Location: Charlotte, NC
When we moved to North Carolina in 1999, I was able to transition from my full time job at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC to working from home as a consultant and writer. My career took several turns (with my law degree becoming more and more tangential to what I was doing) but the move allowed me to play a much more active role in my kids’ schools than I could have if I were not my own boss. That is something I have always appreciated because being a room mom, a substitute teacher, a PTA president, and running theatre programs, chess and Scrabble clubs and Odyssey of the Mind teams was a great way to be involved in my kids’ lives and give back to the public schools that gave them such a stellar education.
But that is as far as it went. I continued to run the Scrabble Club at Randolph Middle School long after my kids moved on from there, but I have not otherwise engaged in school improvement issues or taken on volunteer opportunities relating to education. This is not true of Elyse Dashew, the Vice Chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board. Elyse, 49, has committed herself to ensuring that all CMS students have the same enriching academic experiences that her children (Ian, 16, is a sophomore at East Mecklenburg High School and Emma, 20, is a junior at Wake Forest University) have had. She is a testament to finding something that matters to you and then diving in deep. And she is a great reminder that one person who believes strongly and deeply in something and devotes herself to making a difference can, in fact, make a difference.
I first met Elyse when she ran for an at-large seat on the School Board in 2011. She lost. So the fact that she is now the Vice Chair of the Board lets you know that one takeaway from her story is to keep going for things, to lick your wounds after defeat but then get back out there and try again. Elyse’s path to the school board began with her advocacy as a parent at Smith Language Academy, a language immersion magnet school in Charlotte. When budget cuts threatened funding for the school, with both transportation and scheduling changes proposed that would drastically cut the student enrollment, Elyse joined other parents in rallying together to oppose the changes and articulate to the school board what the implications would be for their school. She became a leader by default because she was able to devote a lot of time to the issue, spearheading a liaison committee, setting up a coalition with other magnet schools, and giving speeches to the school board and interviews to the media on behalf of all of the families impacted by their proposals. By 2011, many of the parent leaders and community organizers she met through her advocacy were encouraging her to run for an open position on the School Board.
Elyse had never been involved in a political campaign in any capacity and had a tremendous fear of public speaking. But she ran because she felt a strong sense of community. “I felt a sense of empowerment that you really can shift outcomes and make a difference,” she says.
She gave it everything she had, overcoming many fears and going way out of her comfort zone. And then she lost. She was exhausted and defeated. But the day after the election, a school board member called to tell her he waned to appoint her to the bond oversight committee, a citizen oversight committee to make sure that school bonds are spent as promised. She learned how schools get built and financed, then joined a college and career readiness task force to learn more about school policy. More task forces and committees followed, including the steering committee for the 2013 school bonds.
In 2015, Elyse ran again. She was a better candidate. She knew more people, had amassed more knowledge about the issues and more experience with them, and was much more comfortable speaking in front of people and doing media. She won, and loves being able to make a difference in concrete and myriad ways. One example of a recent endeavor that makes Elyse feel proud is how the School Board has addressed the pervasive issues of overcrowding and run-down school buildings by leading a successful $922 million Mecklenburg County school bond campaign in 2017. CMS schools have $2 billion in capital needs, and Elyse thanks voters for passing the bond which, she says, “will go a long ways towards catching up, and getting students into buildings with the teaching and learning conditions that they deserve.” She’s hopeful for a state bond again this year that would help as well, but knows that bonds only go so far. She encourages parents to support their local schools and to look beyond test scores when assessing the worth of a school.
“I believe that kids learn better and are better prepared to thrive in life when we are not living in bubbles,” she says.
Elyse’s advise for folks who want to be involved in issues of education is to engage. And she knows from both her advocacy as a parent and her current role on the school board that solution-oriented advocacy can be very powerful.
Elected officials make better decisions when citizens make them aware of unintended consequences of their decisions and citizens can propose better solutions when they are better educated on the constraints of the issue and on those in power.
And know that you can be a reticent public speaker, a candidate who loses her first election, and you can ride your passion all the way to a position on the school board.
Looking to get more involved? Here are some links for those of you in the Charlotte, North Carolina area… and perhaps some good (replicable) ideas for those of you elsewhere.
2) CMS Foundation: If you are looking to support a nonprofit and you want your contribution to directly and sustainably support our local public schools, consider the CMS Foundation. They do great work, and everything they do is tightly aligned with what our educators are telling us they need. https://cms-foundation.org
3) For someone who wants to learn more about how to make a difference through advocacy or local politics, check out The City of Charlotte Civic Leadership Academy (https://charlottenc.gov/HNS/CE/CommunityInfo/Pages/Civic-Leadership-Academy.aspx) or the Civics 101 course (http://goleaguego.org/Civics.html) put on by the League of Women Voters.