A parent led revolt in San Francisco has roiled California politics. (Image Credit: Siva Raj and India Currents)

The postman went door-to-door on San Francisco’s historic Haight Street, as I waited in front of a grilled door. As he excused himself, I peeked inside and saw a steep staircase going up and Siva Raj, a 49-year-old hailing from India greet me from above.

Stacked at the door, were boxes of posters supporting the recent recall election of the now dethroned school board members of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which occurred last month and garnered national attention. On February 15 this year, the city voted overwhelmingly to recall its three board members – Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez, and Faauuga Moliga – over the failure to reopen public schools, the neglect of public school children during the pandemic even while promoting social justice issues, and attempts to change merit-based admissions to Lowell School to a lottery-based system.

San Francisco’s last recall election was in 1983 and it failed. This recall was driven by the various frustrations parents across the country have expressed, as schools, especially public schools, remained closed for months in the end.

And it stands out as one of the most vehement rejections of local leadership in the Bay Area. During this period, the racial inequity gap in education grew – with data showing that while one-third of the schoolchildren of the city attended in-person classes at their private schools (and most of them are white), its large public schoolchildren population – comprised of Asians, Latinos, and Blacks – fell behind. Moreover, there was a 10 percent drop in enrolment, and the board faces a budget deficit of $125 million consequently.

Infuriated by the neglect, parents with children in SFUSD came together by the thousands to get their kids back to school in one of the most successful grassroots political campaigns in the city. Liberal city voters were maligned and accused of being Republicans and “white supremacists”, even as the donors and parents emailed the board members in thousands appealing to have schools reopen. A poll conducted in February by private pollster EMC Research also revealed that 60% of San Francisco voters—and 69% of the city’s public-school parents—supported recalling the school board members.

And Raj and his partner Autumn Looijen emerged as the faces of this campaign.

Background on the Recall Duo

Siva Raj and Autumn Looijen (Image Credit: Siva Raj)

Raj, who is from the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India, with a mass of thick, curly hair, and a broad smile, ushered me indoors to his kitchen, where Looijen sat around the dining table. Both were busy working from home, with their laptops and papers strewn on the table – and the sunlight streamed in and lit up the entire room.

As Raj poured me some orange juice, I asked him what he was up to now – and he said that now both Looijen and he – who share five kids under 18 years amongst themselves – are trying to round up candidates who can be appointed to the school board to serve temporarily until elections are held. As of now, three new board members – Lisa Weissman-Ward, Ann Hsu, and Lainie Motamedi – were appointed by Mayor Breed on March 11.

Raj, who used to to live in Rochester,  New York, moved into the Bay Area suburbs in 2018,  with his two children – fifteen-year-old Shriyans and nine-year-old Rishaan, after separating from his wife. He first settled in Pleasanton, even as Looijen lived in Los Altos. They moved into the city with Looijen in December 2020, during the pandemic, and got his children admitted to public schools.

Yet the schools remained closed for in-person learning till late 2021. Elementary schools started to reopen in phases from April 19, and middle & high school students didn’t go back — except for the graduating class of seniors who did a few “zoom” sessions on-site so the school district could get some of the incentive money tied to reopening, said Raj.

“I was kind of expecting schools to reopen. But they sent an email in January 2021 saying that schools will remain closed for the entirety of the year.” He remembers feeling frustrated as did Looijen, who has three children in elementary and high school. And as they would soon realize, so did thousands of parents.

Shriyans, his elder son studying at Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School, lost interest in all work during the online schooling, said Raj. “It was fine for a few months. And then he went on from being an honor student to hitting rock bottom in terms of his grades. He was also struggling mentally.”

Even though Looijen and Raj built an app for the children to keep track of their homework, it didn’t work. “He was really struggling to motivate himself and the school experience was really terrible. I mean, you know, he would have the Zoom classes, and pretty much all his peers would shut the camera off.”

Raj grew up in the town of Chennai and entered the U.S. in 2000, working for Bausch & Lomb. After some interregnum periods spent in France, UK, and Dubai, he is now a long-term resident here and received his permanent residency status in 2021. Despite living on the west coast since 2018, he had not lived in San Francisco due to the lack of openings for his kids in the city’s lottery school system.

“But due to the pandemic, and because so many people left the city at that point, there were openings in the school district. There were enough openings that I could look at and say, alright – there’s some decent stuff here. And I was actually impressed overall,” Raj admitted.

