San Francisco School Board Recall!
A progressive city eats its most progressive elected officials
It is 7pm on an unseasonably warm winter evening in San Francisco. Victorian box trees in bloom make the streets smell like orange blossoms, and there’s a nearly full moon as people crowd into Manny’s, a “community space” in the Mission, to await the results of a recall election of three of the city’s seven-member school board, Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga. (The other four members, elected in 2020, were not yet eligible for recall.)
The behavior of Collins, Lopez and Moliga, since taking office in January 2019, has been combative and bizarre. Impressed upon by increasingly desperate parents and their own commissioner to come up with a plan to open schools during the pandemic, the school board refused. A concurrent project to rename “injustice-linked” schools became the subject of national scorn and eventually was scrapped. And an unearthed 2016 Twitter thread in which Collins accused Asian-Americans of “using white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead’” and deeming those insufficiently anti-Trump as “a house n****er,” did little to endear the Asian-American community. Stripped of her vice-presidency over the comments, Collins fired back with an $87 million lawsuit against her colleagues and the city, a suit thrown by the judge as being without merit.
Meanwhile, the city’s public schools stayed closed.
“It's like a dictatorship. They didn't need to listen to anyone,” says Kit Lam, one of the first arrivals at Manny’s. “And it feels like, we have to do this recall; to push them to start listening to parents.”
With two children home from school, Lam, who immigrated from Hong King in 2006, started looking on Facebook and WeChat, to see who in the community might be pushing back and fighting to get kids back in school. He quickly found Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, the couple who started the recall effort in spring of 2021.
“Out of every recall effort people talk about, 1 in 10 actually get started,” Looijen told Matt Welch the day before the recall results were to be announced. “Of those, 1 in 10 gets enough signatures to make the ballot and of those only 1 in 10 passes.”
The long odds are no doubt contributing to the giddiness at Manny’s, which by 8pm is packed with many people wearing yellow RECALL THE SCHOOL BOARD t-shirts, one man in rainbow platform shoes and calling himself Gaybraham Lincoln, and what seem to be a disproportionate number of reporters, this last maybe because of the novelty of the most arguably progressive city in the country eating its most progressive officials. Mayor London Breed backed the recall, as did the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, who headlined their editorial, “Competence matters” and that “our decision was solely based on the board’s competence in shepherding the district and its students through the gravest of times during the pandemic. And it is on that measure that López, Collins and Moliga have failed irredeemably.”
Opponents meanwhile tried to paint the recall as a billionaire-class effort to derail far left ideals, and while big money did play a part, the shoe leather required to gather signatures, to get past the first of 1-in-1000 hurdle, was a grassroots effort from parents and others in the community, many of whom are immigrants who came to this country in part to offer their children a solid education, which were being taken away by board members accusing them of racism.
“They were afraid of being called racist or losing their jobs,” said Raj, of those who joined the recall effort, and himself an Indian immigrant “This is all a real concern that many had.”
“If you stood up and said anything, they called you a racist,” added Looijen. “And we were the first ones to say, okay, we've tangled with internet trolls before and this is important. Even if we end this thing with our reputations in tatters, if it ends with getting our kids better schooling, it's worth it.”
While waiting for the results roll in, I met a few of the other people who thought it was worth it.
“I have two kids, a 15-year-old tenth grader, and a fifth grader, ten years old. My son was having a really hard time with Zoom classes. He was depressed. He played a lot more video games. Some of his teachers were great, and some of his teachers just taught for five minutes and then threw him in the breakout room. That's one of the main reasons why I decided to volunteer last year. I promised my son that I'm going to speak for him and my daughter.
I became involved in June of 2020. The superintendent [of the San Francisco Unified School District], Dr. Matthews, requested the board to hire a consultant, to safely plan to reopen school when the time is right. But the board voted no. We have a pandemic, I understand. But we need a plan. Alison Collins said by hiring consultants we are recreating white supremacies. And Alison Collins said, I don't care we don't have a plan. I was kind of like, what kind of nonsense is that? I'm just a commonsense person, and I absolutely have no idea what Collins was talking about. It's almost like they have their own little kingdom, but they don't seem to care about the jobs that they were elected to do.
I kept looking at all the stuff that the Board of Ed has been doing. For example, there was a gay father who wanted to do volunteer [on the parent advisory council], there were seven or eight vacancies, there was no Caucasian male, and then the board didn't even give him a chance to speak. He wasn't diverse enough. The dad is a gay dad, with biracial children, and he did not get a chance to introduce himself. It's like a dictatorship. They didn't need to listen to anyone. And it feels like, we have to do this recall; to push them to start listening to parents.
