Professional journalist and Barrington mother-of-two, Erin Chan Ding is one of twelve candidates running for four open seats on Barrington 220’s Board of Education (BOE). With a crowded race, we’ve decided to learn more about each candidate and pass along what they share to help inform our decisions on election day.
Our last question for each candidate is whether they have any favorite words to live by. Erin, we’ve learned, received her favorite words of wisdom in the form of a personal letter from Mother Teresa herself! (She shares her story below.) It’s a message Erin says continues to guide her decisions and priorities daily.
The BOA has big decisions on the horizon with a brand new Superintendent of Schools, lessons to digest from the Covid-19 pandemic and management of the $147M voters approved to spend on school improvements. Barry Altshuler, Leah Collister-Lazzari and Angela Wilcox will remain in their positions. Board President, Penny Kazmier and Gavin Newman are not seeing reelection. Incumbents, Sandra Ficke-Bradford and Mike Shackleton are among the twelve who will be on the April 6th, 2021 ballot.
We’ve reached out to all twelve candidates which, in addition to the incumbents, include Thomas J. Mitoraj, Lauren Berkowitz Klauer, Jonathan Matta, Robert Windon, William Betz, Alex Michael Strobl, Katie Karam, Steve Wang, Maggie McGonigal and Erin Chan Ding. We’ll be sharing each profile between now and election day.
Today, we’re getting to know more about Erin Chan Ding who says her priorities for Barrington 220 include lowering the temperature in our community over decisions related to the pandemic, restoring kindness and humility to conversations about education and planning for a more diverse and inclusive future.
Meet the Candidate: Erin Chan Ding
365: Where is your original home and family? What brought you to Barrington? How long have you lived here and what do you love about our community?
Erin Chan Ding: My dad emigrated from Hong Kong in 1968 to attend graduate school at Syracuse University in New York, and my mom emigrated from Hong Kong several months afterward to enroll in college at the University of Illinois at Chicago, or UIC. They met at the library at UIC, where my dad worked, and my mom studied. My mom joked he wouldn’t stop trying to chat with her when all she wanted to do was prep for her exams. Apparently, his attempts at conversation worked, and they married in 1974. Seven years later, they had me.
I was born at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, Ill., on Independence Day and grew up in Glendale Heights, Ill., in DuPage County. I graduated with a double major in journalism and history from Northwestern University, where I had the chance to study abroad in Spain while attending the Universidad de Salamanca; I also researched and wrote a thesis about the Chinese community in Mexicali, Mexico, during the Mexican Revolution. It was fascinating—and also helped me become trilingual.
After college, I spent several years reporting and writing for the Detroit Free Press. Three weeks after having our son in July 2009, my husband and I moved back to the Chicago area, where we rented a townhouse for a couple of years in Hoffman Estates. Two years later, we bought a home in South Barrington for three reasons: My husband and I needed to be close to I-90 for work; we loved the tranquility of the area; and we fell in love with the deep and broad offerings of the 220 Barrington School District.
365: How would you describe your experience to-date with learning in Barrington 220?
Erin Chan Ding: Our son, Chandler, 11, currently attends 6th grade at Station Middle School. Even with the constraints of the pandemic, the coaches and athletic department made it safe for him and several dozen other kids to participate in a cross-country season during this academic year, and for that, we’re super grateful!
Chandler also attended the Extended Self-Contained program at Hough Street Elementary School from 3rd through 5th grades and the Chinese Immersion program at North Barrington Elementary School from kindergarten through 2nd grade. Our daughter, Callie, 7, attends Countryside Elementary School and has been in the Chinese Immersion program there since kindergarten. Both our kids have also spent significant amounts of time at the after-school Kids Klub at Barbara R. Rose Elementary School, so we’ve had quite the tour of the district.
Erin Chan Ding: We’re so grateful for the quality of education and the care from every single one of our kids’ teachers. We’ve found their teachers not only deeply want Chandler and Callie to learn about the world we inhabit, but they also want to shape them into empathetic people. They nurture our kids when needed—giving plenty of (pre-pandemic) high fives and hugs—and have serious talks with them and their classmates about how to grow into caring, compassionate people. We’re also pleased with how frequently our children’s teachers communicate with us parents to keep us apprised; they’ve also always been receptive with suggestions and questions. We’ve found that whether it’s language or literature or extracurricular activities, our kids’ teachers motivate them toward individual and collective growth.
