Too often we look at elections for what they are in the moment and not what they may become; as if the voters’ tally is an end point and not a beginning. To do so shuts out the promise and the ability to grow from the conversation.
The March 2 Maple Run School Board election had that feel to it. Three seats were open. Two seats from the city and one representing the town. Three people — Nilda Gonnella-French, an 11-year incumbent, former St. Albans City Mayor Peter DesLauriers, and newcomer Reier Erickson vied for the city’s two spots. Two people, Katie DesLauriers Messier and Jen Williamson were the contestants for the town slot.
Mr. DesLauriers was the city’s top vote getter with 1,709 votes. Ms. Gonnella-French was second with 1,536 votes, and Mr. Erickson finished third with 917 votes. In the town, Ms. Messier — Mr. DesLauriers’ daughter — beat Ms. Williamson 1,610 — 892. By anyone’s calculation, the wins were convincing.
But there is more to the elections than the numbers. Both Mr. Erickson and Ms. Williamson were passionate, and articulate, in their opposition to the district employing School Resource Officers. The other candidates were in support of the SROs. Mr. Erickson is also the first African American to run for a school board seat; so there was the element of race in a community that is 98 percent lily white and in a community trying to adjust to the process of recognizing its inherent white privilege biases.
Mr. Erickson was also pointedly told by Ms. Messier in a Facebook post that he could leave St. Albans if he did not like what he saw in the district’s schools, and he was clumsily referred to as a “monster” by Mr. DesLaurier, who said, in a public television interview, he had been prepared to confront a “monster” in the debate but then told Mr. Erickson he saw him as a nice person and he was glad to have made his acquaintance.
In a perfect world, both exchanges would not have taken place. But there it is.
In a social media world that allows each of us to create and control our own echo chambers, and to write what we would like, whenever we’d like, and about whomever we’d like, our words are often less precise than they need to be, and barren of any nuance. We say things we regret. We close doors rather than open them. We say things that create false impressions. As Marshall McLuhan is famous for saying, perception then becomes the biggest part of reality.
On her Facebook page Ms. Williamson was dismissive of anyone who could be supportive of SROs and Mr. Erickson wrote on his Facebook page: “Racism won. I got destroyed. How sad.”
Well, there is more to being on a school board than dealing with SROs, and yes, racism exists in St. Albans, but racism didn’t win. A popular ex-Mayor with 40 years of teaching in the city’s school system did. An 11-year incumbent won. It’s a safe bet a sizable percentage of those who voted, voted the way they did because the names on the ballot were familiar to them.
State Senator Randy Brock is an African American and has served Franklin County for years. He was also elected State Auditor. [And ran for governor.] Our neighbor to the south, Milton, just elected Kumulia “Kase” Long, an African American, to its school board. Certainly these two men are exceptions to the “whiteness” of Vermont’s elected populace, but both are capable people who have won the public’s confidence. Both have lost races; but returned stronger.
In other words, there is potential in losing. Mr. Erickson received 917 votes and Ms. Williamson, 892. That’s a decent foundation from which to build. The key is to widen the base, to be positive about the future and, in the words of the late Vernon Jordon understand that “political differences must be subordinated to common humanity.” We all make mistakes. Let’s learn from them and not use language to polarize the issues or ourselves. That is something within our reach as a small community, a place where we share common spaces and common goals.
If the point is to broaden the power and the appeal of diversity then the carriers of the message must represent what they promote; they must embrace the common denominator elements that constitute Mr. Jordon’s plea for a collective reach across the racial and economic spectrum.
Those “message carriers” include us all. When the women’s rights movement began it was noted that women had to be twice as good just to be seen as equal to men. That same bias marks the continued struggle for racial equality, but at a much deeper level. It’s the struggle of our age.
It’s difficult to even raise this issue in St. Albans without inviting judgments as to motive. The advice is to let it go, that time heals all wounds, that it will pass. But how do we recognize the challenges, and the need, and our mistakes, if the issue remains something we don’t talk about because we fear being misinterpreted? How do we make any progress if we don’t go through the back and forth that conversations require before a common understanding is established? If we see conversation — on either end of the political divide — that makes reconciliation difficult don’t we owe it to the process to do better? Particularly when we are talking about a community as small as what we have in St. Albans?
All sides can do better, the DesLauriers included. But let’s not be cowed by the fear of making mistakes. Or making the effort. There is value in doing things badly if it signifies we will not give up until we are satisfied with the results. Let’s not judge. Let’s do the work required. All of us. Let’s treat it as the beginning it can be.
by Emerson Lynn