SOUTH KINGSTOWN – When Paula Whitford announced to a room full of strangers that she’d be running for school committee earlier this year, Mwangi Gitahi remembers feeling shocked and amazed.
“I never expected that, because we’ve never seen it,” Gitahi said. “School committee has always looked a certain way, so I was blown away.”
The Towards and Anti-Racist South Kingstown (TASK) co-founder has come to know Whitford as the perfect blend of realistic and optimistic, and viewed her candidacy announcement as brave and courageous, but in the moment, Whitford said she was anything but.
While her decision to run for local office was made in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the national reckoning with racial inequality that followed, the launch of her campaign was plagued with doubts of whether she’d even make it out of the primary.
“From her to go from that kind of beginning, to getting the momentum she had, to getting to vote and winning the election, was incredible,” Gitahi said.
Last Friday, Whitford made the local history books when she became the first woman of color to ever be sworn onto the South Kingstown School Committee.
Although other black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) community members have previously served on the town council, this will be the first time in local history that minority students will be able to see someone who looks like them on the school committee.
Now that Whitford has a seat at the table, addressing racial and eco-socimonic inequalities within the schools is going to be one of her chief, primary focuses. And while other candidates may have spoken about the need to address inequality within the schools, Whitford has actually felt its effects first hand – as a student, parent and grandparent of the South Kingstown School Department.
“All of these issues that have come to light, have always, always, always been there,” Whitford said. “Their approach to that was to put a bandaid on it, give a thumbs up and say, ‘Yeah, we fixed it!’ And then sweep it under the rug, never to be seen again.”
“That can’t happen while I have a seat at the table,” she added. “I will not allow that to happen while I have a seat at the table.”
There’s a lot of work to do, and it might not be solved in one year, four years or ever, for that matter – but the important thing is that the district continues to make progress, Whitford said.
Lasting change will mean continuing to come back to the table and having difficult conversations over and over again, which Whitford is ready and willing to take on, but she does hope that her position on the committee will inspire others to become more involved.
“My purpose here is to let the BIPOC community know that, ‘No, we don’t have to stay silent anymore. It’s time to come out,’” Whitford said.
And while her position on the school committee holds incredibly significant meaning for BIPOC students and community members, Whitford stresses that she’ll spend her time in office working to improve the educational opportunities of all students.
There many people who helped make her candidacy possible, and thousands more who placed their confidence in her when they filled out their ballot, but Whitford might have never initially considered a run for office if it hadn’t been for school committee member Emily Cummiskey.
When Cummiskey first asked Whitford if she’d considered running, her answer was a quick and resounding “Hell no!” Her initial refusal wasn’t because of a disinterest in education, but because Whitford doubted whether or not she actually had the qualifications to run.
Her qualifications and life experiences, compared to other school committee members, looked quite different. At first, Whitford viewed her background as a challenge or disadvantage, rather than the asset it was – being able to bring a different perspective to the table.
“What I have doesn’t necessarily come from a book,” Whitford said. “It comes from life experiences, and in my life, I’ve had a lot of experiences.”
“I’ve experienced living in a homeless shelter, I’ve experienced alcoholism, I’ve experienced the death of a child – I didn’t have an easy life like a lot of my colleagues have, I didn’t have that background they have in education.”
Her openness and honesty about the struggles she’s faced resonated with many voters, and her platform of equity, inclusion and engagement in education was embraced – catapulting her to the top of the polls in the primary and general elections.
“I thought it was pretty clear, at the time, that South Kingstown was in a place where, overwhelmingly, people are aware that we need to work towards equity and we can’t get there unless we have a variety of voices at the table,” Cummiskey said. “I was not surprised by the results at all. I was confident that our community was ready for more diversity on the board.”
In the past, Cummiskey said she’s reached out to Whitford for advice or her perspective on how an action or policy might impact BIPOC community members, but after so many times of reaching out, she realized the best thing for the entire community would be to have Whitford sitting next to her.
The significance of this moment isn’t lost on her fellow school committee members, either. Long before Whitford announced her candidacy, school committee member Kate Macinanti remembers being struck by something she’s told the town council while advocating on behalf of the Boys & Girls Club Program – “not everywhere we go is a place for us to be.”
“This November election our community spoke loudly on behalf of Ms. Whitford that the school committee was a place for her to be,” Macinanti said. “Not only was she the first person, and woman, of color to be elected to the South Kingstown School Committee, she was overwhelmingly the highest vote getter.”
“This is a big deal, and it deserves to be properly acknowledged and shouted from the rooftops,” she added, noting her excitement for being able to work beside Whitford.
Through all of this, Whitford has remained incredibly humbled to be the first woman of color to sit on the school committee, but she remains hopeful that she won’t be the last.