Activist school: Ivy kids learn to fight The Man

For nearly two years, the Ivy Community Association has battled Faulconer Construction's plans to move its heavy-equipment operations to historic Morgantown Road.

With a meeting of the Albemarle County Planning Commission looming, the group is prepared to bring out its heavy guns: fifth graders.

The kids have taken a crash course in local government and zoning issues, thanks to Angela Stokes, whose day job is with the Center for Politics' Youth Leadership Initiative. Stokes has a first grader who attends Murray Elementary School on narrow Morgantown Road, which school buses may soon have to share with Faulconer's bulldozers.

So far, 12 students have signed up for Stokes' after school classes, including two first graders.

"The primary goal is for them to learn how local government works. They'll learn about zoning, and what words like 'buffers' and 'critical slope waiver' mean," explains Stokes. "They'll also learn the concept of activism, what it means to be an activist– and the importance of doing research."

The students will prepare one- to two-minute presentations that could be presented to government bodies– like the Planning Commission, whose upcoming February 4 meeting will determine whether Faulconer's new site plan and its critical slope and curvilinear parking waivers are approved, but Stokes says speaking will depend on the comfort level of the child. They'll also learn other ways they can get involved, such as letter writing or marching.

Stokes is vice president of the Murray Parent Teacher Organization, but her activism-for-beginners class is independent of the PTO and the school.

With much of the Murray Elementary and surrounding Ivy community against Faulconer setting up shop on the 27 acres it owns in the Ivy Industrial Park, is there any danger these kids are being railroaded by their parents into becoming a strategic element of the opposition?

"With everyone I've talked to," says Stokes, "the parents introduced it, and the kids said, 'I want to do this.' They've seen the pictures of the Faulconer property or been on it. It's a pretty powerful thing because this is happening near their school. They've all been pretty vocal."

The Ivy Community Association was born almost as soon as Faulconer submitted its first site plan for the land in 2001. Members whipped out checkbooks to hire an attorney and sue the county over its determination that storing road construction equipment– including explosives– falls within the property's light industrial zoning. The group currently is represented by former city mayor Frank Buck.

How does Faulconer Construction feel about having school kids join the fight against its new facility? Neither its president, Jack Sanford, nor its attorney, Rick Carter, returned The Hook's calls.

Stokes insists the children are not being exploited as pawns in the battle. "We're giving them both sides of the issue," she says. "They're speaking as informed citizens, not as six-year-olds being cute. They're speaking from the heart."

While school board member Gary Grant has some reservations about children being used for political purposes– for example, when a candidate parades his young children in front of the camera– he doesn't think that's the case in the Murray venture.

"This looks like good, clean civic education to me and a tremendous real life, real time learning experience for whoever gets involved," he says.

Furthermore, Stokes thinks this sort of civic engagement in a real situation could do something about teen apathy toward government. "They could be a part of something that could grow and evolve," she says.