Mural controversy prompts two SF school board candidates to join race

Jenny Lam’s seat will be the only one on the board open for election this November.

Two candidates who have tossed their hats into the San Francisco school board race to challenge incumbent Jenny Lam say the controversy over the mural at George Washington High School motivated them to run.

Lam’s seat will be the only one on the board open for election this November. Friday marked the filing deadline for the school board candidates, and San Francisco artist and tenants rights advocate Robert “Bobby” Coleman and SF FILM development director Kirsten Strobel pulled papers qualifying them as Lam’s competitors.

Strobel, 41, and Coleman, 63, told the San Francisco Examiner that the unanimous vote in June by the school board to paint over a controversial New Deal-era mural inside of Washington High School at an estimated cost of $600,000 sparked their political ambitions.

“I have deep progressive roots across the spectrum of San Francisco life and I can think of better ways to spend $600,000,” said Coleman. The New York native is a former attorney with the San Francisco Tenants Union who currently works as an artist and book editor.

The 1937 mural by Russian artist Victor Arnautoff, called “Life of Washington,” depicts enslaved African Americans shucking corn and white colonizers towering over a dead Native American, among other things, as a commentary on westward expansion.

Members of the school’s community, including students, teachers and parent advisory groups have criticized the mural as demeaning and traumatizing to black and brown students at the school. Efforts to remove it date back more than five decades.

However the vote has triggered backlash from groups including arts preservationists and members of the school’s alumni association, who are advocating to “save” the mural and are organizing a ballot measure to overturn the board’s decision this November.

Later on Friday, the school district board president Stevon Cook said he will introduce a solution at the school board meeting on August 13 to “cover-over the mural with panels or another similar treatment, which will preserve the artwork and not destroy it.”

Breed appointed Lam, who also serves as Breed’s education advisor, in January to the seat vacated by Supervisor Matt Haney. Now she must run for reelection to maintain her position on the school board.

Lam previously served as engagement manager for a national nonprofit focused on connecting public school classrooms to high-speed internet. She is best known for work with the Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), where she served as director of community initiatives from 2010 to 2016.

From 2014 to 2018, Lam co-chaired the San Francisco Unified School District’s Public Education Enrichment Fund Community Advisory Committee, which advises the school board and superintendent on distributing the local funding.

Lam, who is an Oakland native and the daughter of immigrant parents, currently is the only Chinese American Commissioner on the board. She is the mother of two public school students.

Since taking on the school board position, Lam said that she has worked with Commissioner Alison Collins to introduce a resolution to adopt “Equity Studies and Implement Humanizing Learning Experiences for All Students PK-12.”

If elected, Lam said that her priorities include providing early literacy interventions “so every student can read at grade level,” strengthening student learning foundations in the arts, math, science and technology, investing in the school communities and expanding language opportunities.

“Our resolution expands and builds on the work of previous boards to implement ethnic studies district wide and to use those values and cultural competence and relevance to guide all curricular decisions,” she said.

She ultimately voted in favor of painting over the mural, and on Friday defended her position by saying that she is looking at the issue “from the students’ standpoint.”

“I think it is important to listen to the students who are impacted. I have connected with many students of color who have expressed a real understanding of the issues and history surrounding George Washington’s slave ownership,” Lam said. “Our students have all studied the origins of Native American slavery, as well as the African slave trade. Students themselves point out the stereotyping and depiction of people of color within the mural.”

But the decision was criticized by the school board hopefuls.

“The mural vote was embarrassing and should be reevaluated,” said Coleman, who added that it shows “breakdown of a reasonable decision making process.”

While Coleman did not offer details about his campaign platform, he said that he plans to “listen very closely to the students.”

“I care about them and the impact. I’m concerned that the controversy deepens their trauma. And I want to know exactly how they feel about the art, how the families feel,” he said.

Coleman added that he has a “history of filling in the gaps in the schools.”

In recent years, Coleman supplied all the San Francisco schools with free creative writing teaching materials and produced youth literacy festivals cosponsored by the public library, he said. Coleman added that he “was educated in public schools and later obtained degrees from Columbia, Emory, and Stanford.”

Strobel said she decided to run for school board shortly after she read an opinion piece by Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney in the Public Defender’s Office, that defended the mural and warned the board that removing it would be akin to “whitewashing history.”

“I thought it was absurd — and then seeing how the vote went and how much money they are allocating to deal with this,” said Strobel. “If we get fired up about those murals, then why are we not getting fired up that some students don’t know how to read. That’s a real issue here.”

Strobel, who grew up in Pacifica and for the past four years has worked as director of individual relations for SF FILM, which provides year-round programming including the San Francisco International Film Festival and Education activities, has years of experience in fundraising.

She previously worked for Legal Services for Children, which represents minors in a variety of matters, including school discipline, and for the philanthropy organization Full Circle Fund.

She said that she plans to focus her campaign on “equity” in regard to “resource allocation,” and to leverage her experience with public-private partnerships and fundraising to secure resources for the district.

San Francisco Unified School District’s school assignment process would be the “big issue” of her campaign, she said.

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