Thank you for your thorough reporting in your March 6, 2019 article “NAACP presses Norwalk BOE to take action after more emails revealed” about the reaction to Norwalk Board of Ed emails, which included copies of the emails in question. Without seeing the emails, it is hard to form an opinion.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that Mike Lyons is correct in his comment to the article. He did ask me to be curriculum chair. I declined because I knew someone else wanted it. That person had previous board experience. I was new and said I would wait until next year when I gained a little experience.
I appreciate Sue Haynie’s response about me below the story. Sue and I bonded around education going back 10-15 years ago when I worked as a children’s librarian. I have always appreciated the time she takes with people, particularly with me as I unraveled the District 99 scenario in which South Norwalk students lack a home school and are bussed to schools outside of their neighborhood. What I have appreciated most about her is that while we may have philosophical differences and opinions about some people and some situations, those differences never interfered with our respect for each other as human beings.
I also appreciate Shirley Mosby, another former board member. Both Shirley and Sue have a passion for education. They care deeply. They are both fighters. Their approaches are just different.
Years ago when I landed in Norwalk I worked under a Jewish Director (Les) and my immediate supervisor (Isabel) was from the Dominican Republic. I thrived under their leadership and did some of my best work. Both are long gone, but we stay in touch and both know I appreciate(d) them. Things were not always smooth, but we are adults. We make amends. That can usually happen if things are not allowed to go too far, and when they do, if the people at fault have the decency to apologize.
I came to do a job and it helps that I love my work tremendously. I was not hindered by pettiness. Isabel was the ultimate community service person, a Princeton grad with a sincere heart for people. She came to serve and she quietly went above and beyond, despite having to put up with some racism and misunderstandings. It is awful to be judged by misinterpretations that others pass on to others. Les kept things together in a polarized community. That is not an easy thing to do. Only strong and grounded people can do that without losing themselves, or going any way the wind blows.
District B was also instrumental in my success once I earned their respect: The late Otha Brown, the late Marguerite Fuller, Shirley Evans, Rev. Dewitt Stevens, Darlene Young, Mary Mann, Jannie Williams, Ernie Dumas, the late Wolfpit Principal Diane Wilson, who introduced me to a most remarkable leader, Rev. Stenhouse, then pastor of Bethel AME church, and Mrs. Anderson, a Bethel AME member who allowed me to be a part of her Ferguson Library community in Stamford.
During those times I partnered with several agencies from Norwalk Housing Authority (NHA) to Stepping Stones Museum for Children. It had nothing to do with politics. It had all to do with the people who headed the organizations having straightforward approaches to education with a focus on youth, not adults. We did great work together. Some of my favorite memories are my book clubs at Roodner Court, Colonial Village and Stepping Stones, and the “Multicultural Afternoon” I put together and hosted at Stepping Stones. My favorite memories also include the after school book club partnership between Brookside, Columbus Magnet, and Silvermine for readers who needed a little extra help. Former Brookside Principal Mr. Hay, and former Silvermine Reading Specialist Claudia Segneri were extremely supportive and helpful in bringing my idea to fruition. I also created a “Boys to Men” and “Girls to Women” book club based on the “it takes a village” concept and enlisted the help of community members from Bob Duff to Joyce Abate (Carousel Preschool), from Doug Hempstead to Rev. Curtis, from former Mayor Moccia to Jackie Roberson (Norwalk High and The Carver), from current Mayor Rilling, then Police Chief to Jahmane West (artist) and many, many more. Mr. Law, then Director of Norwalk Housing Authority and Ivy, his then protege, always took the time to let me know they appreciated that I stayed in the forefront of education. They were great neighbors and unselfish partners. It was never just about what others could do for them, but what they could also do for others.
I was taught growing up to be keenly aware of people, so I was never totally in the dark about the people who only considered South Norwalk a poor place (which it wasn’t). I am keenly aware of people who push minorities into ghetto corners, wanting to work with what they consider minority agencies for grant purposes; otherwise wanting nothing more to do with them. I am keenly aware of those who know someone is right, but if the majority have disdain for the person they will put on the face of privilege and need to be accepted and turn away from the person. I am keenly aware of many things that I don’t concentrate on because, above all, I am very proud of the work I’ve been allowed to do in Norwalk. I am particularly proud of the resources and tools researched and provided to parents who home school and of the tools provided, with the help of Baywater Properties (an introduction made by Stan, former Library Board Chair), to help parents of special education children. The team (Shelly, Christie G., Asuncion, et al.) and I listened with our hearts to what patrons were saying and we tried to accommodate wants as well as the things people didn’t know they needed. I truly was honored to hire and lead such a diverse, hardworking and capable team. South Norwalk to me was the epitome of racial and socioeconomic diversity. Minority groups supported and worked well together. I love Washington Street now for its aesthetic beauty, but I adored it back then for its variety and diversity.
Finally, I remember Les introducing me to Florence, a grounded woman who headed another Norwalk agency. As we were walking along he told her to be careful with me, that I could easily have her job in a week. There was a sense of security in the statement that I admire after all these years.
I say all of this to say that I know who I am and what I am capable of whether or not anyone recognizes my accomplishments and contributions to Norwalk. If folk want to pooh-pooh my accomplishments or throw the
baby out with the bathwater, or group me with others due to skin color, it is ok. I have family members who live in the backwoods of the country and family members who are lawyers and engineers. It’s all good.
I just wish Norwalk’s diversity would really listen to and “get” its diverseness, the entire kaleidoscope. See the different tones, perspectives and blending of all the colors. The NICE Festival is such a great concept and I’m so glad its founder, Ms. Evelyn, thought of it for Norwalk. It would be great if the sentiment behind the festival stayed in the air from year to year.
Before ending, I have to ask: How does anyone expect anyone to do a good job if needed information is withheld, or when people are so concerned about losing their “spots” or about who gets credit, or taking credit for other people’s thoughts and work, or listening to an idea and waiting a few years to tweak it and present it as one’s own?
I have to ask this too: If people or a person withholds needed information, why talk about the people from whom the information is withheld? How can they be blamed for not contributing? That goes beyond my comprehension. It borders on dysfunction. It is similar to speculating that people from a particular Norwalk area are uneducated or anit-education. If these people are from Norwalk, what does that say about Norwalk’s ability to educate them?
This situation is most unfortunate to me because I can see the vast potential from my anti-myopic lens.
February marked my 20th anniversary working here full time. Mrs. Rees, retired school teacher and retired library employee who took me under her wing recognizing my “maintenance to high standards” as she put it, remembered and sent an email on the date of my anniversary. That made my day. My world is not reduced to Black and White or cultural divisions though, I admit, this gets harder and harder to fight with the current climate. Many of my relationships extend beyond my own culture, but they don’t diminish my want to see Black people thrive educationally and economically. I fear that my view will become hyper-narrow from adapting to the climate.
Leadership. What does it mean?
Laura Bush is quoted as saying: “Leadership is not about popularity. It is about doing what is right.” Michele Ruiz, entrepreneur and former news anchor, said: “If people are doubting how far you can go, go so far that you can’t hear them anymore.” This is so representative of the strong person who will not let anyone get in the way of accomplishing their goals. It is also illustrative of the person who will go so far away from naysayers that they quit. Education plays key roles in building up or tearing down. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Toni Morrison once said: If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, you have a serious problem.”
Sherelle Harris is Assistant Director of the Norwalk Public Library, and a former member of the Norwalk Board of Education.