Christine Suma: Mother of 12, Grassroots Organizer, School Choice Spokesperson

August 1, 2002

August 2002

Christine Suma: Mother of 12, Grassroots Organizer, School Choice Spokesperson

By Lisa Knepper

Imagine an activist who could:

•Mobilize 1,700 school choice families in five months; •Direct a successful press conference on the day of the biggest Supreme Court education decision in half a century; •Present a poised and effective defense of school choice to media from The New York Times to CBS; •Establish a school fair to educate parents about school choice and the importance of fighting to defend parental rights in education; •And travel around the country to speak at rallies, before roundtables and at press conferences. Now imagine that activist is a stay-at-home mother of 12.

Meet Christine Suma, IJ client, four of whose kids are in the Cleveland school choice program. Christine is one of the most effective national spokespersons and grassroots parent organizers for school choice.

Chris leapt into the school choice fray at the beginning of Ohio’s pilot program, educating herself about the issues and speaking out whenever possible. IJ met Chris while building our defense of the Cleveland program in the mid-1990s.

“I was pleased as punch that anyone would seek me out, asking to represent parents’ interests and opinions,” Chris said. “Once I learned that people cared, I had a feeling of empowerment. I realized someone had to do something or the program could just fade away.”

Over the years, Chris has become an “administrative genius,” said Maureen Blum, IJ’s director of outreach. “I remember her learning to type and email, talking her through mail merge and databases. Now she’s a pro.”

“Organizing the parents’ press conference for the day of the decision was quintessential Chris,” added John Kramer, IJ’s vice president for communications. “She did whatever was needed so parents could have a voice.”

June was a tense month in the Suma household, as nine far-away justices would decide the educational fate of the four youngest children. House rules—laid down by mom—said that no one could leave before 11 a.m., in case of a decision. (This would allow for quick mobilization when the ruling was handed down.) The phone lines were kept open; the children’s favorite outfits were pressed and neatly arranged on the sofa; and school choice buttons and signs were ready to go.

For the Sumas, victory day brought relief, but no rest. Youngest daughter Angelica, born shortly after school choice came to Cleveland—“the birth of a baby was the birth of a movement for me,” Chris says—would indeed be able to join her siblings as a kindergartner at Our Lady of Good Counsel. “There was a lot of cheering on that morning. Then we moved into action.” The media conference Chris helped organize attracted television cameras from every news station in Cleveland, as well as reporters from the local newspapers and wire services.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Chris is already planning meetings with parents to build on the momentum from the Supreme Court decision, looking to keep choice alive and expand the program so more kids in more grades can join.

Never timid and with a stubborn determination to seek and speak the truth, Chris turns modest when she talks of her role in a national movement. “I’m glad I have the opportunity to fight for school choice. A lot of parents don’t.”

On behalf of IJ’s school choice team, thank you, Chris, for making the most of that opportunity. Chris Suma is an inspiration, a joy to work with—and a joy to work for.

Lisa Knepper is IJ’s director of communications.

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