When Raj was growing up alongside his younger brother in Chennai in the 1980s, his father worked as a clerk at a multinational company that eventually shut down, forcing his small family to shift to two bare rooms on top of a cardboard factory, where his father took up a job as a security guard. Raj’s family struggled to send their two kids to a private school when people like him – living in a slum area and from the working classes –  did not have the means to do so.

A day before his critical math board exams in 12th grade – an exam that partially determines the various colleges one can attend –  his father suffered a stroke. He remembers, “He survived after the open-heart surgery – but I didn’t know that as I was writing the exam”.

Fortunately for Raj, he got into the economics program at the University of Madras, studied econometrics for his master’s, and moved to the US with his wife.

Raj’s father got financial help from his grandmother’s brother, who lived at Berkeley and had shifted there permanently in the 1940s. Even as his mother had only a handful of saris to wear, both he and his brother, went to private schools, since education was a priority.

“If not, we would all have ended up in a government school, or something. This means that we both would’ve completely lost interest…so yeah, I was one of the lucky ones,” said Raj, reminiscing about his childhood growing up in a working-class, slum-like neighborhood.

Raj feels that his experience living in poverty may have driven him to act for a recall too. “I can see the difference that education made in my life…without that, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. That’s the only thing we have – no money, no connections, no nothing. We were living on the fringes of society. My parents worked so hard for me to afford school…I wish to work as hard for my sons too,” said Raj.

San Franciscan parents in early 2021 were seeking a representative to do the work of amassing signatures for a recall. Eventually, it fell upon Raj and Looijen, who were ready to take on the work. They began by reaching out to Joel Engardio, a local journalist who sent out newsletters and began an online campaign.

Canvassing the streets of San Francisco (Image Credit: Siva Raj)

In mid-February 2021, expecting around three hundred parents to sign up for the mailing list, they were astonished to realize that over 7,000 had signed up, and their Facebook group grew to gather over a thousand followers. Looijen, with her experience working in tech and for non-profits, created directories. The couple woke up every day thinking of a new reason that recall was necessary, to be shared with their followers.

Looijen recalls of the school board members, “Collins, the way she related to people, she really did not seem concerned.” They remember how hundreds of emails were sent by the parents to Collins and the board – without any response.

Many parents were afraid they would be called racist and were also doxed. “We had people telling their friends not to donate to our campaign because they would lose their business…apparently it is like that. Campaigners had their backgrounds doxed and scrutinized, they’ve been bullied…”, said Raj. Though he did not keep a track of such incidents, he said, “The most egregious example of harassment was when a political activist and school board supporter tried to steal petitions from one of our volunteers at a farmer’s market.”

In late January last year, the board hurriedly passed a resolution to introduce a lottery system for Lowell High School, which upset the significant Asian American population living in the city. By March-end, Collin’s past anti-Asian tweets came to light. Written in 2016, Collins had written – “Many Asian Am. believe they benefit from the ‘model minority’ BS,” and that “They use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’ ” When these tweets came to light, she hurriedly apologized.

A sampling of the controversial tweets from Collins

Anti-Asian Hate and Discrimination-A History

Anti-Asian discrimination is not new to San Francisco, with its history encompassing one of the first Asian urban settlements in the country, starting with the era of the gold rush, the making of the railroads, the agricultural expansion of the state of California, and industrialization of the US. The sweat and blood of Asian workers from China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and Punjab are intertwined with that of white workers during these pivotal eras of American development.

These Asian workers were paid less by white workers and used to silence strikes by them. Consequently, labor conflicts with white workers during a time when over 30 million white workers immigrated to the US from Europe, led to hostile marginalization of these ethnic communities and to various laws excluding them, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibiting the immigration of Chinese workers and the Gentleman’s Agreement Act of 1907, which sought to restrict Japanese immigrants into the US.

Segregation of public schools was commonplace too. On October 11, 1906, the San Francisco school board issued an order ordering all Japanese and Korean children to attend “Oriental” schools where Chinese students were already studying. This even violated treaties the US had with Japan which sought to protect Japanese people in the US from discrimination. With the media, majority white society, labor unions, and politicians screaming aloud against the “yellow peril” growing in the city and California, Asians struggled to integrate and thrive.

