Sunday, October 1, 2023

PA: One Moms For Liberty Alternative--Grandmas for Love

Shirley Hershey Showalter's has certainly had a journey, and right now that journey has led her to help lead a group set up to counteract the influence of Moms for Liberty in one Pennsylvania county.

Showalter grew up Mennonite in Lititz, PA, (Lancaster County) coming up through the Warwick School District before shipping off to Eastern Mennonite University, where she met and married her husband. She taught English, did graduate school at the University of Austin, college professor, college president, Kalamazoo to become a VP at the Fetzer Institute (mission: to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world). Then Virginia, then Brooklyn. She's published two books-- Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World, her memoir, and The Mindful Grandparent: The Art of Loving Our Children’s Children. By the time the latter had come out in 2022, Showalter was back in Lititz, and concerned about what she was seeing there.

Lancaster county has a busy chapter of Moms For Liberty. LancasterOnline ticked off some of their work:

In the Elizabethtown Area School District, where arguments over library books have raged since at least 2021, school board President Terry Seiders has received death threats and warnings that his house would be burned down. Unsurprisingly, but sadly, the longtime school director decided not to seek reelection.

The Hempfield school board has adopted a policy that will make it easier for district residents to have books that they deem inappropriate removed from the district’s libraries. It also worked with a Harrisburg-based religious rights law firm, the Independence Law Center, to craft its 2022 policy banning transgender athletes from competing on sports teams that align with their gender identity.

As Sholtis reported, Rachel Wilson-Snyder, a Warwick School District resident and the chair of Lancaster County’s Moms for Liberty chapter, was at a Hempfield school board meeting in early May, passing out flyers with information about which high school library books to oppose.

Hempfield’s library book policy was on the agenda that night. That meeting was fertile ground for Moms for Liberty’s toxic brand of book-banning activism.

Lititz is a small town, about 9,000 people, and the kind of place that still puts a nativity scene in the town square, the kind of place where, when you move back, you run into people you know from way back. In a blog post, Showalter describes a conversation with an old classmate in 2021.

Margaret told me she had spoken at the local school board meeting. A former teacher and world traveler, she appreciates the complex histories of the many cultures that constitute America. She believes all students benefit from learning about cultures other than their own and about their nation’s history, both the good and the bad of it. She shared her experience as a parent, grandparent, and former teacher.

Why did she feel it necessary to defend such a basic 21st-century educational principle? Wouldn’t everyone favor such essential tools for living in peace and seeking mutual understanding? Apparently not.

Margaret spoke because she had been listening first. She described board meetings full of acrimony and tension, with parents demanding more influence on books in the curriculum and in the library. The diversity, equity, and inclusion policy was another area parents questioned. The board members were accused of supporting pornography and lack of transparency by some parents. The school administration and board spent precious time and much taxpayer money responding to Right to Know requests for their emails.

Showalter started studying up on M4L, the national movement, and the ugly consequences that occur when the take over a board. 

When extremists win a majority, they frequently fire the superintendent regardless of whether the contract is up. They ban things — books, rainbow flags, Black Lives Matter flags. They frighten teachers and staff, whose difficult jobs become even harder. A single parent who complains can take away books from many students, as happened in Florida recently when Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb was moved from a shelf for all students to one reserved for the upper grades only.

Showalter got together with Jeanette Bontrager, a Hempfield schools grad who had also attended EMU years ago, and Lynette Meck, a retired consultant who worked on the Mennonite Central Committee. The three grandmas live in the Lititz-based senior living facility, Moravian Manor. And as they watched the M4L crowd start pushing into the area, they had feelings:

“I’m just incensed at this whole Moms for Liberty endeavor,” Bontrager said. “It just makes my blood boil. I want to do what I can to keep it out.”

So they formed Grandmas for Love. Set up a website. And in about a year, they acquired 100 or so supporters. 

Last summer Showalter attended the M4L summit and wrote about it for Billy Penn. Her take is pretty clearheaded:

Like the speakers at the national summit declare, I love my country. I love my small town of Lititz and the good-hearted folks who live here. Historically, most of them vote Republican. I love our nation’s founding documents, especially the Constitution.

I now also love my local public school, its teachers, and its leadership with a passion I would never have imagined — until Moms for Liberty came along. The group is eroding one of the most important principles of American democracy:

The separation of church and state.

Come to think of it, I only heard the idea of separation of church and state mentioned one time at the conference. And that once, it was dismissed as a “bogus argument.”

What I heard loudly and clearly at the summit was a call to theocracy in the guise of democracy — asserting conservative Christian values as normative for all. God’s name came up often, his blessing invoked, and his guidance proclaimed. For people who decry ideology and accuse teachers of indoctrination, the speakers seemed blind to their own.

The group is largely bipartisan, but they did so some work for Democratic candidates for the Warwick school board. They are part of a landscape of groups in the area that have sprung up in response to the Moms For Liberty agitation. 

The website includes an introductory video, notable for how not-at-all-radical it sounds:

We uphold the values of diversity and inclusion. We believe parents of all religious faiths and no religious faith all have the right to guide their children including the right to ‘opt out’ of certain books or activities. This system of respect for religious differences, based on the important American principle of separation of church and state, has worked in public schools for decades.

And this:

We want school board members who believe in public education, who focus on learning, and who bring creative problem-solving ideas to the table. We want enthusiasm, energy, and empathy for ALL the students of "dear old Warwick." (Some of us can still sing the alma mater!) We value school board  candidates who are parents of WSD students, who have experience as educators. Candidates who are mental and physical health professionals, and who are community members accustomed to working within budgets. 

We take our role as elders seriously. We feel called to stand up for students who may not always be able to stand up for themselves. We feel called to stand up for teachers and administrators whose work of preparing the next generation is both essential and challenging.

This is where we are--that these most simple and unexceptional ideas now show just how far away from the middle some folks have strayed, that these kinds of reasonable and bland expressions qualify as a challenge to one of the major players in education.

Grandmas for Love don't appear to have any aspirations for spreading beyond their own community, and they haven't magically pulled in millions of dollars by selling t-shirts. But they are one example of how local folks can mobilize and make sure that folks aren't sleeping when school board elections roll around. If a bunch of Mennonite grandmas can do it, so can you. In a month or so we'll see how they did. 

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