Author Archives: joelnewton

Faith and Politics: Why I’m a Democrat

Growing up in the middle of the cornfields of Indiana, our family was firmly in the evangelical Republican camp. We listened to Focus on the Family, read Christian fiction and listened to DcTalk, the Newsboys and Petra. My dad taught at a Christian college where dancing and drinking was outlawed so many of my friends grew up in this same Christian bubble. I am thankful for my childhood because in some ways I felt protected.

I loved politics even when I was a child. Our local library had a set of biographies of every president and I devoured them. I remember sending a letter to President Bush, and when I received a letter back from him, I was so excited. We adored George H.W. Bush and especially Dan Quayle because he was from up the road in Huntington, Indiana. These two were Republicans and we viewed them as the upholders of morality and leaders of our Christian nation. The link between Republicans and the faith I was brought up with was strengthened during the Clinton years. Through the Clinton scandals the evangelical Christian faith I was immersed in taught me that President Clinton and his Democrats were anti-faith in their pro-abortion stance and many more of their beliefs.

Growing up I viewed faith and morality as a war against those on the other side who were opposed to everything we believed. We had to fight those Democrats who believed in abortion and who were opposed to anything Christian.

Like many who grew up in this evangelical Christian bubble of 1980s and 1990s, the 2000s brought about a change in my political beliefs and how my faith influenced these beliefs. Through the writings of Brian McLaren and many others, my faith and beliefs started to transition. Most importantly my view of the intersection of faith and culture changed. I transitioned from seeing the world as a fight between faith and culture to a more humble, fermenting faith. Instead of trying to convert everyone through convincing them that my beliefs were right and theirs were wrong, what if I first lived a life of love committed to the teachings of Jesus? What if this ferment of a faith that was different would cause people around me to ask what I believed and why?

My politics also changed through the 2000s as well. I still remember reading Barack Obama’s books and hearing him speak about his faith and wondering how a Democrat could exhibit a faith that was like mine. When I was growing up, Democrats were presented as anti-Christian but Obama’s faith sounded real. This caused a good crisis in my political views. Maybe a person could be a Democrat and be a follower of Jesus Christ. Though I didn’t agree with all of President Obama’s policies, I felt that his faith informed his politics and his care for those who needed an extra hand up.

Fast forward to the last few years and the rise of Donald Trump within the Republican Party. Watching the Christian leaders who I grew up listening to and reading like James Dobson and Franklin Graham put their support behind Trump has been a shock to the set of beliefs I was presented with as a child. These evangelical leaders had presented a moral ideal that should be upheld at all costs. They ripped apart President Clinton for his moral indiscretions. But now they were backing a man who had a track record of actions and words which were antithetical to the teachings of Jesus Christ. They showed and continue to show a level of grace to President Trump that they never showed to Democrats. It has become apparent to me that these men really care more about power than they do morality. The irony now is that it is the Democrats who are standing up for moral values like caring for the oppressed, protecting immigrants, justice for victims of sexual abuse and loving one’s neighbor.

This journey has led me away from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. It is no longer true that the Republican Party has the moral high ground in American politics. Following the teachings of Jesus Christ does not preclude someone from being a Democrat. As I dove into the politics of education and a small community within a growing metropolitan area, I have realized that my political beliefs fall more in line with the Democratic Party.

As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To seek the true equality of all people and to give them an equal chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, our governments need to take an active role in maintaining the conditions to make this possible. Republicans view the government as getting in the way of this ideal and think the free market will create an atmosphere where everyone has an equal chance. But in my opinion the free market does not have a soul and does not provide an equitable playing field.

Living in a rapidly gentrifying community has convinced me that a strong government is needed to live up to the strong ideals within the documents that serve as the foundation for our American government. All levels of government need to take active roles in making sure that the systems around us create an equitable foundation for community members to better their lives. I have seen free market systems in my community from the education system to the housing system that do not provide an equitable pathway to the middle class. I would love to take those who believe in the savior free market system on a tour of my community and show them who this system leaves behind.

The more I work in my community the more that I believe in lifting up the voices of those without power and working through the various systems to bring about true, equitable change. For me personally, this means being a Democrat and campaigning for Democratic candidates who have walked with those who are powerless and believe that our various systems need to be changed so that all can have an equitable pathway to better their lives and the lives of their children.