Growing up in DuPage County, I attended Medinah Christian School and Wheaton Academy before going to Northwestern University, so prior to enrolling our kids into District 220, my personal experience with education had been private. My husband, Charley, had a wonderful K-12 experience in public education in Palatine, Lincolnshire and Aurora. I’ve found that in just about every way, our kids’ education in Barrington 220 matches or exceeds the quality of education I had in private schools as a child and a teen, especially with regard to resources, the authentic care of teachers and the depth and quality of educational and extracurricular offerings.
365: What is motivating you to run for school board now and why are you a good fit for the role?
Erin Chan Ding: First, I’m running for the Barrington 220 School Board because I love this community. I’m so grateful for how the teachers, staff and fellow families have cared for my kiddos, and I want to serve and give back. I have served on the national executive board of a nonprofit organization, as well as led regional chapters of journalism organizations, and have loved the envisioning, reimagining and creativity those roles entailed.
Second, I want to do everything I can to bring kindness, humility and respect to the way we dialogue with one another. The temperature in our community has overheated in what has been an unquestionably difficult year for everyone. The uncertainty around how our children are going to learn and the anxiety around the Covid-19 pandemic has been exhausting for all of us. We all want to reopen schools for in-person learning and we need to recognize that the best solution for some families may not be the optimal or safest path for others. We need to exercise flexibility, compassion and understanding.
Third, I want to ensure voices that have often felt marginalized in District 220 are listened to and amplified in decision-making processes. We need to improve representation in every part of the school district when it comes to diversity of age, race, experience, class, thought and geography.
As a child born in the Chicago suburbs to immigrants from Hong Kong and Guangdong, I rarely saw my story or my community’s history represented in curricula. As I grew up, I did not see people who looked like me at decision-making tables. I did not have a single teacher or school administrator of color until college. I hope to play a role in making sure 220 is as inclusive as possible, one in which kids in our school district—we have a high school composed of more than 36 percent students of color—see pieces of their stories and identities in their schools.
For two decades, I have worked as a journalist, first as a staff writer for a large newspaper in Detroit and for the past dozen years as a freelance journalist for a variety of newspapers, magazines, websites and non-profit organizations. My approach in both career and volunteerism is to enter conversations or complicated issues with questions. I love to listen, acknowledging that I often do not come equipped with the best answers. In serving as a nonprofit executive and in volunteer board roles, I’ve found the most effective approach is to use a collaborative framework—one in which those who have a stake in the outcome are heard and their ideas are considered before decisions are made.
365: What are your short-term goals for Barrington 220? What are your longer-term goals for our school district?
Erin Chan Ding: It’s clear the most pressing short-term issue for District 220 is how we reopen schools for in-person learning amid the Covid-19 pandemic. As a parent whose kids have been back in school for a total of three days since March 2020, and as the chief supervisor of remote learning and occasional Zoom class panic (while trying to do my own work), I would love to have both our kids back in school.
My husband and I chose to send our kids back for hybrid learning in January, and we’re looking forward to the day when most of our population is vaccinated so we can start waving goodbye to Covid-19. However, it’s critical to recognize each family is different and has a varying set of aggravating or ameliorating factors when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. If a student’s or a teacher’s family has someone in their household who’s immunocompromised, for instance, that family should have the choice to continue with the style of learning that is safest and best for them. If a family has a multigenerational household in which social distancing is difficult and would like to remain remote, the district should be able to provide them with that option. We need a flexible, agile and understanding approach to reopening schools.
This also includes adapting to changing data. We are in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, and as guidance and studies from national and local health entities focus more on schools, we need to be receptive and adjust accordingly. It’s hard to tell where things will stand on our reopening timeline by Election Day on April 6. What’s clear are the many stakeholders in our community—students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, local businesses and homeowners—who should have input in the reopening process. When these groups are invited to participate, whether by committee or survey or some other means, this needs to be communicated and emphasized. What’s also clear is when we do return to some degree of normalcy, we need to conduct a thorough review to come up with a pandemic plan—a more formalized set of learnings, processes and best practices—in case we ever encounter this kind of extraordinary situation again.
