Change agents

Tone deaf government policies transform parents from partners into protesters.

Since when do dozens of Rochester parents and kids stage a protest on a bitter January evening to pressure officials to reopen their schools? Where did a handful of north Minneapolis residents get up the gumption to force city hall to put more cops on the streets under court order? How did families in Sartell turn the school board’s scheme to give grade schoolers an intrusive equity and sexual identity survey behind their backs into an international media event?

“It’s the idea of being engaged in your community and taking responsibility and ownership for what is going on with your tax dollars, and high time it happens,” said Upper Midwest Law Center attorney James Dickey, who represents both the Minneapolis and Sartell citizen activists.

“Madison wrote about it in the Federalist Papers. He said if you don’t have people who are involved in the process pushing for the good, then your democracy only lasts so long. “

Parent power commanded media headlines following the astonishing off-year election results in the state of Virginia, driven by grassroots opposition to a political and educational establishment hopelessly out of touch with families and taxpayers.

Yet the same dynamic was already well underway in Minnesota. Out-of-step policies of local and state governments have turned mounting numbers of average citizens and parents from partners into protesters.

“It’s not intimidating at all to me because I pay taxes, I pay to live in my house,” said Audua Pugh, one of eight North Minneapolis residents who successfully sued Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey for failing to hire enough cops, as required by the Minneapolis City Charter. “I’m an active member in my community. My voice matters, my vote matters, and so that’s why I did it because I have rights as a human being living in this neighborhood. I have a stake in what happens.”

Fear for their lives and elected officials’ indifference to their plight led Pugh and her fellow plaintiffs to turn to the courts in the midst of the city’s violent crime wave, resulting in a groundbreaking victory. But they will not let up until Frey follows through with more police on the streets to stem the carjackings and killings threatening their neighborhoods.

“Our lives are at risk every day,” said Pugh, a 55-year-old mother and grandmother. “I’m tired of hearing the gunshots, I’m tired of feeling unsafe in my home. I’m at the point where, you want this neighborhood, you want this house? You can have it because I’m ready to go.”

A different sort of desperation has played out in communities statewide. A groundswell of opposition formed to schools’ lockstep pandemic policies that kept kids out of class against many parents’ wishes. Moreover, moms and dads at home with their children became aware of Critical Race Theory and other aspects of a corrosive curriculum that runs counter to their values.

“When is the board going to realize we’re not going anywhere?” a resident recently asked the Sartell-St. Stephens School Board. “These subtle tactics only strengthen our resolve and reaffirm our belief we have to be involved in what this board is doing.”

Instead of welcoming the awakening and engagement of more parents in the process, the National School Boards Association portrayed them as potential domestic terrorists. Nothing better demonstrates the potency of parental power then the NSBA’s outrageous letter prodding the Biden administration to deploy the Departments of Justice, Education, and Homeland Security to investigate and intimidate participants in local school board meetings.

Yet ordinary parents concerned for the future of their kids and community comprise the vast majority of the now commonplace overflow crowds at school board meetings. The greatest threat they pose is to the status quo.

The biggest grassroots group, Let Them Play MN, started with a Facebook page created by Dawn Gillman to take on Gov. Tim Walz’s shutdown of football and other high school sports. A marketing consultant and mother of five children in the Dassel-Cokato school district, Gillman’s group quickly swelled to 26,000 members statewide.

“It was a wild experience with dads and moms from professionals to stay at home parents to tons of professionals in the medical industry and then tons of different sports teams and clubs and associations,” Gillman said. “I did not anticipate it to grow like that, but it was a blessing because a lot of things got to happen.”

As a result of their involvement, thousands of football and volleyball players were able to participate in fall sports as the Minnesota State High School League backed off a plan to postpone games until spring.

“Sometimes you stick out, you’re weird, you’re criticized, it’s not normal, they say you want to kill people,” Gillman said. “But if it intrigues young people to get involved and know they can really make a difference, that would be the biggest legacy of the whole thing.”

While the pandemic may have brought out the worst in some government officials, it elicited the best in many Minnesotans who never would have dreamed of stepping into the public square previously. Their continued participation could be pivotal in the outcome of the big round of school board races and other elections this November.