The turning point was Alison Collins' anti-Asian tweets. There were supervisors asking her to resign, she refused. And then guess what? No one said a thing. I'm talking about San Francisco elected officials; no one kept pushing. And then I was really mad, because what she said really insulted the entire Chinese community. And then I promised myself: I have to speak up for the Chinese community. So that was what got me really motivated.
I translated [Looijen and Raj’s] website for them to Chinese. And then I went on the Chinese radio, the morning one and evening one, and I just informed the Chinese community of what happened. And I set up a hotline. A supervisor working at the San Francisco airport got me 500 signatures. I contacted the Chinese Benevolent Consolidated Association. They were just normal parents and people who wanted to donate and wanted to volunteer. We were able to start mobilizing the Chinese community. Every Sunday I went to farmer's market, from April 4th to September, every Sunday, five hours, I was there. I bike, I drove within the city, Daly City, Brisbane, South City. And eventually I got 12,700 signatures. So that's I think 6% of the total.
What’s going to happen tonight? We're going to win. We are going to win.
I have two children. They are not in public school in San Francisco, but I care about all children being educated, not just my own. I'm an eighth generation San Franciscan. And watching what was happening in the pandemic was extremely upsetting. Pre-pandemic, I had never really been involved in politics, but once Chesa Boudin was elected, I'm like, how have we elected this crazy ideologue? There's no way I can just sit on the sidelines.
In late 2019, early 2020, I started going to the Police Commission meetings, the school board meetings, the Board of Supervisors meetings. Then somebody told me about the renaming [of the schools. I started digging into that. I was pulling my hair out. I'm like, what is this? Who are these people who have not done even the most rudimentary amount of research, and they purport to represent schools? What is going on here?
The bureaucrats can run the ship, for the most part, in good times. In good times, you can really hide a lot. It's when things start going awry and things start crumbling that you see what is really going on, and the incompetence is laid bare. Most of the people who join the Board of Ed, they are not qualified for the job. They are pulled in by the progressive machine, and they are launched into a political career. It’s a steppingstone.
But I think they're going down hard tonight. All three of them. And next is Chesa Boudin. [His recall election is] June 7th. And he will be taken out.
Gaybraham Lincoln, aka, David Thompson
One of the reasons I did this whole drag queen thing - I would never do it otherwise – but the strategy was, I knew if we did a recall, they were going to accuse us of being Republicans. And I wanted them to know, I ain't no fucking Republican. I've never voted Republican in my entire life. I hated Reagan. I hated Bush. I hated them all. I loathe Trump. I worked for the NAACP to get rid of Trump. And so fuck you, if you think I'm a Republican!
I've lived here 37 years. I lived through the AIDS crisis. And now I lived through the COVID crisis. I've seen San Francisco go through its ups and downs. And right now, we want our kids in school, and we want fairness in education, and we want access education, and we want it open. We don't want bullshit like, "Oh, Zoom school is so great and culturally good for kids to be at home." And it's like, no, kids don't want to be at home. They want to be fucking back in school.
My son was four years in public school from kindergarten through four. Here in San Francisco. At Dolores Huerta, Spanish immersion school. My husband's Columbian. And our son was learning Spanish.
It was awesome. He loved the school, we loved the school, we loved the community. My husband was on the PTA. We were totally connected. My kid is totally fluent in Spanish. He was like this fulcrum in the community, for these kids who didn't speak Spanish or didn't speak English . And it was like this language of amalgam. And it all got shut down and they would not open. They would not open.
So we took him out. We're lucky, we had the means to send him to private school. But all of our friends who don't have the means were like, "What the fuck? When the fuck are they going to open the schools?" And so that's when I started going to school board meetings. I no longer theoretically had a kid in the system, but I cared about all of his friends who couldn't get out of the system.
And I got even more involved in the campaign at that point. These people have got to go.
By 9pm, it is resoundingly clear all three school board members will be going.
“Yes on recall, Alison Collins: 78%!” Raj shouts from the small stage. “Yes on recall, Gabriela Lopez: 74%! Yes on recall, Faauuga Moliga: 71%!”
As others involved in the recall effort take the stage and pledge to keep going, Looijen and Raj take a moment, if a very short one, to bask in the win. There is work to be done.
"So we're going to run an open process that suggests good [school board replacement] candidates to the mayor," says Looijen, candidates committed to fixing the things that fell apart in the last two years. "And we need them fixed right away so kids can catch up on their studies."
"That's the immediate next," says Raj.
“And we're just really heartened to see San Francisco coming out so strongly in support of its children,” adds Looijen.
Raj agrees. “I think, for me, the city of San Francisco is saying, ‘Kids come first. Politicians last.’”
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