Erin Chan Ding: Given that, the four school board members elected in 2021 will be dealing with much more in their four-year board terms than the reopening of schools. With the hiring of a new superintendent, we’ll have the opportunity to work with all segments of our community to develop an inclusive, cohesive strategic plan for the next several years. We can make equity-based decisions when it comes to hiring and awarding contracts. We have the chance to ensure we’re striving for representation with regard to diversity of race, experience, age, class, geography and thought so we can truly reflect our community mosaic.
A core part of a board member’s responsibility also involves negotiating a contract with the Barrington Education Association, or BEA. The ability to negotiate a long-term contract with teachers in the BEA with fair compensation to full-time employees is key. Having a five-year contract with the BEA gives stability to our school district. (As a former newspaper guild member who worked to renegotiate our contract every two years, I can attest to this!) We should also work on additional items like better compensation for substitute teachers. Overall, it’s important we continue aiming for long-term contracts with the BEA (while allowing for flexibility) so that we can continue to attract high-caliber teachers, who are not only core to caring for kids but also to helping our community shine as a destination district.
One more goal: I’d also love to increase the communication flow between the school board and the community. For instance, I’m grateful we have access to our school board meetings, but it’s often very difficult for a family to find the most relevant pieces of information in a three-hour YouTube recording of a board meeting or by trying to peruse board minutes. We have an opportunity to use digital media to give quick, helpful updates from board meetings. We should also use tools like Zoom to hold regular listening sessions with different constituencies in our community.
365: What are your biggest concerns for our students and our school district today?
Erin Chan Ding: I’ve addressed reopening our schools, which is clearly the most pressing concern. I also think that, as we return to more typical, in-person, five-days-a-week learning, we need to work with our school counselors, psychologists and teachers to implement rigorous screening for kids who may have experienced higher-than-average amounts of learning loss or significant amounts of fear and trauma due to personal experiences with Covid-19. Learning loss has been real during this Covid-19 pandemic, even for kids receiving the highest quality remote education, and we need to identify which kids may need additional assistance catching up and make this help tangible and accessible. The physical losses of and suffering by loved ones during Covid-19 have also been tragic, and kids need shepherding and care to heal from those experiences.
In addition, while I am thankful we have so much access to technology and am so appreciative of the One to World program that paired our kids with iPads (particularly this year during distance learning), I’d like to explore what it means to strike a healthy balance between technology and time away from pixelated screens. To be honest, school-issued iPads can seem, at times, like they’re the sources of parental misery because of our kids’ inability to part with them. Their iPads have become so vital for homework, test-taking and communication that I wonder if an over-reliance on them is having detrimental effects on our kids. I have also heard from teachers that iPads are, at times, a major distraction in the classroom, and I know parents whose children have gotten headaches from excessive screen time. As an “Xennial” who remembers what life was like before it seemed every house had a PC, I know we can find a healthy balance between a life with screens and pixels and time with paper books and in-person games. At the very least, we must have regular conversations about digital boundaries and best practices, particularly around time limits, social media access and screen-free environments.
We also need to continue to take detailed looks at transportation in our school district. Transportation constitutes one of the biggest parts of our operating budget, and we need to ensure it is fair, safe and equitable for all of our families. I’d like to maintain an open-minded posture around providing busing to communities that have been told bus transportation is not an option, particularly during this unique time of fluid hybrid and remote school schedules. Out of a desire for safety, we should explore how to provide fair and convenient transportation for all families who want and need it. This could transform the landscape for Sunny Hill Elementary families and also benefit kids at any school who may need safer busing options—especially when it’s icy and frigid outside.”
365: What do you think are the biggest opportunities we have for our students/school district today?
Erin Chan Ding: We need robust communication with the community, especially around finances, logistics and decision-making. We need to break down what’s being spent where and why. We need to explain what the Board of Education does and why in ways people can easily understand.
What if, in addition to using social media channels to show the Board of Education honoring students and community members, we also posted short graphics and videos to break down board decisions and tax levy processes for families? What if we posted brief, digestible updates on how the board is implementing the $147 million referendum? What would it look like if the board did everything it could to increase transparency and communication? What if the board and its committees hosted regular listening sessions, town halls and Q & As? This could ease the perception that the board is being persuaded by emotion. Effective communication can demonstrate how the district uses studied, considered research before making decisions.
365: In your view, what should our priorities be as a community in choosing the new school board members?
