UnifiEd executive director steps down to lead political action committee

UnifiEd Executive Director Jonas Barriere smiles while talking with the Times Free Press about the Apex Policy at the UnifiEd office on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

UnifiEd Executive Director Jonas Barriere is stepping away from the local education-focused nonprofit to take the helm of a related, but separate entity - the UnifiEd Action political action committee.

Last fall, Unified Action and the UnifiEd Action PAC were launched to take the goals of reforming public education in Hamilton County one step further - to inform, lobby and ultimately endorse candidates for local office. All three organizations will have separate boards and separate decision-making power.

"There's nothing more vital to our community than providing a great education for our kids ... and leadership matters, leadership in those positions matter," said Paul Brock, president of UnifiEd Action, a 501(c)(4).

photo UnifiEd Communications Director Natalie Cook talks with the Times Free Press about the Apex Policy at the UnifiEd office on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

With nine Hamilton County Commission seats, the county mayor seat and five school board seats up for election this year, Brock said the community is in a unique position. This week, as Barriere begins his new role, the organization will begin meeting with candidates.

"We are starting an endorsement process this week for county mayor and county commission candidates. ... At the end of all of the meetings, we are going to decide who we will be endorsing and we will decide with those candidates what an endorsement looks like," Barriere said. "The goal of the political action committee is to advocate for the work that has traditionally been done by UnifiEd but in a different way. The UnifiEd Action Plan for Educational Excellence (APEX) Project has five areas of accountability, one of which is elected officials. The PAC has a role to play in that accountability piece."

UnifiEd was launched in 2014 to engage the community in dialogue about what can help Hamilton County public schools improve - and how to help people take action. Barriere was named executive director in 2016, and since then, the group has actively worked to train grassroots organizers and listen to issues in the community.

As the organization has worked to identify and raise awareness about inequities in Hamilton County schools, an action plan was slowly developed. The APEX Project was launched last fall and included a survey of local residents, a bus tour to engage communities in direct conversation, and now a policy platform is being developed by the project's steering committee.

Last month, another stage in the project - the formation of five working groups called The Equity Collective - was also announced. The working groups will focus on segregation in schools, supporting school staff, community engagement, supporting students and funding.

Natalie Cook, UnifiEd's communications director, is stepping in as interim executive director to lead the organization during this time.

"The movement for change in Hamilton County schools continues to gain momentum, so it's a very exciting time to be asked to serve our community in this role. I'm honored to lead a team of incredibly talented organizers and humbled to be surrounded by so many passionate advocates for our community's children," Cook said in a statement. "The APEX Project is now moving into its long-term implementation phase, and I look forward to supporting the vision of the leaders, organizations, and community members coming together to take action as part of The Equity Collective."

The UnifiEd's next big event, "Dismantling School Segregation: Why Separate is Still Unequal," is at 6 p.m. on March 22 at Orchard Knob Elementary and will feature journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, an expert on racial segregation and housing inequities.

As for the political action committee, Barriere said he was excited about how many candidates were seeking the organization's endorsement.

"It's really turning into what folks have been envisioning over the past few years," he said.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.