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EDActionDC wants Gen-Xers to be the next force in school board politics.
The members of EdActionDC gather in a Dupont Circle office on a Saturday morning only days before the school board election. Donated by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the space serves as one of the nascent education advocacy group’s many meeting places. More important, the spot is the headquarters for the group’s major activity so far: an aggressiveand ultimately successfulcampaign to elect Julie Mikuta to the restructured D.C. Board of Education.
Mikuta is the first to show, toting fliers and T-shirts. She is trailed by her mother, Carolyn Mikuta, who has flown in from Ohio to help with the campaign.
“She keeps asking me, ‘Have you been eating well lately?’” says the younger Mikuta. “I keep saying, ‘No.’” She says this last part with a singsongy tone and an implied “duh,” as if it should be obvious to even her mother that campaigning and healthy eating don’t go together.
At 31, Julie Mikuta already has a hefty résumé that includes a master’s degree in education, a Rhodes scholarship, two years teaching at a New Orleans public school, and experience as an administrator at D.C.’s SEED Public Charter School. Although she’s working on a doctoral degree in international education, she has the youth and energy of many of the kids she teaches. Her campaign is a strange mix of serious premeditated tactics and just a little bit of silliness.
“What are we going to do today, and can I go to the bathroom before?” asks another EdActionDC member, when she shows up to help with the campaign. Somebody giggles.
The group that backs Mikuta offers the same study in contrasts: young, idealistic activists who don’t have children but do have big ideas about how local schools should be run. In July, EdActionDC organizer Kaya Henderson called together about 20 acquaintances for the group’s first meeting: teachers, educational consultants, and employees at nonprofits that work with local kids. The mission, in the beginning, was an amorphous one. Most early meetings consisted of open discussions about local education issues, says Henderson, who works as a director with the New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit that supports young educators.
As time went on, Henderson says, the group became focused on recruiting and backing candidates for the local school board. The talks eventually prompted Mikuta, a Columbia Heights resident, to run for the seat representing the newly created District 1which covers Wards 1 and 2. She announced her candidacy in August. Now, Henderson and other organizers hope to tap into D.C.’s huge population of young professionals andwith their networking and voting powersbecome the new generation of local school leaders.
The group’s base of support is already evident days before the election. Later that same Saturday, Mikuta meets up with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham to pass out fliers at the weekend farmer’s market in Adams Morgan. Graham’s cooperation is only one example of the strength of Mikuta’s campaign. In addition to endorsements from Graham and Evans, Mikuta has also secured the backing of Mayor Anthony A. Williams and built up about $13,000 in campaign funds. The donations came mainly from teacher friends and fellow Georgetown University alumni and professors, says Mikuta.
The momentum of her campaign has already reached many of the people she encounters, some of whom cut her off in mid-speech with a friendly “I’m already voting for you.”
And on Tuesday, Nov. 7, Mikuta wins in a landslide, getting nearly half the votes in a contest with eight candidates.
You know this pre-election event will be different just by the invitation. Unlike your standard campaign flier or dense press release, it shows up in your e-mail in-box with a nifty computerized ding: an e-vite, that trendy electronic invitation that directs you to a Web site. This site advertises an event for “young movers and shakers” who want to send “the message that leadership in education matters!”
Held at Tryst, an Adams Morgan bar/coffeehouse, the EdActionDC launch party, at first glance, looks like little more than a typical pickup scene. Twentysomethings sit on velvet chairs and couches, sipping beer and noshing on snacks. A jazz band plays near the front. Somewhere, a cell phone rings. People flirt. It isn’t, in other words, the sort of event where you’d expect to have a serious discussion on school board politics.
But that’s what the organizers are hoping for. The event is called “Rock the Schoolhouse!”an MTV Age version of the dry forums and meetings preceding the vote for members of the restructured school board. It is also the coming-out party for EdActionDC, which hopes to use this Wednesday evening a week before the election to make school board politics appealing to the young, childless District residents who otherwise might not have anything to do with local schools.