My faith is stronger and more mature than it was when I was younger. But I have different beliefs in how this faith in Jesus Christ expresses itself in the world around me. I am no longer at war with those on the other side of the political divide even if those on the other side are people I care deeply about. Change happens at a table where everyone is heard and valued. In my conversations I try to listen more than I speak especially with those who have different life experiences than my own. I debated writing this post for a while because of this desire to listen instead of speak. But given the loud voices of evangelicals continuing to support the immoral actions and racist words of President Trump, it is even more important for the people I know in my community to hear from Jesus followers who disagree and express their faith differently.

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Why We Send Our Daughters to the “Worst Performing” Jeffco Schools

One of the education advocacy groups in our county posted the following tweet:

Would you send your children to the worst performing #JeffcoSchools?

I thought I would take the opportunity to answer their question and explain why we send our daughters to two of the “worst performing” schools in Jeffco Public Schools.

First, I disagree with the jump to call our schools “worst performing.” Through our nonprofit Edgewater Collective we have dug deep into school achievement data in our area. When 9 in 10 students are in families that struggle against the roadblocks of poverty and start school without the head start that more wealthy families do, then test scores will reflect this. So when people jump to call our schools “worst performing” I take offence. The teaching profession is hard at any school but especially at schools where students start school behind and teachers play the role of social worker and teacher. Do our schools need to improve? Of course! My full-time job is bringing together resources and organizations to make sure that all students in our area succeed from cradle to career. We have to do better. It is important that with accountability comes support and resources. Do we have the right resources and supports to help these students catch up? No. Across the street in Denver Public Schools, students who are growing up in poverty receive more money from the district to help them catch up academically. This is not true in Jeffco Public Schools. Before we call our local schools “worst performing” we need to take a hard and honest look at the stories and realities facing students in our schools.

Second, I disagree with the notion that just because a school has low test scores that great teaching and educational practices are not happening inside the school. When we started both our daughters at Lumberg Elementary we were a bit worried about the schools because of the test scores. But our worries were proven wrong as we quickly learned that Lumberg is full of great teachers who excel at their craft. Because of the high poverty at Lumberg, teachers take on even bigger challenges. Over the past five and a half years, our girls have continued to grow academically and each year they exceed expectations on the state tests. They have received a great education at Lumberg Elementary and now at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School. Along with the great education they are also learning about the full range of the human experience. Their friends struggle against the roadblocks of poverty and immigration. This past summer Anna went to camp with her Latino friends and saw racism firsthand as suburban students yelled racist statements at her friends.

We are proud to send our daughters to Lumberg Elementary School and Jefferson Junior/Senior High School. They are receiving a great education from talented and caring teachers and staff. They are learning first hand the challenges and inequity that face members of our community.

I firmly believe that our communities and country would be better if there was more integration like this. Middle and upper class families need to live and go to school with those that have more challenges. It creates a more caring and empathetic community. We live each other’s stories instead of just reading about them or watching them on the news.

 

Racism and Jefferson County

Once again race is part of the national conversation this weekend based on comments President Trump made regarding NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. For those of who are white the tendency can be to look away and try and rationalize that the issue can’t be as big as they are making it out to be. Or we can get angry that the players aren’t respecting the flag or our country.

I would recommend the harder option. For white folks like myself, the harder option is to listen and dig deep to find the elements of racism that are all around us. There is a racism that is inherent in the systems around us.

Here’s a video on how systemic racism shows itself:

We can explain away racism and say it isn’t in our community, but it is. We have to own up to our own biases around race. How do I react differently to a black man walking down my street than a white man doing the same thing? I grew up in Indiana in a very white elementary and junior high school. Then we moved to Littleton, Colorado and I attended a very white Arapahoe High School. Then my college experience at Taylor University in Indiana was once again very white. How do these experiences impact me and my views on race?

We live in a county that is 80% white (2010 Census) and our county does have a racist past. Jefferson County was the place of major KKK rallies in the 1920s. Jefferson County grew in the 1960s as Denver Public Schools started busing students and white families fled to our county.

How does the whiteness of Jefferson County and the racism of the past impact our county today?

Our local schools in Edgewater are 80% Latino. We have heard people in the neighborhood call our schools “brown schools.” Our students hear racist comments at sporting events at other schools in the county. Our daughter Anna heard racist comments made toward her Latina friends at a Young Life camp this summer. Edgewater is 45% Latino (2010 Census) but all our City leaders are white. All the Jeffco School Board members are white. How do people of color have a voice in white leadership structures?

