IJ Clients Become Crusaders

May 23, 2008

IJ Clients Become Crusaders

By Maureen Blum

Every now and then, IJ clients become so consumed with the fight that they are transformed from brave clients into crusaders. They take the fight beyond the courtroom, beyond their own personal case, to seek freedom for others who are similarly trapped. IJ African hairbraiding client Taalib-Din Abdul Uqdah, for example, has made that leap to become one of the nation’s leading advocates for economic liberty. His advocacy recently led the State of California to deregulate African hairbraiding statewide, and he secured exemptions for African hairstylists in Michigan and Maryland thereby opening entry into that business for thousands of people. Two other clients have arisen from our school choice litigation to grow from “school choice moms” into school choice crusaders.

Milwaukee just celebrated its 10-year anniversary of educational freedom. Throughout that program’s legal challenge, IJ client Pilar Gomez championed choice for her own children. “I had to join the fight,” Pilar recalled. “If others were fighting my cause, then I wanted to fight—to protect my rights.”

But since then she has grown into a nationally recognized school choice advocate who helps other parents across the country secure greater educational options for their children. Pilar now serves as national parent training coordinator for the American Education Reform Council, training parents in Arizona, Florida, Ohio, New Mexico and Wisconsin and counseling parents in the District of Columbia, Michigan and Texas. She spoke out on school choice at the Republican National Convention and at Republican National Committee platform hearings—a pretty remarkable feat for a Democrat—and at the League of United Latin American Citizens’ annual convention. While serving as an appointee to the City of Milwaukee Charter School Committee, she has testified to the Wisconsin legislature and has been featured in local and national media. As an invaluable school choice advocate, Pilar quickly responds, “Whatever it takes” when the call to duty sounds.

One of the parents Pilar trained is IJ Florida school choice client Tracy Richardson. When I met Tracy in 1999, (as luck would have it, I stayed in a hotel where she worked at the front desk at the time), she had already given up fighting a failing school system. Her daughter, Khaliah, was forced to live with her grandmother so that she would be eligible to go to a better school. This was a tremendous, emotional sacrifice for Tracy. When Tracy learned that she could fight for her right to provide Khaliah with a good education, she quickly signed up.

Once the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program rescued Khaliah from a failing school system, Tracy was outraged that teachers’ unions would attempt to take it away. “I needed to tell people that it works, that Khaliah was doing better,” she said. “I needed to get the word out.”

In addition to her full-time job, Tracy now works part-time as a parent coordinator at Pensacola Parents for School Choice. She touches base each week with the 51 parents who receive the Opportunity Scholarships for their children and also contacts community leaders. She relays information on the program and families to the media, the governor’s office, statewide education activists and IJ. She provides a vital resource for parents in Pensacola. So vital, in fact, that Governor Jeb Bush has appointed Tracy to serve on the Education Governance Reorganization Transition Task Force, which works to recommend a smooth transition to parental choice for Florida.

Pilar and Tracy are making a difference not only for their own children, but for parents who desperately need choice—and hope—in their future.

Maureen Blum is the Institute for Justice director of outreach programs.

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