- A tech entrepreneur with no political or grassroots experience, Siva Raj and his partner launched the campaign fueled by the desire to see his sons do better at school.
The recall of three San Francisco school board members has shaken the Democratic Party to the core and is being seen as a wake-up call for Democrats across the country. With the party poised to lose the midterm elections, the recall is being seen as reflective of the country’s mood. It is being widely reported that the recall sends a message that the Democratic Party is not in sync with its own constituents. Many believe that the recall shows that even in a city like San Francisco, which is the most progressive and liberal metropolis, there is no patience for “woke” politics.
At the center of the recall is Siva Raj, an Indian citizen, and a “frustrated” father. Along with his partner Autumn Looijen, he galvanized San Franciscans to start a petition to recall three members of the school board. A tech entrepreneur, Raj had no political or grassroots experience, but was took the step for his desire to see his sons do better at school.
Nearly after a year it was launched, the recall ousted three members of the school board — President Gabriela López, Vice President Alison Collins and Commissioner Faauuga Moliga. The other four members were elected or re-elected in November and couldn’t be recalled until at least six months into their terms.
Many see the recall as an omen for the outcome of November’s midterm elections, pointing to the example of San Francisco, “a famously tolerant city that lost its patience when progressive politics took priority over pandemic needs,” according to Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Z. Barabak.
“Parents of all political stripes have emerged as one of the most potent forces in campaigns and elections today, and woe to anyone seen as standing in the way of their kids’ education,” he wrote.
For journalist Gary Kamiya, the recall campaign drew national attention “because it was seen as a trial of racialized left-wing politics.” In The Atlantic, he wondered what it means “that voters in one of the most liberal cities in the country decisively repudiated a board that last academic year marched proudly under the banner of racial equity and social justice while making no effort to open its schools?”
Laura Meckler wrote in The Washington Post that “the recall election is the latest signal that voters, even in a liberal city like San Francisco, have grown frustrated with public schools during the coronavirus pandemic.” She said “education, particularly its struggles with virus measures and racial justice, is expected to play a prominent role in elections across the country this year.”
Citing the recall results, leading Democratic political pundits have cautioned the progressive factions of the fate that awaits the party if they keep pushing it to the left.
Although it was at a local event, the recall made national headlines and catapulted Siva and Autumn into the spotlight, with appearances on news segments, both nationally and locally. The recall sparked debates and discussion on how the pressures of the pandemic and distance learning have merged with politics nationwide, making school board races a new front in a culture war, as Republicans are increasingly looking to education as a galvanizing issue that could help them sway voters.
No Interest in Politics
Despite the sudden media attention and the political interpretations of the recall, Siva told American Kahani that their goal was not to get into politics. He and Looijen initiated the recall as they were frustrated by the board’s failure to reopen schools last academic year. Even as other districts opened or developed hybrid in-person and remote systems, and as private schools in the area operated in person, San Francisco remained remote for nearly all students, who did not return until the fall.
When Raj and Looijen moved to San Francisco in December 2020 from Pleasanton in the East Bay, they were expecting schools to reopen in January 2021. The couple has five children. While Looijen’s three children are studying in Los Altos, Raj has two boys in the school system — the younger one is in elementary school while the older one is in high school. The pandemic and the remote learning were especially hard for the high schooler who struggled quite a bit, from being an honor student to going to rock bottom. “More than his grades, he was borderline depressed, and was not eating properly and not getting out of bed,” Raj says of his older son. “I was really concerned, I could see that he had lost motivation.”
But in January, Raj got an email notifying him that middle and high school students wouldn’t be returning to school that year. Raj who had never paid attention to local politics till then started talking to other parents and calling into school board meetings. Quickly he realized that the school board really didn’t have a plan in place. The meetings would run for hours and after waiting over five hours Raj would get a chance to speak, “post-midnight for a few minutes.” While reopening strategies were discussed in the end, the school board spent much of the pandemic focusing on issues such as voting to rename 44 schools and ending the merit-based admissions process at Lowell High School.
The school board was “disconnected from its priorities,” Raj says, adding that even though parents wanted to get involved, they were pushed back. “There was a wall of indifference.” He connected with other parents through social media groups and organized protests. They also conducted “a Zoom-out session,” where kids did their remote learning in a park so that people could see what was going on. However, when these efforts didn’t make a difference, Raj realized that they needed to do “something dramatic.”
Raj and Looijen talked about the recall campaign “seriously” on Feb. 14, 2021, Valentine’s Day. Their initial approach was to talk to people and see if anyone else would be interested in leading the recall effort, but no one wanted to do it. “There were a lot of frustrated parents,” Raj says. “Many were afraid that they’d be called racists or White Supremacists and all that.”
Belling the Cat
That’s when the couple decided to take the lead themselves. At first, they thought the recall effort was a way of putting pressure on the school board. But with no such response from the school board, they decided to go ahead.
Some people who were involved in politics thought the recall was impossible. They advised them to latch on to things that “are going to win.” But for Raj and Looijen “it was about the kids, not politics.” They didn’t care if the recall effort succeeded or not, they were doing it because they had no choice.
It was Looijen who filed the paperwork, Raj says, calling her “brave.” Having grown up in Chennai, he was always told to stay away from politics. However, since he immigrated to the U.S. in 2010, he has been keeping up with all the political developments. Politically, Raj says he leans left. “I have always thought of myself as a progressive,” he says. “I strongly believe that it’s important for the government to provide a safety net.”
Those views and Raj’s desire to provide his sons with the best education possible stems from his childhood. He grew up “in extreme poverty.” During his teenage years, he lived on top of a factory where his dad worked as a security guard. His parents struggled to put him through school. “For me personally, education has made all the difference,” he says. “When you come from a disadvantaged background, you appreciate the difference education makes in your life.” And that’s why for Raj it was appalling to see that San Francisco, “of all cities,” was unable to give kids a good education. “Someone like me from halfway across the planet can get an education, the kids in our own backyard had to struggle to go to school.”
Looijen and Raj filed the paperwork for the petition on Feb. 19, 2021, followed by about four to five weeks of legal work. Then they were tasked with collecting signatures on the petition from 10 percent of registered voters in the city to get the recall on the ballot. “Overnight 2,000 people signed up and by the weekend that number increased to 8,000,” Raj says. “The diverse parent community was very motivated.” Soon the campaign got traction from parents, politicians and the media.
The recall campaign was significant as it galvanized Asian Americans, particularly the Chinese American community. It also brought together immigrants like Raj, who cannot vote in national elections but are eligible to vote for the school board. At least 258 non-citizens were eligible to vote in the Feb. 15 recall election, according to ABC News, “a significant increase from the previous school board election in 2020, when only 31 non-citizens voted.”
Bouquets and Brickbats
“We’ve now gotten used to being attacked, shouted at,” says Raj. But it is not because of his ethnicity, he claims. “The social media environment tends to be very intimidating and aggressive and a lot of the attacks or the backlash are focused on the fact that we were newcomers.”
But the couple has managed to ignore the naysayers and are basking in the glory of their success. What’s next, they don’t know yet, but right now, it’s time to celebrate the victory and focus on the thing that’s most important to Raj — his family.