We need to start a conversation around race in Jefferson County. How does race impact school choice and education in our county? How many of our teachers and school leaders are people of color? How does race impact what schools are renovated and which ones are not? How do we encourage local and county leaders who aren’t white?

The conversation starts with looking at ourselves and reflecting on our own racial beliefs and prejudices.

Racism is alive and well in the United States and Jefferson County. Let’s start talking about it.

Teachers: Saints Not Heroes

 

Tonight our home is filled with equal parts nervous excitement and anxiety. Our oldest daughter, Anna, starts 7th grade at Jefferson Jr/Sr High School tomorrow and Norah starts 5th grade at Lumberg Elementary. Hillary continues her role as a preschool teacher at Lumberg. After a summer of a quiet office at Jefferson, my workspace will get much louder tomorrow as school is back in session.

As summer ends tonight and a school year starts tomorrow, my thoughts are with teachers and school staff like my wife. Some call teachers heroes but I disagree. I think we do teachers a disservice when we call them heroes. I truly think they are saints.

Being a hero brings with it a pressure to save students in a way that no one else can. But teachers are not heroes. They alone cannot turn a student into a fully functioning, successful graduate. Because far too many people with no experience in the classroom pass laws and make decisions regarding education, teachers feel this pressure and expectation to be a hero. To save the kids in their classroom and save their school. But they cannot do it alone. It truly takes a whole community to raise a graduate.

Instead of seeing teachers as heroes I think they are truly saints.

Teachers give of their time and energy sacrificially. We expect them to change the lives of students but we pay them a wage that doesn’t even allow them to find a safe place to rent or a home in the community they serve. Teachers give of themselves each and every day with the hope that they are making a difference in the lives of the next generation. Saints are revered. Teachers should be too. They should be treated like professionals.

So as teachers, staff and students in our Jefferson County Public Schools start school tomorrow, know that your community is behind you. Parents are behind you.

May this school year be one that you feel the support of your community and parents

May this school year be one that you see brief glimpses each day of the impact you are making in the lives of students, especially in February

May this school year be one that you grow in your professional skills and receive positive feedback from your administration

May this school year be one that you grow in your collaboration and sense of team with your school staff

May this school year be one that you feel encouragement instead of heavy expectations

Thank you for investing in our children!

15 Year: Scotch and Marriage

Fifteen years ago Hillary and I were married down in Roswell, New Mexico and started off on an adventure. We were pretty naive back then. Having only dated each other for eight months, we were still getting to know each other. And I was only 23 years old, Hillary was 22 and both of us had just graduated from college.

Now fifteen years later, we have two beautiful daughters and our oldest, Anna, is heading off to junior high next week. Time flies by!

Last summer Hillary and I went to Scotland and sampled some of the best Scotch Whisky the Scottish Highlands has to offer. One of my favorites was the Glenfiddich 15 Year Old Scotch. A great Scotch Whisky involves the perfect ingredients, process and most importantly, time, to perfect the great taste that melts away your throat as you drink it.

Time has taught Hillary and me a lot and we are still figuring out things. There is a lot of change that has happened over the last fifteen years for us personally and as a family. As growth and change happens there can be a tendency for couples to drift apart especially those that marry young like we did. Thankfully, though, as Hillary and I have grown and changed personally, we have remained connected. This has taken leaning into tough conversations and overcoming selfishness. Seeking the best for the other is much harder to do than to say. Hillary has taught me so much about grace as we have grown together. Our faith has empowered us to fail well and forgive each other.

Over the last few years I have begun to realize that whatever is healthy is hard. This relates to working out, eating well and marriage. It takes hard work to grow a marriage just like it takes hard work to create a great Scotch Whisky.

The next fifteen years of our marriage will bring with it change for us personally and for our family. After moving too much over the last ten years, we have found our home in Edgewater. This is where we will lay down our roots. In the next fifteen years, both of our girls will graduate high school and college. Hillary will advance in her career and hopefully become a preschool director soon. With a gentrifying Edgewater and changing schools, I won’t be leading Edgewater Collective forever and will need to find another position where I can utilize my passions for education and system building.

