A tribute to Alison DesForges

Sarah - Syracuse, New York
Entered on February 18, 2009
Age Group: 30 - 50
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For this I believe

Last night I attended the last PTA meeting of the year at my daughter’s elementary school, the Albany School of Humanities, located on Whitehall Road in Albany New York. At that meeting, I spoke on the need to allow the child acting as master of ceremonies at the end of year variety show .to say, “Them was good,” without having her grammar “corrected” by the adults coordinating the program. Another parent at the PTA, felt that such ungrammatical speech was a poor reflection on the child, the school, and the PTA, which sponsored the program. Certainly, I argued, there is a place for proper, grammatical, speech, but so too is there a need to create a place for speech that reflects ethnic background, the popular culture, the culture of youth, and creative use of language, especially in a school community that is diverse, with children from over a dozen countries. Discussion ensued for some time, and ultimately, there was general agreement that children need to learn both, and to distinguish when to use each kind of speech to best effect.

Walking home from the meeting, hanging onto my two-year-old son, with my husband, carrying our five year-old daughter, soon to be Kindergarten graduate, on his shoulders. I felt like a true member of a community, with valuable democratic institutions. The PTA is not democracy with a big D, but with a small d, the kind I’d learned about as a teenager from parents who took the time to involve me and my peers in public meetings on educational issues that affected us. One woman, Allison Desforges, who has since gone on to receive a McArthur genius award for her work with Africa Watch, stands out in my mind. Her high-profile efforts at the UN, have been recognized, but perhaps she should also know about the impact she had on those of us she taught the lessons of democracy with a little d.

Alison DesForges, helped me and a group of my peers, when we were just high-school freshmen, to attend a public hearing on an effort to ban several books from the Buffalo School district library. I don’t remember the details of the objections to the book. They don’t matter now. What matters is that she initiated us into the realm of public participation in decision-making. She led us, with the U.S. Constitution as a backdrop, into the practical realm where decisions are made. She facilitated an opportunity for us to speak in public, be heard in our own communities, and then beyond when our speeches were published in the Humanist, Magazine. While we may not have influenced the outcome of the meeting, she gave us our first glimpse at the inner workings of decision-making institutions at the community level, where decisions are made that impact our daily lives, and the lives of our children. She showed us that to care is to be involved. This was a critical right of passage for me. As a parent now, taking my five-year-old to public meetings, and into the voting booth with me, I realize the significance of being involved from childhood in democratic decision making. She laid the foundation for me to find a voice, the courage to speak, and the practical know how of getting involved.

Until the meeting last night, where I heard my own voice in a room of people, and felt that I was heard, I hadn’t reflected much on where I’d learned to speak out and express my opinions at a public meeting. I became even more grateful, to Alison Des Forges for showing me the way.