Run or Die

Death is the ultimate Democracy — Martin Luther King Jr.

I lost my first election. The night was November 4, 2014. After the polls closed at 8pm, I went to meet a group of friends and family at Harlot, a nightclub in the SoMA district. Harlot is owned by Martel Tolar, the son of beloved educator and the first black NFL Referee Burl Toler. I was excited about aligning my first election night with a black family that had done so much for San Francisco.

The gathering was a beautiful collection of the diverse relationships I’d built throughout my then 28 years of life. There were people from my childhood church, same-sex partners that have become some of my closest friends, former students and good-old fashion educators that have spent their careers focused on the classroom. They finally felt like they had a reason to pay attention to a school board race.

I won’t try and recount the mixture of emotions that night. I was mostly hella tired and overwhelmed with anticipation to read the initial poll results. To my surprise, they were devastating. I was far behind the vote count I needed to be one of the top three vote getters.

Fernando, one of my closest friends urged me to keep the faith. He tried to assure me that the votes were early. I snapped at him. Fernando was with me side by side throughout the campaign. We stayed up late together researching questionnaires, walked deep into the night dropping off door hangers in neighborhoods across the city and used our weekends practicing my three minute speech to prepare for democratic club endorsements. Snapping at him was a reflection of the deep sense of defeat and disappointment I had about myself.

I launched my campaign on January 15, 2014 as a way to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. More than his legacy, I did it as a way to honor the influence of my grandmother. When I was eight years old she made me memorize and recite an excerpt of King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Bayview Opera House. I didn’t understand it at the time, but she knew the power of memorization and wanted to expose me to a message that would push me toward higher ideals.

I ran for office because of those ideals and to address the persistent failure of the school district to improve outcomes for African American students. Throughout the campaign, I learned that many more people relied on our public schools and their needs were different. Our families that have students with disabilities had expectations that weren’t being met. We have families that recently came to the country that were intimidated to ask for what they needed and confused about how the district operated. The needs of our young educators were at times different from those of our veteran educators. Our custodial and security staff in many ways are the backbone of our schools. They deserved a school district that worked as hard for them as they were working for it.

Here I was election night, wrapped up in this wave of emotions. Feeling as if I let those communities down. As the night continued Fernando ended up being right. I started to close the vote margin. By midnight, I was within 1% of winning the race.

Early that next morning, I stopped at Martha Bro’s Cafe on Cortland Ave. At that point, the election was too close to call. When I started the campaign, I told myself I wanted to wake up on election day believing I did everything I could to win. It wasn’t until I was sitting alone in that old beat up black chevy impala that I realized I achieved that goal.

I thought about being eight years old. I remembered how my parents would give me food stamps before I left for school. One morning, they fell out of my pocket while I was on the 44 MUNI bus headed to school. I was too ashamed to tell the person that found them they were mine. I went from that shame to walking into an election booth and seeing my name on the ballot. Immediately, I was overwhelmed with emotion and started to cry. It was the type of cathartic release that felt more like a spiritual cleansing than hurt and sorrow.

In that moment, I let go of any ill will about the election outcome, I felt no animosity toward my opponents or the political trickery I had experienced throughout the process. I was at peace with the journey and at peace with that eight year old.

Book Recommendations: Democracy in AmericaTribes, We Need You to Lead Us

Stevon Cook