I am excited for the future with Hillary and our girls. The hard work continues but it is totally worth it because of those who are along for the ride with us. Like a great Scotch Whisky, our marriage becomes even better with time.

The Five Year Jumps

A moose rode shotgun as I drove the moving truck back to Denver

Ever wish you could travel back in time and tell give your younger self some advice?

This summer marks fifteen years of marriage for Hillary and me and so this has caused us to reflect on the last fifteen years. Anna is also entering junior high in the fall which causes us to think back over the last few years as well.

Each morning when I open up Facebook, it displays pictures from years past as part of their “On This Day” feature. Yesterday it popped up this picture above which is my view from the driver’s seat of our moving van as we packed up and moved back to Denver from Champaign, Illinois.

This move back to Denver was a stressful one for our family but we knew it was the right one. Because of a changing role at a church I had been working at, we decided to move back to Denver where we had been eight years prior to Champaign. But we packed up our moving van and started to drive back to Denver without a job or a place to live. You can read about this leap of faith here.

As I look back over the last fifteen years, what’s ironic is that every five years we have made a pretty big jump into the unknown.

In 2002, Hillary and I married and moved to Englewood, Colorado without jobs. Like many folks in their 20’s, Colorado felt like it was a really fun place to live. As I look back at our honeymoon I just remember being anxious about what we were going to do for work when we got back.  I worked as a telemarketer, barista and tutor before I finally started my Masters at Denver Seminary. Hillary worked as a bank teller.

It was in 2007, that I decided to leave a stable junior high youth ministry job at Foothills Bible Church in Littleton. I left that job not knowing what would come next though at the time we felt like it was the wise move. That decision led me into a desert time of trying to figure out my calling that would last three years. I thought about the mission field, working at Apple Retail, applied to become a professor and had a short stint as a youth pastor again. Then finally in the summer of 2010, we moved to Champaign.

We can’t go back and change the past. But we can learn from the past. Would I go back and make different decisions about what we would have done at those five year jump points? I don’t know. If I could go back and talk to my younger self in 2002, 2007 and 2012, I would tell myself to:

  • Take one day at a time and not try to plan too much into the future
  • Be present with people around me instead of letting anxious thoughts rule the day and keep me from truly being with people in the moment
  • Trust that God will provide and that I don’t have to handle everything on my own

And now we come to another five year stage, we are learning from our past experiences and not jumping again. Though we could make a lot of money from selling our house, we love where we are in Edgewater and what we are up to as a family. Hillary loves her job as a preschool teacher at Lumberg Elementary and is working toward her Preschool Director License. I love my role with Edgewater Collective investing in our local schools. This summer, I’m moving my office into the Jefferson Community Center at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School and am a part of building an exciting partnership for connecting resources to families and the community. Anna is going to Jefferson Junior High in the fall and Norah will be starting 5th grade. And we are still praying and dreaming of a neighborhood Vineyard church here in Edgewater.

We have learned from our past fifteen years of marriage and the transitions that we went through. Now we are rooted and established in a neighborhood. We are staying! No jump this year!

The Five Year Jumps

2002: Married and moved to Englewood, Colorado without jobs

2007: Left youth ministry job at Foothills Bible Church

2012: Left family ministry job at First Presbyterian Church

2017: Resting and staying in Edgewater!

Why You Should Buy Orbeez by Norah Newton

why-you-should-buy-orbeez

Click image to enlarge

Choosing to be a Saint: Why We Chose Jefferson Junior/Senior High School

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Four and a half years ago when we moved to Edgewater, we chose to send our daughters to our neighborhood school, Lumberg Elementary. At the time, I wrote a blog post titled “Sacrificing Our Kids’ Education for the Mission.” In September of 2012, we felt like we were taking a chance in sending our children to a low-performing school. Many of my beliefs about education have changed since that blog post including the notion that by choosing Lumberg we were sacrificing something.

Now once again we are making another educational choice. This fall our oldest daughter Anna will attend our neighborhood school for 7th grade, Jefferson Junior/Senior High School. The best part about this decision is that Anna is involved in this decision and feels deeply about wanting to attend Jefferson. Honestly, Anna is making the decision and we agree with her.

