting something like forty employees enough hours so they and their families qualified for health insurance), taking into account compression and potential resentment, trying to do this without raising taxes (which we managed through a complicated series of moves), setting appropriate expectations for this being a one-time equity adjustment, etc. Slow.)

More often, it doesn’t go that well. If you want big change, you’re going to have a few board members who agree with you pretty quickly, and others who don’t, and then it’s a question of whether you can get a majority. Four people is enough to shove the elephant, but if there are still three dead set against it — well, the staff’s not going to be so motivated to pour time and energy into rethinking everything they do. They’re going to rightly suspect that there’s a good chance that when the new folks come in at the next election, the majority will swing the other way. So the elephant is digging in its heels, and it’s not moving very far, if at all.

My point is, when you’re looking at local elections, the public often wants the board to answer really fine-grained questions of practice and policy. There’s a particular thing that has hurt them or their family, and they want the board to fix the thing. Often, that isn’t actually something that gets fixed at the board level.

When I met with our library director before running, I asked him what he’d want to tell an incoming board member, and he said to remember that we weren’t librarians. We weren’t there to do the librarians’ jobs (and in fact, we weren’t qualified to do so).

The board members aren’t going to be the ones deciding exactly what hours the library should be open. But they do control the budget, and they may authorize prioritizing more hours, or hours that are more conducive to families with two working parents or a single parent, and the librarians in management then research what that will cost and figure out how to get it done. (And what will be sacrificed in exchange, to make it possible.)

The board safeguards the mission of the institution, and sets budget priorities that ensure that mission is being met, as well as possible. Traditionally, boards have tended to be fiscally conservative, seeing it as their job to keep the good things we have in good shape for the current and the future.

More politically progressive board members usually try to balance that fiscal responsibility with a push for greater equity — asking who is being served and who is being neglected, for example. Are resources distributed equally, and are those in most need getting the resources they need to be successful?

It’s not as simple as ‘every citizen gets the same amount of cash allocated to their needs’ — if it were, we wouldn’t bother to build expensive elevators; we’d just tell everyone they had to figure out how to use the stairs, or do without. But if every single library patron can’t get to the second floor, where all the computers are, then you don’t have equity.

So when you’re attending candidate forums, I’d like to urge you not to focus too much on concrete specifics — if you ask a Village candidate whether they’d vote against the Albion building, or a D200 school board candidate whether they’re in favor of a giant pool — honestly, they almost certainly have no idea.

They probably have some ideas, as a private citizen, but they likely haven’t done the research on that particular policy question (the costs, the alternatives, the benefits) to be able to give a real answer, and they may not learn enough to answer it until they’ve been elected and read through months of reports and board minutes. (Or maybe they do know about the pool, but they have no idea what the drama kids need, or what part of the budget goes to special ed., etc. They’re not subject matter experts in everything the institution does.)

This is why it’s important to focus on questions like these, which really come down to who the candidates are as people, and what kind of vision they bring to the board table:

  • do they have integrity?
  • are they committed to transparency?
  • can they think hard about complex ideas?
  • can they articulate those thoughts clearly to the public?
  • are they already thinking about balancing the needs of multiple constitutiencies, knowing that there will never be enough money to satisfy everyone?
  • are they willing to make hard and possibly unpopular financial choices, for the greater good?
  • do they care about equity, and a fair playing field for all?
  • will they do the work, which is often tedious, painstaking, and exhausting (and often for an unpaid volunteer position in local elections)
  • do they understand that they are holding lives in their hands, and do they treat that trust with the seriousness it deserves?

That’s my take on it, anyway — this is how I try to assess the people I’m going to vote for. I hope this helps clarify the distinctions between what the board does, and what staff does, and helps you decide what’s important to you when you vote.

Freedom to Thrive

Locals, I’ll be watching this over the weekend, wanted to surface it. Freedom to Thrive – Oak Park organizers recently held a candidate forum for Village Trustee, President, and Clerk candidates which was recorded. The presentation given includes an overview of the data we have on policing in Oak Park, and the recommendations that have come out of the research:

https://www.freedomtothriveop.com/…/candidate-info-session

Thoughts on “Defunding the Police”

[Editing to note that there are a lot of people who know this subject much more deeply than I do — this is mostly me trying to think through my own thoughts on it right now, and is not meant to be in any way authoritative or comprehensive.]

