A life of political advocacy and being a single mother to a gifted child has well-prepared Natasha Newcomb in her new plan to run for Des Moines School Board. She is a candidate for School Board District 3, campaigning for the election in September. Starting Line enjoys highlighting younger Democrats running for office or who might be future leaders, and Newcomb promises to be an important voice in central Iowa and the local education system.
Being a Single Mother and Campaigner
Newcomb grew up in Minnesota for most of her childhood, she and her brother raised by a single mother. She watched her mother attend college to become a social worker as they went to school, and they both attended many women’s political advocacy events while Newcomb was young. Newcomb later went to high school in Iowa City.
At age 20 she gave birth to her child, Christopher, and when things didn’t work out with the father, she too became a single mother. Also like her own mother, Newcomb balanced raising a kid with going to college. “When you’re a parent it’s almost like a vacation to go to class and have adult conversations,” Newcomb says, having first attended Kirkwood Community College, and then the University of Iowa for a degree in political science.
She tried going to Washington D.C. for a while after graduation, but ended up on her first campaign in Iowa in 2006, working in Lee County for Chet Culver’s first run for Governor. “I was young then and had so much energy,” she remembers with a laugh about her fun experiences on the campaign trail. She then moved to Des Moines to clerk for Tyler Olson for two sessions, and has stayed in the capital city since. She worked for a number of campaigns and organizations there, including SEIU, Iowans for Sensible Priorities, and served as Culver’s deputy finance director for 2010. While working for Culver she took her LSATs and went to law school at Drake University.
Parental Interest into Advocacy
“I’ve been blessed with having some fantastic teachers that are willing to put up with me,” Newcomb says of the help she’s received in Christopher’s education, who’s been an advanced and gifted student since early on. She worked with teachers and principals to find ways to keep him motivated and learning, and was particularly appreciative of one principal who would take him out of class from time to time to play chess together. “You had to be creative to keep him going.”
Her involvement with her son’s education began to lead her into more active advocacy in the Des Moines schools. In middle school Newcomb’s son enjoyed taking several advanced classes, until most of them were shut down mid-year. “That was one of my first public pushes with the school board,” Newcomb remembers, but didn’t feel like she and other parents got the conversations needed with the school board. “I felt a little frustrated at that point.” The advanced course changes got some local media attention, but only advanced math remained in the middle schools. “I feel their struggle,” Newcomb says of the teachers trying to balance their teaching approaches with a variety of students. “I couldn’t manage a whole classroom and teach with that many different students and then throw back in the advanced students.”
Newcomb fought for more changes when her son attended Harding Middle School, when she discovered the school running a questionable behavior accountability exercise. Her son mentioned one day that the school records each student’s behavior and infractions from every week, then publicly posted each student’s grades in the hallway and had public discussions about them in class. He saw students getting picked on over the public shaming, and Newcomb successfully lobbied for a change, with Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu congratulating her work.
Proposing a More Responsive School Board
When an opportunity to run for school board presented itself, Newcomb felt her years of parental involvement and advocacy work could make her an effective addition to the board. “I want to bring it back to parents,” she says recalling her frustrations interacting with the board. “We want to have parents active in the conversation, we have to be able to acknowledge them. And feeling like I had a barrier, it really felt like we were discouraging participation … I feel like everyone needs to have a voice and an opinion, and feel like they’re being heard.”
Her work with teachers has also brought her close to their work and concerns, saying, “We expect a lot from teachers while continuously fighting to take things away from them. So I am a very big proponent for remembering that teachers are humans.”
Newcomb also feels her own background may provide a way to represent a wider array of families. “Aside from being relatively young, I think being a single parent is very unique to the school board,” she says. “I have a little different perspective. I’ve been the mother and the father many, many times … I’ve had friends and family who are definitely supportive, but it’s different when you come home and it’s all on you – the grocery shopping, making sure they’re showered and the homework’s done. No one else is going to do that … It’s a reality many of us face.”
With her years of working for candidates, running for school board herself will have some familiar territory. She’s currently the president of Dawn’s List, an organization that encourages women to run for office and provides them with training and assistance. She also serves on several city boards, which she enjoys for the non-partisan nature of them that allows real discussion of issues.
Still, despite her experience, some days the campaign trail can be daunting. “Talking to people about running for office, there’s always reasons they don’t want to or feel the timing is wrong, and I find that happening to myself now and I think that’s hilarious,” she says. “I managed campaigns, I tell them they can do this and all these training tips and now I have to tell myself – if I were my manager, what would I say to myself?”
But she recalls that she’s managed this type of time commitment issues before. When she was lobbying the school district over her son’s classes she was busy, but says she did it anyway because it had to get done. “There’s never going to be a right time,” Newcomb believes. “Every time is a good time to run if you want to run.”
by Pat Rynard