Last week I had my School Board orientation, and I felt a little bit like a visitor to a foreign country or an anthropologist.
I don’t mean that in a mean-spirited way: I’m simply noting that every group has its own customs and ways of communicating, and I don’t yet fully understand the dynamics of the group I’m joining.
I believe that how we communicate is every bit as important as what we communicate, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to communicate with parents, students, community members, APS staff and School Board colleagues when I join the board next month.
This will likely be my last chance to write as someone who’s simply a parent and community member, from the outside looking in, so I want to share the things that I’m thinking and wondering about when it comes to communication.
First, I’m wondering whether we need to be so formal with one another. Personally, I value communication that feels comfortable and genuine, and so I usually show up in jeans, call you by your first name, and realize halfway through our conversation that I have a splash of spaghetti sauce on my shirt.
I recognize, though, that some people might be offended by this—as if I view elected office entirely too casually, or am showing disrespect by speaking to them too informally. So I will likely ask you and others how I should refer to you—but for my part, please call me Mary.
I also value approachability and accessibility. I don’t think I can represent you on the School Board unless I hear from you regularly and really try to take in what you’re telling me, with curiosity and a willingness to change my thinking. From the outside looking in, public comment periods at School Board meetings and the current approach to open office hours feel somewhat strange to me, and I’m not sure how much empathizing and genuine learning from one another is happening in those forums.
It has felt to me at times like the School Board has its guard up and it’s difficult to get anything past the shields. As a parent and PTA leader, I’ve sometimes found this aggravating. I’ve been that angry person firing off emails to School Board members and APS leaders because I felt community engagement was performative, answers to my questions were too generic and formulaic, and good ideas that originated outside the Syphax Center were dismissed too quickly.
I don’t want to have that kind of relationship with you. I want you to feel like I really hear you and am open to your ideas, even if we ultimately disagree on something. And I hope that if I communicate in ways that don’t live up to this, you will gently let me know.
In return, I’d like to ask you for two things: trust and respect. When I say “trust,” I mean that you trust I’m taking my commitment to this job seriously and that my intentions are good. Over time, I hope that definition of “trust” will expand to include the idea that you trust I will level with you and am working hard with my colleagues to get important things done.
And to me, “respect” means we treat each other honorably and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, I think this is an increasingly scarce commodity. For example, during the campaign I got called “batshit crazy,” “everything that’s wrong with APS” and “some dumb bitch,” to name a few, on social media and in email.
We’re living in a really strange time. I believe we're feeling a high degree of uncertainty, stress, and loss of control entering Year 3 of COVID that is fundamentally at odds with the "everything-on-demand" lifestyle we’ve built for ourselves over the past two decades. Then we’re trying to understand and talk about this via media and social media that offer us a never-ending scroll of curated viewpoints which too often simply reinforce our own, and reward us for well-crafted dunks performed in front of an online audience. I’ll be asking, and I hope you will too: Whose voices are missing from these exchanges? How can I seek them out and learn from them?
Respect doesn’t naturally flourish in times and in environments like this—I think it has to be intentionally practiced. Maybe as we head into the new year it can be our collective resolution to do so, in the comments we make and in the meetings and forums we organize, whether those are digital or face-to-face.
Maybe to you, aiming for respectful exchanges is less important than the thing you’re fighting for. I think the world definitely benefits from righteous anger, but I believe that activism doesn’t have to be shrill or vitriolic to be powerful—in fact, I think the opposite is more often the case.
Nobody likes being attacked, patronized or ignored. I believe we all want to be heard and valued, and that’s the mindset I am bringing to my work as a School Board member. I know that some of what I've written here will seem awfully naive as I learn more about the realities of the job. But it’s important to me that you know my intentions going in, so that you can help me stay connected to the community I am meant to serve.
Mary Kadera is a school board member in Arlington, VA. Opinions expressed here are entirely her own and do not represent the position of any other individual or organization.