Taking action: Silverton Opportunity working to increase leadership diversity

June 2017 Posted in Community, School

By Steve Ritchie

The Silverton Opportunity Political Action Committee was officially formed in early March, but its genesis was the November election day rally at Silverton High School that left some students feeling harassed and brought Silverton unwanted national attention.

Naseem Rakha, who is the mother of a high school student, was concerned about the uproar at school on election day and felt uneasy about what might happen the next day, the day after the election.

At 12:30 a.m. on election night she posted a message on Facebook saying she would be at the high school at 7:30 a.m. “to make sure that kids were getting into school safely without being harassed or intimidated,” and invited others to join her. She didn’t really think her post would have much effect and thought she would likely be the only one there in the morning.

But Rakha was delighted to see five other women at the school who had seen the post. And not just five women, but five women she had never met before.

“When I heard about the bullying incident (on election day) at the school, I thought this cannot go on. We can’t have kids in school who are scared. And here, lo and behold, we had a group of people who were saying, ‘we can’t have this.’”

Rakha said the conversations that started that morning snowballed into discussions, meetings, making personal connections, and, eventually, starting a political action committee that would take an active role in supporting three candidates – Jennifer Traeger, Michelle Stone Finicle and Shelly Nealon – in May’s school board election. The core group of a dozen people recruited family, friends, and others to join in advocating for their school board candidates.

“We did a very good job getting the word out,” Rakha said. “We knocked on over 2,000 doors. We made phone calls… the best way to have people mark a ballot in your favor is face to face communication, not ads, not signs, not editorials in the newspaper.”

With Traeger elected, Nealon holding a narrow lead, and Finicle garnering 45 percent of the vote against a well-known opponent, the group is even more energized now in its stated mission to “bring more Silverton area women into positions of leadership in our community and state, and to support women’s personal growth and development through grants and education.”

Mandy Petrik, Silverton Opportunity treasurer, said that a couple of issues they raised in the campaign particularly resonated with voters. One was the fact that none of the current board members had direct experience in education, and the women who were running had a level of experience that impressed people. The second was the all-male composition of the board.

“It wasn’t a hard sell. Those were two issues people could really see the importance of. Having a board that represents the community should not be a partisan issue. We saw a board that was not diverse and there were three positions up for election. We wanted to find candidates who would represent our community… not all of our candidates are Democrats and not everyone in our group (of volunteers) is a Democrat.”

Petrik said the group understood a political action committee (PAC) might have negative connotations, but they took that step for “the ease of campaigning, better purchasing, and transparency – all contributors are listed and virtually all are local.”

Petrik and Rakha say Silverton Opportunity will be active in a variety of areas, not just in the political arena.

“There’s a lot of energy and excitement (in the group),” Petrik noted. “We have a scholarship (award process) coming up. And we all agree we’re not going to just be election focused. We’re really looking to increase diversity in leadership in general. That may be helping a woman start a small business, or take advantage of other leadership opportunities.”

Rakha and Petrik readily say that Silverton Opportunity is fueled in part by a reaction to the national political scene.

“What is happening nationwide is that people are experiencing the greater levels of divisiveness,” Rakha said. “This presidential election really divided the country and made people feel powerless and angry. The way a lot of people are trying to reclaim their power and their sense of belonging to a community is to be active locally. People want to be engaged.”

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