It is important to understand the perception surrounding our high school here in Edgewater. It was once a true neighborhood high school and the top option for our proud, working class neighborhood. But starting in the late 1970s, the perception started to change and with changing demographics, more and more neighborhood families chose to send their children to other high schools in the suburbs. For the last twenty years, Jefferson has floundered as a high majority of students are struggling against the roadblocks of poverty.

The sense in the Edgewater community is that if you truly want the best education for your student, then you should send them to Wheat Ridge High School or Lakewood High School.

If this is the perception, then why would we follow Anna’s desires and choose to send her to Jefferson in the fall? Hillary and I do want the best education for our daughters and that is why Anna will attend Jefferson.

Here are some of the elements of Jefferson that led us to this decision:

Gifted and Talented/Honors Pathway

As we researched Jefferson’s curriculum options, we were excited to find out that Jefferson offers a Gifted and Talented/Honors Pathway from 7th grade through 12th grade. Anna can be in an accelerated track in which she will start Advanced Placement (AP) classes in 9th grade. By the time she graduates, she will have had the opportunity to take at least 10 AP classes and receive college credit. The other great aspect of this pathway is that she will be able to take other elective classes with students who are not in the honors pathway and broaden her relationships.

Value of Diversity and Continuing Relationships

One of the aspects of being part of the Lumberg community is that our daughters are in the minority. For all her elementary years, Anna has always been in the minority. In Champaign, Illinois, a majority of Anna’s classmates in kindergarten and 1st grade were African-American. Our daughters learn from students who are immigrants and who come from family experiences that are different from their own. They develop a heart for others and their eyes are opened to the reality of those who struggle to make ends meet. This has enhanced their learning beyond what they can read in a book. They sat in classrooms the day after the presidential election and felt and heard the pain of their classmates who were undocumented. For Anna, it is important that these relationships continue into 7th grade at Jefferson.

It’s Our Neighborhood School

I can’t fault parents for choosing to send their children to another school than the one in their neighborhood. It’s hard to believe that every school can truly serve all students. But for our family, we deeply value our Edgewater community and this means choosing to send our children to the neighborhood schools. If we want to see our schools continue their forward progress, then we need to be part of the solution. For too long, our Edgewater community has not truly owned our schools. It would be strange to load Anna into the car and drive by Jefferson on the way to a school in Lakewood or Wheat Ridge. And on top of that Jefferson is literally right around the corner from our house. As we live a more urban, walkable lifestyle I wonder if Anna will even want to drive.

In August, Anna will take that leap to junior high and cross Pierce Street to start her six year journey to graduate in the Class of 2023 as a Jefferson Saint. As a father, I couldn’t be prouder of who she is and who she will become as a result of attending Lumberg Elementary and Jefferson Junior/Senior High School.

Our neighborhood, our schools.

 

 

The Legacy of the Tall Oaks: The Tea Maker’s Beginning by Anna Newton

From the moment I was born I noticed things in the eyes of my parents. I noticed I was loved, and I noticed that a conflict was brewing in the Tall Oak Forest. At least, that’s what we call home. It was a conflict, a conflict between the humans and the animals. It is a battle that has lasted for centuries. Tall Oaks once was a peaceful community, but when the humans came, centuries ago, they just decided to settle down, and live on our land! Of course we were infuriated about this. So long story short, we declared war on them. They don’t know that though. They can’t understand us. But we can understand them. That’s the way it is to this day. I know my parents wanted me to live in a peaceful environment. They did not get their wish.

The day I was born was a, warm, sunny, spring day. I stared into my mom’s eyes with wonder. Like I said, I could read their expressions that day. Loving, yet worried expressions. All the surrounding creatures had similar expressions, joyful and fearful. Read the rest of this entry

The Tiki Room by Anna Newton

Chapter 1: The Mysterious Conversation

The sun shined, and a light breeze blew. For once, Maria was happy. She and her mother had been sailing on the Monarch, and elegant private cruise bound for Holland. She loved the smell of the salty sea air instead of the reeking city air of San Francisco, the place she had once called home. She also loved the clear, cloudless sky instead of the gray, stormy sky that had been looming over the ship for days. It was a wonderful day at sea.

“Maria! Come down! Dinner!”

“Coming mother!” Maria scurried down the stairs to the dining room. The smell of beef stew overcame her senses. She ran faster.

When she reached the bottom, she took her seat in between the captain and her mother.

“My darling Maria. Are you hungry?”

“Oh yes I am.”

Read the rest of this entry