Recently, People For’s National Political Director Markus Batchelor met with three enthusiastic school board candidates from Virginia for a live panel discussion on why they’re running for their respective school boards. Tracy Blake, Marcia St. John-Cunning, and Randy Riffle are standing up for Truth, Justice, and the American Way in Virginia, and they’re eager to let us all know what motivated them to get involved.
The following is a portion of that conversation, edited for clarity and length. Watch the full discussion on our Instagram here.
Markus Batchelor: People for the American Way has been doing work in Virginia for several cycles now, defending what we call truth, justice, and the American Way. The right for every American to have the freedom to learn, the right for every American to have courts and a justice system that works for them and protects them, and the right for every American to participate freely in our democracy.
Oftentimes those battles both start and end in many damaging ways on school boards. And so we homed in on that work, got around the commonwealth, got to meet some incredible candidates, reach out to them, learn their stories, and offer them our endorsement because we believe that in office, they will defend Truth, Justice and the American Way.
So, I want to kick this discussion off really quickly and give you all an opportunity to introduce yourselves, talk about where you’re running and why you’ve decided to run.
Tracy Blake: I’m running for the school board because I’m a parent and not a politician. So as a parent, I have some really lived experience in the community that I can take to the board and advocate for my district. And my district won’t have to worry about whether my decisions or votes are whether to further my career or for the betterment of myself and not for the betterment of my community, the families and the children.
In our district, a lot of the parents are working two jobs sometimes because it’s very expensive to live. The houses cost a lot of money here, and so you have to work a lot, or you have to make a lot of money to live here, and there are a lot of single parents in our community also. So, I’m here to be the voice for those parents. I have been advocating on a smaller scale for those parents sitting on some superintendents’ advisory councils as the chair of the Advisory Council on Equity and then as a vice chair on Advisory Council on Instruction.
Markus Batchelor: Let’s keep that theme of super parent going. Marcia St. John-Cunning is running for the school board in Fairfax County. You’ve got a long history of involvement in politics, but also very intimate involvement with the Fairfax County School Board system. So why don’t you talk a little bit about that and your experience?
Marcia St. John-Cunning: Well, first of all, thank you for the invitation. I really appreciate it. My name is Marcia St. John Cunning. I am originally from El Paso, Texas. I grew up on the border, the daughter of an immigrant mother and a father who has lived in New Mexico. And we can trace our family heritage back 17 generations. We were here before the part of Texas and New Mexico that I’m from was part of the United States. So I have deep roots, indigenous roots, and deep Hispanic Latino roots.
I live in Fairfax County. We’ve lived here for 35 years in the Franconia District, which is the district that I’m running in. And my daughters attended Fairfax County public schools. They are the proud product and graduates of those schools. In the process of me working in the schools and volunteering as a parent, I was recruited to work as a family parent liaison because of my familiarity with the culture and because I spoke Spanish.
So in my role, I’ve been a Spanish language interpreter, a family liaison, and also currently, I am the community school coordinator in the only elementary community school in Fairfax County. The concept of the family liaison as well as a community school is to recognize that although Fairfax County is considered a very wealthy county, we are a tale of two students.
I realized that as much as I love my boots on the ground job and experience, that I would have a much greater impact on the policy level running for school board, particularly with some of the taxes we are seeing coming to public schools.
It’s about making and having an impact on our community and ensuring that every student in every zip code has access to a high-quality education.
Markus Batchelor: Yeah, thank you. I think about how your very personal experiences with the system drove you to do this. And Randy, I think you’ve probably had one of the most intimate experiences with the school system by being in the classroom relatively recently in public schools in the Commonwealth.
I ran for school board when I was 23. You were 24. You are among the youngest candidates in the Commonwealth. So what drove you to run? Give us a little insight into what it’s like being a young candidate running for office for the first time.
Randy Riffle: It’s been fun to be a young candidate in my community. I think it’s a breath of fresh air for James City County.
I’m an Eagle Scout, my dad’s an AV veteran. I’ve lived in Hampton Roads. I went to school less than a decade ago. Education has changed since the current older generation of people have been in school, whether they’re teachers or they were students themselves in public education.
We’re in a new modern era of society and of how we should go about education. And that’s been fulfilling to talk to voters and talk to people at their doorstep. They feel like there are some gaps that have come from either using computers too much in class or ideas that maybe aren’t what we thought.
A big part of what I’m trying to do is use my public service experience. I work as my day job at the House of Delegates for Delegate Mullen here, Williamsburg. I’ve been in the State House for two years.
I’ve worked since my sophomore year of college. I worked through a governor’s administration and for the Secretary of Finance. So, I have a know-how of how this works, and I know, being on the school board, those things translate really well to my day job. And so I’m using that background time to turn back around and give to education because it’s given me so much throughout my life.
Markus Batchelor: Thank you for that. I think all of you really captured a really good, diverse group of stories about how you got to this point. But I think the common thread is that all of you thought that now was the time to step up, that this moment was urgent, that folks like you who’ve had your set of experiences should be the folks in office making the decisions.
Hear the full discussion on our Instagram here.
And to see our full list of endorsements in Virginia, visit pfaw.org/virginia.