It was only in 1952 that the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) allowed Asian immigrants to gain citizenship. And then, a massive civil rights movement shook the US post World War 2, when the country was forced to look at its treatment of minorities even as they fought against fascism abroad.

The term model minority was coined by William Petersen, a sociologist writing for the New York Times in 1966 while referring to the Japanese immigrants in the US. Titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style”, Petersen emphasized that the community’s hard work and work ethic had paid off to overcome discrimination.

A generation that suffered internment during World War 2, when people of Japanese descent – even those with American citizenship – were regarded with utmost hostility and paranoia by President Roosevelt after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan in 1941, was referred to as a “model minority” for quietly, silently assimilating to American culture despite the discrimination they had faced. In the past century, Japanese immigrants – who were often more educated than other Asian immigrants – were known for being extremely American in their ways and attaining high educational status– and yet facing immense marginalization when trying to assimilate into the majority-white workforce.

Petersen lauded their work ethic and Confucian values. Yet, this term easily masked hard-wrought freedom struggles by Asian communities. Written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, many critics say that the term was not only a method of the majority white community to absolve itself of its guilt and accountability, but also to pit various non-white communities against each other.

“Most immigrants don’t want to understand politics…that’s the last thing you want to do,” said Raj. “There is this complete lack of understanding and empathy about the immigrant experience, calling everyone who is hard-working a white supremacist.”

A sampling of the controversial tweets from Collins.

After Collin’s tweets were dug out by a volunteer made public, many volunteers began to reach out to the various Cantonese, Vietnamese, and

Korean communities, and the Filipino and black ones, and conducted outreach in the native languages. The Chinese American Democratic Club joined the efforts.

“Many Asians thought that this was particularly targeted at their community. I still don’t understand the connection, right? Because racist incidents are happening in a lot of schools. But they use that as a pretext to then push through this admission change…even if you think this is wrong or right, I personally have no stake here…what upsets me is that you don’t just push through this change in five days, and that’s an illegal way to pass a resolution and make a change, right, without consulting the community,” said Raj.

As the recall campaigning gathered steam, supported also by Asian Americans and other immigrants, their volunteer list grew by thousands. For the first time since the pandemic, which saw an immense rise in Anti-Asian violence, it seemed like the Asian Americans of the city were finally asserting themselves politically.

Powering to Victory and Beyond

According to various news reports, the campaign garnered nearly $520,000, with more than half of the donations being less than $100 or equal to it. From the city attorney to the mayor, the campaign gained immense support from its citizens. Over the pandemic over 200 school boards across the nation have held recall elections or have seen frustrations expressed by parents over the closure of schools, masking and testing policies, and the inclusion of critical race theory in the curriculum. San Franciscans too followed this trend and theirs was one of the most successful ones.

On February 15, over 76% voted to recall Alison Collins, 72% Gabriela Lopez, and 69% Faauuga Moliga. Some 179,981 votes were tallied out of 499,771 registered voters. That means turnout was 36 percent of all San Francisco’s registered voters, as per the Department of Elections data.

Recently Raj came out as bisexual to his children. He remembers that it was less scary than he thought. “My older son was like – alright.”

Now living in a 4-bedroom apartment on Haight Street – known for its past hippie culture and dotted with multicultural restaurants – he feels freer and more confident. “I don’t feel like that in the rest of the world, and in a socially conservative place like India,” said Raj. He says that his entire life he was providing for his family, and now for the first time, he is trying to figure himself out.

As the two, along with Mayor Breed, who also supported their campaign, look around for new candidates to fill the post, they say they are looking for those who understand the pandemic-wrought issues – such as the learning loss crisis. “We didn’t really know anyone at the beginning. We just had this real anger and frustration in the community. And we certainly didn’t want to get caught up in any partisan political battle,” said Raj.

Both his sons are better, and he still worries that his school hasn’t done any recent assessments. “I don’t really know how bad the situation is…and it’s hard to fix when you don’t know where the problem lies.” Being a single parent, he said, forced him to manage everything on his own, including schooling. “And all you want is that your kids have a good education, and that is the only job that the school board elected members to have.”

Ananya Tiwari is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s school of journalism (class of 2023), where she covered education in the East Bay area as a local reporter for The Richmond Confidential. Previously, she worked as a local reporter for The Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi and covered the municipalities, state government, and the protests. You can find her on Twitter @Ananyati and her stories at Authory.

Edited by Pushpita Prasad, Contributing Editor at India Currents.