For the evening’s event, EdActionDC organizers have propped up cardboard signs announcing the new school board districts. A couple of members have handed out packets of information on candidates who completed EdActionDC surveys. A giant piece of cardboard leans against one wall. At the top, someone has written in big letters: “The School Board Matters Because…” Attendees are asked to complete the sentence by writing on Post-it notes and then sticking them onto the cardboard. On one slip of paper, someone has written:
1. Property values
2. Stupid people are dumb
3. Two words: “George Bush”
This may not rank among the more profound contributions to the dialogue about school board issues, but EdActionDC organizers say they’re just beginning. They have yet to incorporate the group as a nonprofit, and they have no real budget to speak of. Most funds come from members’ pockets. Henderson says a core group of 12 or so have been meeting regularly since the summer. Eventually, they plan to hold monthly or bimonthly meetings for all members, bringing in speakers or opening the gathering up as a forum to discuss local issues. They may lobby city officials, through letters or meetings, to ensure that school board members have proper staff and that the system is using the best educational models.
But that’s all in the future. On this Wednesday night, Henderson and Darin McKeever, another early member, hope to motivate the 50 or so gathered at Tryst to get informed about city schools and meet others who want to do the same. “I think we have a good appreciation for the pleasures of the city. As we take advantage of the pleasures, we may not be keeping up with our responsibilities,” says McKeever, deputy director of Heads Up, a nonprofit that organizes after-school and other activities for local kids. “Stay tuned for what EdActionDC has in store for the future.”
No campaign is without its kinks. Mikuta found that the same young D.C. residents she hoped to engage were problematic for one obvious reason: Many of them are transient and not registered to vote here. It’s a problem candidates could encounter all over the city. But it seemed more acute in Mikuta’s District 1, which includes neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan, home to plenty of young professionals who haven’t been in the District very long. Mikuta says that EdActionDC considered doing a voter-registration drive but didn’t have time. The organization plans to do just that for the next election, she says.
And not everyone is thrilled about Mikuta’s background. Vicki Linton, who was at the Saturday Adams Morgan farmer’s market to campaign for the D.C. Statehood Green party candidates up for election, questioned Mikuta about her thoughts on D.C.’s charter school movement. Mikuta answered politely and thoughtfully, but Linton still wasn’t sold. “She’s great at answering questions,” Linton says later. “[But] I want someone a little more skeptical [about charter schools.]”
Some local education activists worry that Mikuta and her band of well-intentioned yuppie supporters are too new to the local schools scene to do it much good. “I trust people more if they come to school board politicism after they’ve done something at individual schools,” says Philip J. Blair Jr., a schools activist who campaigned for both Larry Gray, a candidate for school board president, and District 3 hopeful Gail Dixon. Both candidates lost. “I’ve never heard of [Mikuta] until now….People are worried about how you can be working for your Ph.D. and be a board member. She has no kids. She comes to this very raw.”
Blair also worries that Mikuta’s election could tip the board in favor of excessively mayor-friendly candidates. Aside from Mikuta, Williams also backed Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who won the contest for school board president. On Wednesday, the mayor announced his four appointees to the newly restructured nine-member board. The D.C. Council should review and confirm the nominations in the next few weeks.”If that’s not a supermajority, what is it?” asks Blair. “I’m afraid he’ll have too much power.”
Mikuta’s campaign had another connection to the executive office. Michele Seligman, an early EdActionDC organizer, also serves as the mayor’s senior policy adviser for education. She says she works with EdActionDC as a private citizen and that the group has no official link to the mayor.
Mikuta notes that although she values the mayor’s support, she will work for her constituents, not for him. She won the election not on the strength of Williams’ support, she says, butlike upstart Ward 4 D.C. Council candidate Adrian Fentyby hitting the streets, distributing fliers, and hobnobbing with actual voters. Mikuta says that in addition to EdActionDC members, parents, students, and longtime locals also helped with her campaign. “In order for us to be seen as a viable campaign, we needed to go door to door and hang posters and create a buzz,” says Mikuta.
Mikuta had a harder time connecting with voters in Southwest, which is also part of the district she will represent. While campaigning in front of a Safeway in a Southwest D.C. precinct, Mikuta was offered polite but blank looks by older black residents with full grocery cartsnot nearly the enthusiasm she found in other areas. “Yeah, it’s definitely been harder to tap into the community here,” she concedes.
Hard, but certainly not impossible. Days later, Mikuta managed to get 30.5 percent of the vote in the same precinct, beating all other candidates. Overall, Mikuta drew 46 percent of the vote in school board District 1. The second-place candidate, Ann C. Wilcox, managed only 12 percent.
The margin meant a huge win for Mikuta. But it also meant a victory for EdActionDC, Mikuta says. “I think what we’ve been able to do is to demonstrate that we are a source of power. This is just the first step,” she adds. “Now we have to do the job, huh?” CP