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Visitors enter the Passage bus at a stop for UnifiEd's Action Plan for Educational Excellence at the Highland Park Commons on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The project committee for APEX plans to travel Hamilton County in a transformed school bus to seek public opinion about ways to solve inequities in the public school system. / Staff photo by Doug Strickland

This story was updated at 9:45 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ronald Elliott is currently employed by the city of Chattanooga. Elliott is no longer with the city and now works at Unum.

Local education advocacy organization UnifiEd is charting a new course starting with a new take on nonprofit leadership.

Some of its opponents, including members of the Good Government Coalition and Hamilton Flourishing, say that the sometimes controversial organization has lost steam since the fall departure of executive director Jonas Barriere.

In an attempt to increase community ownership of the nonprofit and further its grassroots values, the organization's members will elect three community members to its board of directors this month as it develops a member-directed model for its future.

The group, which launched in 2014 with the backing of the Benwood, Footprint and Maclellan foundations, among others, has been an active player in Hamilton County politics and education efforts.

Now, the seven members of the board have relinquished some of their control to appoint their successors in hopes of reaching underrepresented populations or those who might not be typical nonprofit board members in Chattanooga. Interim executive director Walton Robinson doesn't characterize it as a change in direction for the organization, though.

"Since its beginning, the idea of UnifiEd was always to move closer and closer to being a grassroots-anchored organization — and the membership model was the attempt to figure that out," Robinson said. "To figure out what it looks like for an organization that's rooted in the community, not just on paper but from a practical standpoint."

UnifiEd first announced its move to a membership model in 2017, before launching the program in 2018. Membership in the organization means you either support the organization financially or with your time through volunteering and working with one of the group's initiatives or programs.

Barriere had often been the public face of UnifiEd, especially as supporters of the organization formed a 501(c)4 organization and a political action committee to influence local elections, and as the organization became embattled in a series of sometimes controversial efforts to influence education policy in Hamilton County through its Pact for Public Education, advocacy of funding increases for the public school system and the controversial Action Plan for Educational Excellence (APEX) report.

But now, the group's membership committee — which is leading the efforts to establish what membership looks like and is launching board elections this Tuesday — says ordinary community members will have a larger voice in the organization's efforts and directions.

"I think the board and the staff see the value in having members who are not staff members help them figure out how to better serve the voice of the members," said Teo Valdes, interim chairman of UnifiEd's membership committee. "Having these three member-elected board members adds a lot more opportunities for members to come in and do big-picture work, big- picture organizing of how we make a difference in our schools."

Jaime Peterson, who works with the Trio Educational Talent Search program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Ronald Elliott, who works at Unum, both serve on the membership committee. They say that the half-dozen candidates running for the three board positions represent populations outside Chattanooga's typical elite, or "board royalty," as Peterson called them. 

CURRENT UNIFIED BOARD OF DIRECTORS

— Marcellus Barnes

— Joyce Hardaway

— Alison Lebovitz

— Aram Perez

— Edna Varner

— Justin Wilkins

— Jeffrey Wilson

"Education is something that touches everyone — so it's only natural that you open up these barriers for people to have their voices be heard," Elliott said. "This opens up an opportunity for folks that just aren't normally involved in boards or these similar projects to offer their perspective. That's the biggest thing — I think we have some really great people throughout our county and our communities who have some really great perspectives. This is just leveling the playing fields for them to have that opportunity to effect change and to rethink what our boards and our leaders look like."

Elliott, like the other volunteers on the membership committee, found UnifiEd when he was trying to find a place to plug in and make a difference around education in Hamilton. Neither he nor Peterson nor Valdez are current teachers, highlighting UnifiEd's historic ability to bring in a variety of community members no matter their relationships to education.

Amy Smith, a teacher at Alpine Crest Elementary, said that Hamilton County's education problems cannot be solved by one group alone, but instead the nonprofit is intended to be one of the many voices at the table.

"We are representing the community and giving the community a voice," Smith said. "We are just another person in this huge conversation."

Valdes is excited for the influence that the three community-elected members will have on the board and the organization's overall work.

As of Thursday, half a dozen community members of UnifiEd planned to run for the three member-elected board seats. The organization will kick off elections with its 2020 Project Kickoff on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

The event will also highlight the four main projects that UnifiEd staff and supporters will continue to work on this year: the "student voice team" for high school student activists, a series of parental advocacy workshops, the Interfaith Coalition and a restorative justice program in a local school.

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

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