What does “democracy” really mean?

As a writer, I’m fascinated by words and their meanings. Given that numerous heated elections are coming up (paired with an especially frustrating local special election that has just passed),  I’ve become passionate about the word “democracy” and wanting to dig into what it truly means.

Trust me. This post isn’t a boring history or civics lesson. It’s an attempt to recognize and appreciate the ways “democracy” plays out in my own day-to-day life so that it’s never taken for granted. “Democracy” is preserved by actions like talking with high school students about their rights, speaking out against something you feel strongly about, writing or signing petitions, or tapping into the power of the law to hold elected officials accountable for their actions. No one should ever be shamed, or worse, punished, for exercising their democratic rights, yet I’ve experienced that first-hand here in my own small town, right down to a nasty letter sent to me by a local official because I dared to share information about an issue of public concern.

I don’t care what kind of powerful seat the person holds, no one is above the law, and especially when it comes to running elections with transparency, which was sorely and embarrassingly lacking in the recent Medfield School Committee/Board of Selectmen special election to fill an interim committee seat.

A school committee election anywhere is especially sacred. Unlike other town boards, if  you don’t like the way your committee votes on a particular budget issue or policy, for example, there’s not much you can do about it — other than voting each individual member out of office. For boards like the Conservation Commission, Planning Board or Historical Commission, for example, a democratic appeals process is in place at BOTH the local and state level. Not so for school committees. If you don’t like the way they operate, you’re held captive.

Are there exceptions? Yes, but very limited and typically only related to student issues, such as special education and civil rights, not policy-making or budget-setting. Even so, the rules for public input at School Committee meetings, and the unspoken etiquette around not making waves with school budgets at Town Meeting, serve as strong deterrents for people who do want to speak up, but either don’t know how or are too afraid to do so. And believe it or not, I was once one of those people!

School committee members can appease people by holding “school committee hours”, but how are they held accountable for responding or taking action on any of the issues that have been brought forth? Not one school committee meeting has provided a generic, anonymous summary of the topics/issues discussed during school committee hours.

These days, I’m realizing the only way to make change happen is to leverage my strengths as a writer and communicator and do whatever I can to create greater awareness of important education issues right here in Medfield — especially for parents of young children coming up in our schools. It shouldn’t take a groundswell of community members to make sure their voices are heard, but if that’s what it takes, I hope I can be a source of motivation to get it going.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

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