Silence is not an option

What do you do when you don’t agree with the direction your elected officials are taking you? When you know their goal is to destroy something you value deeply, should you observe with disdain or act?

Is it sour grapes to disagree? Is it a violation of the principle of majority rule? Is it disloyal or unpatriotic or a waste of time?

Or is it the most important thing you can do as a citizen?

I’m taking the last option! Our voices are our most powerful political tools. You simply have to speak up if you disagree. When people are silent it implies indifference or consent, and it perpetuates compliance. Voicing your opposition encourages others to come forward and express theirs as well. This is how you build momentum and the power that comes with numbers.

Silence is the same as consent. Protest is moral and important and powerful. The First Amendment protects our right to speak up, assemble and petition our government. This right is meant to be used! It is patriotic to use it!

In my research on the early civil rights movement in Cleveland Heights, a major lesson for the activists was learning that, when they took a stand, they discovered other like-minded people. This discovery gave confidence and more voices to their work, along with personal rewards and enough supporters to make real change. A few people said no to something deeply entrenched, and over 10 years toppled a deeply engrained system that created a segregated region. Their persistence and ability to change public opinion and behavior made housing integration a new reality.

Their experience continues to be influential. I think of them any time I feel like giving up. What if they had stayed home?

I am obsessed with public education. Effective and inclusive public schools help to bind our society together in common purpose. They value every person, create opportunity, build community and create trust. The needs of the individual are balanced with the needs of society. They promote critical thinking, the truth, social skills and a strong social fabric. They release the capacity that resides within every child.

These strengths and social imperatives are currently under attack by state policies that promote testing and privatization, and at the federal level by the Trump administration’s pick of an anti-public school, pro-privatization billionaire to lead federal education policy. Education should not be about greed, profit, exclusion, blame, or who wins and who loses, and yet our elected leaders are taking it in that direction.

My blood is boiling. My only option is to get out of my comfort zone. I am most effective when I support, encourage and value others. It is difficult to be the person who says no, who visits the offices of senators and other elected officials or stands in the cold to protest dangerous positions and potential threats to our safety—the person who has to explain her values to someone who may completely disagree.

I’d rather stay home. But I can’t.

Is it worth the effort? Yes!

I am a proud member of the Heights Coalition for Public Education, which started three years ago when more than 160 people participated in a reading group that focused on education privatization. Common knowledge led our group to action. We established a position statement and gathered close to 1,000 signatures. We’ve held forums and lobbied our school board members to become activists who are willing to challenge harmful state education policy.

When we started, we didn’t know if it would make a difference, but we had to try. The actions have informed people about a serious problem. That knowledge has inspired many to be vocal and not accept the humdrum narrative of public school failure. Our concern helped motivate our superintendent and board of education to join a recent statehouse protest by school leaders from around the state. They are now engaging their peers in building a broader constituency to end privatization and testing. Each action creates something more and, in the end, many actions lead to change.

In early January, the coalition decided to challenge the choice for secretary of education. In two days we mobilized 16 state and local groups to join our challenge. Because we spoke, many others did, too. Our work will have effects. We may not win this specific fight, but we are building momentum that communicates to our elected officials that they are not representing our interests and should not claim to be.

While silence has been characterized as golden, it is the enemy during these dark times.  

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

Read More on The Common Good
Volume 10, Issue 2, Posted 6:01 PM, 01.31.2017