I studiously avoid joining school committees. Sure, I'll go on a
field trip or help at a class party. But when the volunteer form
comes around, I don't sign up to write the weekly newsletter, lest
the project take over my life. When it comes to protecting my kids,
though, it's hard to say no.
My descent into activism began in March 2011. Over drinks one
night, my friend Cindi mentioned Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC,
for short). With BIC, all Chicago public elementary schools would
be serving breakfast to students in their classrooms. Our school,
which was serving a free hot breakfast in the lunchroom before
school, was scheduled to switch to a cold breakfast-in class-in
When I heard this, I was outraged. Who gave Chicago Public
Schools the right to decide when, where, what and how my kids
should eat breakfast? Other moms brought up concerns: the lost
instruction time, the mess, kids eating a second breakfast.
Cindi and I also feared for our children's safety. Like some
other parents in the group, we had children with life-threatening
food allergies. If someone spilled milk on Cindi's first-grader, he
could end up in the ER. If my preschooler ate something with nuts,
he could go into anaphylactic shock.
The next morning I talked to Cindi. I had some ideas to keep
this program from coming to our school. I could draw on my PR
background to get our message out. Was she in? She was.
The next few weeks were a blur of meetings and phone calls. We
emailed the people we knew, telling them about our campaign to keep
the BIC program out of our school. We met with other parents who
didn't want BIC at their schools. We started a petition.
Then we took our case to the Chicago Board of Education.
You know those people you see on the news, standing in front of a
bunch of officials and telling them what's wrong with their
policies? That was us.
After our speeches, reporters swarmed us. Cindi was in the
newspaper and on TV. Several of us ended up being quoted or
pictured on websites and blogs.
In the meantime, dirty dishes sat in my sink at home. Laundry
piled up. I ignored my husband and put off my kids so I could talk
to reporters or write emails.
Then, despite our efforts, the BIC program rolled out at our
school as scheduled. Some of the moms gave up. A few of us decided
to give it one more shot and went to another board meeting.
Not long after that, we got some welcome news: CPS was putting a
halt to the BIC program at our school and other schools where
parents had protested. Kids could eat breakfast in the lunchroom,
either before school or during the first 10-15 minutes of the
school day. No more breakfast in the classroom.
We all breathed a sigh of relief. And, for me, the experience
reminded me how powerful a grassroots PR campaign can be.
Here are some tips, if you want to change a policy in your
Make friends. In our case, a loosely knit
coalition of about 50 parents from more than 20 schools took part
in the overall campaign.
Be consistent. We agreed on our main concerns
and came up with key messages.
Play to your strengths. A core group divvied up the work: One mom
served as the main spokesperson, another did research and crunched
numbers, another spread the word to other parents, and two of us
handled writing and media outreach.
Be prepared. We were armed with facts to
support our arguments and to address counter arguments made by
those who supported BIC.
Spread the word. We communicated our messages
to various policy makers, including the school administration and
board-even the mayor's office and attorney general. Some parents
also met directly with school-district employees who were in charge
of the program.
Keep the story fresh. To sustain the news
media's interest, we focused on different points over time.
Now, more than a year later, the hours we spent on the BIC
campaign are a distant memory. We have new worries: a longer school
day, the threat of a teacher strike. I've gone back to avoiding
But what's this? I just got word that my son's weekend school
will be serving snacks in class. Sounds like they'll need someone
to start an allergy committee …
Kirsten (Schnoor) Lambert is a work-at-home wife and mother of
two who lives in Chicago's North Center neighborhood.
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