June 1 was the unofficial kickoff of the Summer of Love tour around Tennessee. And what a kickoff it was with a whirlwind trek through Southeast Tennessee!
Chattanooga: News has spread fast around the country that WRCB in Chattanooga has so far refused to air Freedom to Marry's ad in support of marriage equality. So since I was heading to the area any way, I popped in at the station hoping to speak to the general manager. He wasn't in, but I did get to speak to one of the leaders in the sales division and convey our thoughts on the importance of running the ad. It was a positive sign that someone from the station would talk to me on such short notice. We'll hope for ongoing discussions. The Chattanooga Times Free Press happened to contact me while I was on the way down and I discussed my hopes for the meeting and the embarrassment for Tennessee. I hope we can turn this situation around. Time will tell.
Cleveland: After leaving Chattanooga, the next stop was Cleveland where I paid for the park rental for our June 13 Summer of Love event. The process was easy and I enjoyed taking a look around town. You can find out more about the official first stop on the tour here.
Polk County: When I finished my business at Cleveland City Hall, I got back on the road and headed for Polk County. Shortly after crossing the border, I saw a good omen--a huge rainbow flag (two different kinds actually) flying proudly from a business called Ms. Be's Purple bus located at 256 River Heights Dr. in Ocoee. I talked to Belissa Levenea Russell, the owner, and presented her with a Tennessee Open For Business window cling. I bought a wind chime and braced myself for the school board meeting.
Back to the School Board: The background to the school board meeting is really sad. Two students of Copper Basin High School have taken their lives this year and both incidents are connected to bullying. Based on visits to other school boards around the state, I wasn't expecting much. But I was surprised and I have some measure of hope things can turn around.
Shortly after I arrived, I noticed several reporters and I met Angel, the mother of the young woman who took her life last month. I learned that she has contacted the Department of Justice and filed a suit. I met the school director before the meeting began and offered assistance. Paul Moisan, an activist living in Atlanta but originally from Cleveland, walked in and I got to talk to him after previously only corresponding by email. He has been staying up-to-date on every aspect of the situation in Polk County so it was great to have the chance to compare notes with him before and after the meeting.
I was pleased that the board allowed Paul to speak and more than the usual three minutes. Paul showed composure, presented good information, and asked good questions. Residents of the district later echoed some of Paul's questions so he was clearly striking a nerve. Then the school director rose to speak. I was worried I'd see a repeat of what I saw in Cheatham County in 2012--lots of defensiveness, but things took a different turn. He admitted there are problems and that the district didn't have all the answers. He presented parts of a plan to help turn things around including a new incident report form, incident reporting follow up procedures, new and clearer protocols, revised bullying policy, plans for discussions with outside groups, and establishment of a hope line. All of this will be sorted out by a committee that will include community input. These steps CAN work if the district follows through. A first meeting for the new committee is not set yet, so we'll all be looking for that. Here's Channel 9's story on the board meeting. It is going to be critical that the community stay involved to make sure problems aren't ignored and solutions have a chance to work.
June 1 didn't deliver definitive results, but I saw indications that this region of Tennessee can see progress with will and organization. I'm looking forward to coming back on June 13.