By Ari Sen
After teaching for 39 years, Randee Haven-O’Donnell knows there are some things that can make geology, ecology or water chemistry wait for a day.
So when Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools sat empty Wednesday because of the “Day Without Women” protest, she held off on the science, instead deciding to discuss sexism with her seventh and eighth grade Durham Academy students.
“For me, my goal is to be front and center with my students and to say to them, as I did (Wednesday), ‘I am here to be with you and talk about this,’” Haven O’Donnell said.
Haven-O’Donnell, who also serves on Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen, believes that even though students may have missed a day of school, the value of the message was more important than what students would have learned that day.
“I think having this out for the day in the very short run it’s a way to make a statement about women that’s important for children to realize,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “I would submit to you that the most important aspect of learning goes far beyond was it going to be measured by any given test or assessment on any given day.”
At the March 7 Board of Aldermen meeting, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle was greeted with a spontaneous round of applause after she read a proclamation declaring Wednesday to be “Carrboro Women’s Day.” Lavelle said she declared the holiday in solidarity with International Women’s Day, which was held on the same day.
“I think this is (a holiday) I’m going to continue,” Lavelle said. “There is a great emphasis on it, I think particularly this year with the spirit of the Women’s March. I just felt like it was really important to kind of state that Carrboro stands behind the principles that founded that day.”
A movement based off of the “Day Without Immigrants” protest encouraged women to take the day off from work, wear red and refrain from spending money to support the cause of women on the holiday. Because of a high number of predicted staff absences, Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools declared an optional teacher workday.
Only three school districts in the country were forced to close because of the protests. The closure garnered national attention and was reported by various news outlets including The New York Times. A statement released by school superintendent Jim Causby said the closure was not because of any personal politics, but rather because of a perceived inability to operate the schools properly with the number of staff members absent.
“While Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools values and supports its female employees, the decision to close schools is not a political statement,” Causby said. “It is entirely about the safety of students and the district’s inability to operate with a high number of staff absences.”
Haven-O’Donnell said even if the school says they didn’t claim to close for political reasons, it is possible that still support the cause.
“The school district does that because they don’t want to be like a weather-vane—depending on what the political mood is you know flip-flopping one way or the other,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “But I think that the school district does not want to be in crisis either.”
Haven O’Donnell believes that Carrboro is the ideal community to support women’s rights because of their recent history of supporting social justice issues. In January, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools proposed raising their living wage rate from $12.75 to $13.16 per hour—well above the $7.25 state minimum wage.
“This is something that Carrboro does,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “You can see it in life with how we support social justice issues, but even more important than that, (you see it) undergirding the platform that supports women—whether it be wages, salaries, equalization, equity, healthcare.”
Lavelle also said she was open to allowing town employees to take the day of in solidarity with the movement.
“I believe our town employees that want to are able to participate and can take time off to do so,” Lavelle said. “I want people to be able to make a point or have their voices heard.”
Though she believes they understand the issues, Haven-O’Donnell said that she was pessimistic about young people’s support for feminism until the past year’s protests of President Donald Trump.
“When I was in Washington there were million people standing around with me energized to resist,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “This is that extension. It’s not going away. It’s overdue. And I think especially middle schoolers, high schoolers respect people who are trying to fight and people who are strengthening their voice—that’s the way kids are.”
Lavelle said that a new energy has been breathed into the community to stand up for women’s rights and other social issues.
“I’ve seen it everywhere I go. People want to get engaged,” Lavelle said. “They look to local government for it first to start to try to hear what’s going on to try to shape policy statewide and nationally. There’s absolutely a lot of energy. Speaking especially for our area, our towns—we are always energized, but even more so this year.”
Haven O’Donnell said no matter the age or gender, protest is always appropriate when faced with injustice.
“I think peaceful dissent is always appropriate,” Haven-O’Donnell said.
“Passive resistance is not easy. But it’s effective. And sometimes that’s all we’ve got.”
Alderman and teacher Randee Haven O’Donnell next to the Carrboro town seal. Photo from Haven-O’Donnell’s blog.