Lori Barden is a parent of two school-aged boys, Tanner (7) and Will (12), who attend an
intentionally diverse public charter school in Rhode Island. She just completed a run to become District 59 State Representative in Pawtucket—the fourth largest city in the state—in order to disrupt “business as usual.” She was unsuccessful in her bid, but continues to believe more parents should run for office.
What was your caffeinated beverage of choice when knocking on doors and campaigning? I ran on iced coffee and hugs from my family.
Running for a General Assembly seat was not something you’d been dreaming about forever, it kind of sprung up. Why did you feel compelled to run? The turning point for me was during the last legislative session. There was a committee meeting to discuss two important education-related bills. One was trying to force a specific type of charter school into the teacher’s pension system. The other was about guaranteeing recess for students. There were dozens of parents and educators there to testify. We waited for three hours. Then, we were told we couldn’t speak. The committee voted without constituent testimony. This is not unusual, but it’s unacceptable. The voices of our every day people are not being heard. There is no transparency to the process. I wanted to be a voice for the people.
What specifically do you wish Rhode Island schools were doing better? I feel like we are not utilizing our public charter schools to the best of our ability. We are not using them as areas of learning for other schools with similar populations. We aren’t digging into why some of them, like
the Compass School in the south of the state and Blackstone Valley Prep in the north, are making changes and being so successful. Is it the hands-on approach, Saturday opportunity days, the extended school day, academic rigor and high expectations, the attention to the social-emotional, that math is embedded into every subject and classroom, or that they have to go through a rigorous five-year charter renewal process? What is it—and how do we apply it to all of our schools? I think there are always efforts to share best practices, but there never seems to be enough sharing.
You are from a union household; how do you feel the teachers union helps or hinders your hopes for education? No one likes change. I think people are often afraid to see what happens if we do change. I am from a union family and respect the hard work done by many of our members, but sometimes I feel that the teachers union looks out for the lives of teachers above the lives of kids. That just gets it all wrong.
As a parent of two school-aged children, what keeps you up at night? I believe that we need to be structured about what our schools need to achieve and flexible on how kids need to learn to be successful. [pullquote position="left"]Our standards cannot be wishy-washy or consistently changed up from year to year. This takes away from the process and the purpose. We need to see what works and let it have time to do that. I have two unique children. One looks at a test and never fears it, does his best, and loves the challenge. Another has difficulty just sitting through a class. So, if the end goal is the same to, for example, to read at grade level, what are we doing to personalize education to get every child to that same set goal? That’s what I think about as a parent. We can’t focus on just one thing. Just one thing is not going to work for every child. Kids are unique.
You were ultimately unsuccessful in the election. What will you do now?
I will keep stirring the pot to make people more aware of important issues. I want people to have uncomfortable conversations and push themselves to hear all sides. Most of all, I want to help people become self-advocates with a voice in their government. There are still a lot of things that we can do to impact our community without being elected politicians. I recently did five playground cleanups with local middle school students. Those cleanups will continue, and I will still get to see the pride those students have in a job well done.
What would you say to other parents who might want to get political? Do it! It’s hard, but worth it. You become aware of more sides to the coin than just your own. I will definitely consider running again.
Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago ...