The following comments were made at the December 21, 2023 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting by Courtney Winkfield, who will be completing her service to the Board this month; Winkfield, who has served one three-year term, announced she would not seek reelection this past summer. Prior to her comments, Winkfield was lauded by former BOE member Susan Bergin, who was Winkfield’s running mate in 2020 and who resigned from the Board in February due to a work conflict. Bergin commended Winkfield for her work on Intervention and Referral Services, and her “moral courage” — “You always said what needed to be said and people sat up and listened” — among other accomplishments. Watch Bergin’s remarks here.
During her tenure, Winkfield courted kudos and criticism for dynamic moves such as a hand-carried resolution to create a “suspension moratorium” (passed: read followups here, here, here, here and here) and a fast-tracked policy rewrite to fully de-level the school district (not passed), among other efforts and advocacy. In her comments, Winkfield offered a new perspective: “In this moment of reflection, I must confess that I, too, fell into the trap of thinking my expertise was the definitive view. As a career educator and administrator, it was easy to often assume a quick study approach to the problems of the District and assume that my expertise would reveal a quick solution. It’s a common pitfall, but today, with humility, I recognize that my understanding was just another slice, another viewpoint.”
Read Courtney Winkfield’s full remarks here:
Thank you, Susan. I am so grateful to have gone on this journey with you – no one can prepare you for campaigning let alone serving in this role, and having you as a partner in this work has been one of the highlights of my time serving. As my term on the Board of Education concludes, I hold immense gratitude and a sense of humility that has been enriched by the challenges and triumphs we’ve shared together. Reflecting on this journey, I am reminded of one of my favorite parables – the elephant and the blind men. The parable tells the story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and imagine what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the animal’s body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the animal based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other.
Serving on the board of education is a bit like the blind men exploring the elephant, each touching a different part and forming our own interpretations and lived experiences. Yet, the parable doesn’t just speak of unity; it speaks of our shared struggle and, at times, our collective failure. There were moments when we, too, became blind to the bigger picture, when our individual convictions overshadowed our ability to see the whole elephant.
I humbly acknowledge that, in our various iterations, we often faltered by clinging too firmly to what we were sure was right. It’s a challenge that every board member faces—to balance our passion for and commitment to education with the necessity of suspending our own sense of certainty in favor of curiosity and collaboration. Like the blind men fixated on their own perceptions, we sometimes forget that the real progress lay in the braiding of our collective insights.
In this moment of reflection, I must confess that I, too, fell into the trap of thinking my expertise was the definitive view. As a career educator and administrator, it was easy to often assume a quick study approach to the problems of the District and assume that my expertise would reveal a quick solution. It’s a common pitfall, but today, with humility, I recognize that my understanding was just another slice, another viewpoint. The Sufi parable teaches us that no one perspective, set of experiences or beliefs encapsulates the entirety of the truth, nor does it allow for real sustainable progress.
Our failures, however, are not marks of defeat but opportunities for growth. They underscore the importance of constant self-reflection, the need to step back and acknowledge that the problems we seek to understand are vast, and no single perspective, leader or faction can alone address these needs.
As I bid farewell to this board and this chapter in my life, I want to take a minute to thank my colleagues, current and those who served alongside me throughout 2021 and 2022. Thank you to this incredible District team, especially [Asst. Supt. of Curriculum & Instruction] Ann [Bodnar], [Acting Supt. of Schools] Dr. Gilbert and [former Supt. of Schools] Dr. Taylor, those I got to work so closely with over the past few years. I am continuously inspired by your creativity, passion and complete and total dedication to this community and its children. I am forever in awe and grateful for the wisdom and labor of Rhea Beck and Rachel Fisher — your brilliance is often referred to in these communities as “a machine” but anyone who has had the privilege of your collaboration support understand that you are simply two of the most thoughtful, passionate and strategic community members — I learned more from the two of you than I could in a lifetime of graduate courses. So much of your efforts are miscast and certainly misunderstood and our communities are so lucky to have you both. I want to thank my children, Henry and Eleanor, who have both borne their share of backlash as a result of my not always popular board service and certainly have been asked to make the most sacrifices.
Thank you finally to the South Orange and Maplewood communities for placing your trust in me, even when we didn’t always agree on a path forward. As I leave choosing to center hope over cynicism and it is with that spirit that I wish our new Board in January a successful path forward — when they win, when they get this right, we all win.
Watch Winkfield’s comments here:
With reporting by Mary Barr Mann.