Riverhead’s newly elected school board member, Colin Palmer, has generated some buzz recently as the first member of Suffolk County chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America to win elected office in the county.
The lifelong Riverhead native, who graduated from the district he now serves, joined the organization in 2016. Although he’s identified as a socialist since he was in high school, he said the national DSA is the first organization he’s joined that identifies as socialist.
But that’s not the reason Mr. Palmer, whose family has lived in Riverhead since the 1830s, decided to run for school board — especially since political parties do not typically factor into school board elections. He explained his decision in an interview with the Riverhead News-Review.
Q: What made you decide to run for school board?
A: I decided to run earlier this year because of different things that happened last year — specifically, the district deciding to phase out the Latin program in Riverhead. I think that it was a difficult decision, but it was one that with enough time and effort can be reversed. And there is a desire from parents and from students for there to be a Latin program in Riverhead. So I decided to run mainly for that, and then I also ran on trying to increase critical thinking education in the district. I feel like that’s something that’s just lacking in the community at large. And with schools being where you’re getting students ready to be members of the community, I think that it was important to try to make that change in schools.
Q: When you envision emphasizing critical thinking education, how do you see that playing out?
A: I know it’s going to be difficult, because I feel like people, a lot of times, politicize education and politicize things that have to do with critical thinking. But a big part of it is actually just giving students more opportunities to investigate what they’re interested in and helping them come to realize that all subjects are intertwined. I think that Riverhead’s actually been doing a good job of trying to take classes — like in mathematics and science and literature and social studies — and helping students realize that they’re all interconnected by offering some classes that are kind of multi-disciplinary. But I’d like to see a lot more of that. And I think that actually builds on critical thinking, especially things like increased media literacy, more researched-based classes, independent research that’s not just — I think most of the time independent research is usually just in science classes — but I think in social sciences and in history and literature, that’s actually a way to increase understanding for students.
Q: Now that you’re elected, what are some of your priorities for the school district?
A: Right now, I think the main goal of the board in general is just to try to figure out — now that next school year is going to be more of a post-COVID world — how best to deal with learning loss and also help us to just deal with going into a more traditional school year. I spoke to some teachers, in other districts even, who said that they feel like this past year didn’t start in September. It started when the pandemic hit. And I think that a lot of students feel the same way — that it’s been this incredibly long, year and a half of a school year. Students also feel like they haven’t been able to kind of get as much done. So it’s getting back into the swing of things, I think, is the really big thing that we have to work on. And I think part of that is going to be in what kind of programming are we going to focus on. Because not everything can be traditional classes in order to mitigate learning loss, or just to deal with this new world that we live in.
Q: What are some ideas that you have about bringing the school back into a post-COVID world?
A: I think a big part of it is will actually be working with other schools. I think that sometimes we get a little too closed off as schools … We should be thinking about working with other districts to build on programs, giving students extra opportunities to work on projects, and being part of programming with students that they wouldn’t normally work with. I think that would actually help a lot.
Q: You’re also the first member of the Suffolk County DSA to win elective office in the county. What does that mean to you?
A: It’s really humbling. I think that it means that the ideas that the DSA represents, specifically democratic socialism, aren’t scary fringe ideas; they’re actually more mainstream than a lot of people give them credit for. Most of the big issues that DSA supports, a majority of Americans actually support anyway. So I think that it’s helpful in normalizing the idea of electing someone on the left to elected office in Suffolk County.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add about your tenure on the board or your priorities for the Riverhead school district?
A: I’d say that anyone who’s worried about someone who is a socialist being elected, I just want to make sure people know that I’m not coming in to completely upend the system or to completely change the system. I am an elected representative. So I represent the community. I represent people who voted for me and people who didn’t vote for me. But it’s still important for me to vote my conscience and I have a feeling that I’m going to be voting in the minority many times on the school board and may even be the lone dissenting vote on many issues. But whenever that happens, I’ll always explain my positions and make sure that everyone knows that my positions are coming from a place of actual conviction.