As quiet as it’s kept, I hate public speaking.
Well, it is not really kept quiet, I tell people all the time. Some people are blessed with the gift of gab but not me. I’ve been an education advocate for about 20 years and if I had my way, I would always lead from behind.
The first time I testified at a public hearing was back in 2002 when we had a DC local school board. I remember standing in line waiting my turn to sit at a table to speak. As I waited, I was so nervous my knee caps were shaking. I was holding a binder so that I could put my testimony on top of it and grasp the sides to calm my nervous hands. I even tried a deep breathing exercise to calm myself. I must have looked pretty bad because the man standing next to me asked if I was OK. I lied and said, “Yes.”
When the time came, I read my testimony. It was scary but I survived. I lived through it and am here to tell the story.
Since then I have testified many times. With practice, my nervousness has subsided some but is never completely gone when it comes time to testify again. I am always nervous to speak publicly but I do it anyway.
As parents and educational advocates, we must step out of our comfort zones and forward into arenas which we would not usually go because that is where our children need us to be. So, when I was asked to Chair this year’s PAVE DC Parent Voice and Choice Week (DCPVCW) meeting with At-Large Councilmember Robert White, even though every cell in my body screamed, “No!” I said “Yes.”
And just like my first testimony experience, I survived. I lived through the experience and am here to tell the story.
I had participated in a few DCPCW meetings in years prior, though my roles consisted of asking a question or two – whether formally or when there was time for extras. So, with this experience, I had an idea of how a meeting worked.
As a Chair of the meeting, I liked the idea of really focusing on one councilmember and trying to understand how that person ticked. I read up on Councilmember White, looked through the meeting agenda, organized myself with our #ParentPriorities – School-Based Mental Health (SBMH) supports and Out-of-School Time (OST) programs – and even practiced how I’d facilitate with the PAVE policy team.
By the time of the meeting, I just let it go and everything turned out well. The hardest part of the experience were the parts I knew would be; transitioning from parent to parent as they asked their questions, being conversational with both parents and Councilmember White, and making sure the event flowed.
I am a planner. Going with the flow like I had to during the meeting is a practice that is normally outside of my wheelhouse. It just does not come naturally to me. Even though it was a stretch for me, it is a skill that I am happy I got to practice as Chair. Moreso, I was glad to be able to support my fellow PAVE parent leaders as they asked their questions to promote our top #ParentPriorities.
After the event, I sent a follow-up thank you to Councilmember White and I was excited to quickly hear back from a member of his staff that they are already “doing preliminary research into the SBMH needs assessment” and that they look forward to staying connected with PAVE parent leaders as they continue their research. This proves that the DCPCVW work of PAVE parent leaders is already making an impact. Stepping outside of my comfort zone was so worth it!
I carried this momentum with me throughout the rest of DCPVCW, including when I took over the @dcpavevoices Twitter account during Ward 7 parent leaders’ meeting with Councilmember Gray’s staff. This was my second time doing a Twitter takeover; last year I did it for another DCPVCW meeting and felt completely overwhelmed by the task. However, this year, when I was asked to do it again, I was ready. While I’m still no expert, I learned from last year, was able to better prepare, and showed a lot of improvement. Plus, it was fun to be able to give fellow PAVE parent leaders a shout out.
I expect I’ll always be most at ease working behind the scenes but when the kids need me, I’ll step up, out, under, over or through, nervous kneecaps and all. During the coming budget cycle, I plan to testify at more hearings, attend meetings with other District leaders, and tweet out the policy solutions I want to see.
Education policy shapes the educational experience of our children. Our children’s educational experience plays an oversized role in successful life outcomes. Activist Lily Tomlin once said, “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. Then I realized I am somebody.”
Our kids need us to be the “somebody” to make sure decisionmakers don’t lose sight of the real people who will be either helped or harmed by their policy decisions. Parents need to be at the table to make sure decisionmakers create policies that not only work on paper but work well in the real world.
We have to be there so decisionmakers know exactly what our kids require and what we require for them. They need to know what our and our children’s realities are and what is important to us. Elected and government officials can’t or won’t always come to us, so we must go to them.
I encourage all parents to participate, even if that means stepping a bit outside of their comfort zones. There are lots of ways to do that. You don’t have to be a policy expert. That’s what is so great about PAVE. PAVE staff are there to support you as you stretch and PAVE parent leaders are there to lift you up and cheer you on.
So go ahead. Step out. Stretch.
We got you.
By Karla Reid-Witt, Citywide PLE Board and Ward 7 PLE Board member