Election season is upon us, and we’ve got another district BOE campaign in full gear. In our first debate last week, hosted by South Orange-Maplewood Cares about Schools, an interesting narrative was launched. Three different candidates brought up a new issue and the TAPinto SOMA even reported on it in their piece about the debate.

That issue was special interest groups. Several candidates spoke about being “independent thinkers." They talked about running by themselves without committees or “undue influence.” There has been much online chatter since that debate about what exactly constitutes a special interest group. PTAs and HSAs have been mentioned, as has SEPAC, the Community Coalition on Race, Black Parents Workshop, SOMa Justice and SOMa Action, along with a few others I’m not familiar with, which are more conservative in nature.

Last night, I attended a vigil at First Baptist Church in South Orange, which was organized by the Community Coalition on Race and SOMa Action. It was part of the national observance of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, the arrival of the first enslavement ship in America. The ceremony was beautiful and educational and moving. Our community came together in a spirit of love and appreciation and respect. But, arguably, it was organized by what some would call special interest groups.

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Last week, I heard of a racist incident involving a Black mother in Montclair. I wanted to reach out to an anti-racism organization in Montclair for support. I asked the membership of SOMa Justice if anyone had a contact and got three names. Again, arguably a special interest group, but one whose “special interest” is in racial and socio-economic equity.

I was for a time Board of Ed liaison to SEPAC and the Special Education PTO (before the two organizations merged). Their special interest is obviously in improving outcomes for our special needs children. I also served as liaison to the Schools Committee of the Community Coalition on Race. Their special interest is in a school district that is integrated within all academic levels and schools.

As I shared at the debate last week, I ran for the Board six years ago after finding a community of people that cared about equity in our schools. New to the school district, I had come to a Board meeting to raise my voice in support of deleveling the middle school. At that meeting I met a community of people who had been working on the issue for years. They would probably be called a special interest group today. But they, along with other dedicated community members, worked diligently to build a majority in our district who are committed to equity. Without them, the district would undoubtedly have been slower to streamline levels at the middle and high schools, and to launch the Intentional Integration and Innovation plan.

Frankly, I don’t understand how anyone who claims to be working to improve our district for all children is not affiliated in some way with a social justice or racial equity group. How can they do this work without the community? I for one am proud to be in community with these groups. But they do not have “undue influence” over me or, as far as I can tell, any other member of the Board. I appreciate their advocacy on behalf of our students and certainly listen to what they have to say. But, as many of the candidates mentioned at the last debate, I believe we are all “independent thinkers.” I stand on my own two feet as I have for six years serving this district.  

I listen to every community member who comes to me or to the Board with a concern or comment and I read every email. I give every message from every student, parent, grandparent, guardian or resident equal consideration. Then I weigh all the concerns and collaborate with my colleagues so that we may act in a way that benefits all of our students. That is my special interest - our community.

~Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad