Internationalist honors Liz Brown

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday July 23, 2005

Last week, Internationalist Books give this year's Bob Sheldon Award for social justice to Orange County school board member Liz Brown.

I was surprised that Brown was even in the field of vision of the Ibooks volunteers.

After all, these are people known for their engagement with U.S. and international issues, whose concern is with globalization and war, not school budgets and the three Rs. I suspect Brown was not well-known around Ibooks before last week.

Consider the other nominees. Ibooks board member Michal Osterweil said of nominee Vinci Daro "one of the most amazing things about Vinci is that she participates in many of the most important protests internationally and serves as a tremendous resource and thinker for developing effective alternatives here, and yet she is so modest and effective, that often you don't even know how much a project has depended on her work and her inspirational energy."

Daro has been a leader of a number of activist groups and was the force behind Carrboro's recent REALLY, REALLY FREE MARKET. Osterweil said, "one of the beautiful things, is that in her mode of organizing, the event has now taken on a life of its own and is truly a decentralized and collective endeavor."

Another nominee was Liz Mason-Dees, a key organizer of the anti-war group Campaign to End the Cycle of Violence. Currently, she is in Argentina working with the Movement of Unemployed Workers, a decentralized grassroots movement that arose in response to Argentina's economic crisis.

Stepping up to accept her award, Liz Brown may have been humbled to hear the accolades for her fellow nominees. But, as Brown spoke, it was readily apparent that a strong activist for social justice had arisen as a leader in the local public school system.

In her brief remarks, Brown displayed a can-do spirit and an enthusiasm that were coupled with an unassuming attitude that is unusual in an elected official.

She conveyed a sense of the absurd injustice of Orange County's school funding disparity. Her own commitment to do something about it was unmistakable.

Readers of these pages do not need me to tell them what Liz Brown thinks, particularly in regard to school funding equity and merger. She's done that herself through guest columns, through her campaign and as a school board member. Here's what Brown wrote in a July 2004 column:

Increase opportunities for success for every student: One-third of our students are considered 'poor' by federal standards. Often these children need additional services, which our schools must provide. We need more social workers. [We now have one for every 1,600 students; the state recommends at most 1 to 800.] We need reading tutors, mentoring programs, and a permanent alternative school. All of these require funding.

While receiving her award, Brown donated a book to Internationalist's lending library. The book was "Class and Schools" by Richard Rothstein of Columbia. It analyzes the many ways in which what Rothstein calls "social class" affects students' preparedness and success in the public school system.

Brown talked about an essay by Rothstein's colleague, Arthur Levine, called "Why Should I Worry About Schools My Children Won't Attend?" The title comes from an incident in Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" in which two brothers discuss the importance of social justice. Ibooks members know Tolstoy not only as a towering literary figure but as an advocate of anarchism and nonviolent resistance who influenced Gandhi and King.

Levine insists that

today our country has two education systems, separate and unequal. One chiefly serves our more affluent, suburban white children, while the other primarily serves low-income, urban children of color. There are great disparities between the two in teacher quality, curriculum, resources, facilities, funding, student achievement, graduation rates and college attendance. And these, in turn, reflect broader societal inequities.

This is evocative of Liz Brown's repeated point about inequity in school funding in Orange County. Here the children of poverty tend to be rural rather than urban and are not necessarily children of color. As Brown has often pointed out, they comprise a full third of the students in the county school system.

Brown is well aware that the social justice she seeks will only come when we have county commissioners willing to take the (apparently) difficult steps toward funding equity.

Under the current representational system that will require commissioner candidates committed to that issue who can run strong in the city school district.

In that light, Brown's receipt of the Sheldon Award takes on an additional dimension. It demonstrates the potential base of support within southern Orange County for a candidate who is committed to social justice in the public school systems.



Congratulations to Liz and to Ibooks. I'm glad Ibooks was able to think and act locally.

What I've appreciated most about Liz during her tenure on the OC School Board is her willingness to learn. She has consistently listened to the voices of parents, advocates, and experts. It's no surprise that she would have read Rothstein's book, because she's read more books on education than most educators.

It's refreshing to have a representative who is open to new ideas and continues to challenge herself to find innovative and effective solutions.

I don't want my column to give the impression that Ibooks does not "think and act locally." Past Sheldon Award recipients include Alderman Diana McDuffee, union leader Barbara Prear, and attorney Ashley Osment. The difference with Liz Brown is that her work is not in an area I usually associate with Ibooks activists and volunteers.


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