I keep thinking about the “defund the police” language and concept, and at least on a local level, I think you have to take into account that some of the resistance, maybe a lot of it, is coming from people who either are cops or have relatives/friends who are cops, and who are strongly experiencing three things:

a) they’re being stigmatized as racist and violent, and they believe (or know) themselves to be neither of those things, and so it feels incredibly unfair

b) they’re being trained in pseudo-militaristic fashion to simultaneously be on a hair trigger to respond to violence (with guns in their holsters, waiting), WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY being asked to be gentle and de-escalating with grandma’s mental health crisis, when grandma is screeching and waving a heavy metal poker at them — that has got to be incredibly difficult, trying to have both sets of training coexisting in your every moment on the job

c) people are raising families on the salaries they make as police, and so when you talk about possibly reducing the police force, what they hear is that Uncle Joe is going to lose his job, and he’s got three kids, one of them about to go to college and another one needing orthodontia and his youngest boy has a host of expensive ADHD and speech therapies…

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This is hegemony at work, of course. You let a system build up, and people become dependent on it, entangled with it. There are entire towns where the economy is dependent on the horribly managed and profiteering private prison attached to it, and when you shut down that prison for its abuses, you also put three hundred people out of work, and disrupt thousands of lives. No easy answers there.

(If you’d like to learn more about hegemonic systems specifically around this subject, Foucault’s _Discipline and Punish_ is THE text on the subject, and is very readable — it starts with a dramatic rendition of someone being ‘drawn and quartered,’ which was when we used to tie a criminal’s arms and legs to four horses and then crack the whip so the horses would run in four different directions, literally quartering the person, tearing them limb from limb. I’d love to see everyone involved in this debate read this book. I’d assign it at the police academy, if it were in my power. It would be terrific for a community book club reading.)

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On a local level, here for Oak Park, all I can think right now is that our police force seems too large for the community, based on some comparable stats. I think it’s that large in part because some locals perceive a lot of threat coming from nearby Austin (which is an impoverished part of Chicago, neglected by city funding, and majority Black), and so the cries for ‘more security, more police’ are loud.

So if we’re balancing community needs, on the one hand, I’m going to prioritize the Black folks who are saying, “There ARE some racist and violent cops, as we all know, as has been proven on the bodies of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, etc. Our lives, and especially our sons’ lives, are in danger from cops.”

As a result, when a cop is walking their block, coming to their door, pulling them over for speeding 5 miles over the limit, they don’t experience comfort and reassurance that the cops are watching out for them — they experience a long history of cops making their lives harder (especially if they are poor), and on top of that, justified fear and panic. (If you haven’t read _Between the World and Me_ yet, please do. Please. It is very short, and Ta-Nehisis Coates is a brilliant, heartbreaking writer.)

But on the other hand, and this is probably where I diverge from some of my activist friends, I’m also going to want to preserve jobs as much as possible, especially during a pandemic. I don’t want cops’ families to be losing their health insurance right now, or be unable to pay their rent or mortgage.

So what does that look like, in terms of defunding the police — or as I’d prefer to frame it, restructuring and re-allocating police funding?

*****

Well, I’m not running for Village Board, so I haven’t done a deep dive into the concrete specifics yet. And to be fair to candidates, they don’t generally have easy access to that kind of information — in my experience at the library, it took me about a year into the job of being on the library board before I really understood the lay of the land well enough to start suggesting changes.

ALSO, keep in mind that changes at the board level tend to be slow. Government is big and ponderous, and when you’re trying to make change there, you’re like little mice nipping at the heels of an charging elephant, trying to get it to shift five degrees to the left, so it doesn’t run straight into your home. Also board members tend to have a lot less power than community members think they do.

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But personally, I think I’d start with something like this sequence:

– freeze hiring of police for a year while we asses the size of the force

– check how our training is (and our record is) on use of force by police and address that immediately with revised training and procedures

– redirect calls re: homelessness, mental health crises, etc. to more appropriate agencies (we’d likely need to increase Township funding for that)

– educate the community on not calling the police for people ‘loitering while Black’ or ‘Black teens are loud at the library’ or ‘Black kids are loud on the playground’ or ‘there’s a Black person chatting on his phone near my garage’ — I’m pretty sure our police hate those calls too.

– re-assess the right size of the police force for Oak Park (using strong and appropriate community comps, not giving into fear of our Austin neighbors)

– strengthen ties with Austin, and community partnerships like the Youth Interventionist Task Force, aimed at reducing gang involvement for teens

– if our police force is oversized (and I think we almost certainly are), try to assess where current police might be transitioned into other positions (here I’m getting a little speculative, since I’m not really sure how possible that is — can you take a beat cop ten years into the job and incentivize him or her to transition to a different line of work? I’m super curious how many of our police, if offered the opportunity to give up the ‘dealing with crime’ part of the job, would actually be happy to train to do something else community-serving)

That’s what I have so far, as an outsider who hasn’t really studied the problem yet. Hope this is a little helpful to those who will actually be working on it in the next four years.