Erin Chan Ding: We need to choose listeners and collaborators as our board members. I’d love for us to choose board members who reflect the wide spectrum of our community. Each person’s lived experience brings a varied perspective to the board and to the way board members consider and make decisions. I’d hope our board members reflect humility and know they need to collaborate, not only among themselves but also with every swath of the community they serve, before arriving at decisions.
365: Do you have any favorite role models who made a lasting impression on you?
Erin Chan Ding: I’ve had two mentors, both of whom were my teachers. The first was Mr. Wayne Morley, my high school U.S. history teacher. He taught me that it was okay—and even healthy—to question and examine things we may hold sacrosanct. He taught me to appreciate both the beauty of our U.S. Constitution and challenged me to examine its flaws—the three-fifths compromise, notably—as well as the undergirding premise at the time of its ratification that owning another human being was acceptable, and how that assumption tainted everything.
The second was Professor Pamela Harkins, who taught my African American literature class at Northwestern. She introduced me to the lyricism of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Morrison. But not only that, she spent time with me over coffee and meals outside of class, helping me see how the struggles of these authors and their communities’ struggles against individual and structural bias translated in the present day, in my experiences, in the lives of my friends and in society at large. She helped me think critically about how our freedoms are linked, how oppression tends to be historically cyclic and how there exists resilience and hope—always.
365: What’s one of your favorite things to do or places to be in Barrington, with whom and why?
Erin Chan Ding: I love to run! It’s how I decompress and take time to think. So far, I’ve run 25 marathons and four ultramarathons, and to my delight, our kiddos have started running, as well. We go to neighborhood races all the time, like the annual Let It Be Us 5K at Citizens Park. As soon as my kids hit five years old, I asked them to exit the BOB stroller—pushing them had begun to feel like maneuvering a Smart car—and start running these races on their own.
This year, my son’s goal is to run his first, live-event half marathon. In our training, we’ve found the perfect, 8-mile route to run in the Village. It’s also a tour of some of our favorite spots. We park at Barrington High School and head east across the railroad tracks, running by the Shops on Lageschulte (last fall, we even stopped there to pose with an inflatable unicorn); by the Kaleidoscope School of Art, where the kids and I take drawing, mosaic, tapestry and clay classes, which have been extra-therapeutic during this pandemic; south on Dundee, past the Evergreen Cemetery we visit every Memorial Day to honor our fallen; west to Otis Road and a beautiful-all-year-round view of Hawthorn Lake; back south to the Village and then east, where we always wave to Hough Street School, which Chandler attended; to South Summit Street, where we force ourselves to run hills; then west again past some of our favorite eateries in the Village, like Cook Street Coffee, Southern Belle, Francesca’s Famiglia and Shakou; then west on Main past Ice House Mall & Village Shops, where we take the kiddos to see Santa; and then back south to do one big loop around the high school.
It takes us extra-long to do this favorite route in October because we stop often to photograph and admire Halloween decorations, plus leaves so startingly red and orange they’d blend in with a bonfire. It’s a pretty glorious run!
365: Any favorite words to live by? From whom and why?
“You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”
~Grace Lee Boggs
Erin Chan Ding: I met Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit when she was 95 years old. (She lived until 100.) Like me, she was Asian American, born to parents who emigrated from China. Despite her doctorate from Bryn Mawr College, Grace Lee Boggs found herself barred from university jobs because of her race. Knowing her freedoms were inextricably tied to those of her Black brothers and sisters, she spent the 1960s marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She and her husband, Jimmy Boggs, became so involved they even befriended Malcolm X and hosted him at their home in Detroit. She later founded a multiracial organization to bolster Detroit youth. Her quote reminds me we have an obligation to care for one another, to value each other. Often, this path to care means advocating for changes that make life fairer, better, more equitable and more inclusive for each of us.
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Erin Chan Ding: During my freshman year of high school, I wrote a book report on Mother Teresa. Like pretty much the rest of the world, she floored me by the way she served people, especially those who had essentially been discarded by society. Over and over, she said she saw Jesus in every face she encountered. The back page of the book I read listed an address for the Missionaries of Charity, which Mother Teresa had founded in Calcutta, India, in 1950. Using the address, I wrote her a letter thanking her for all she did to serve people. In it, I also asked her to pray for Chicago because at the time, we regularly approached 900 murders each year. I never expected a reply.
Several months later, I received a letter from India dated January 9, 1996. In it, Mother Teresa had typed: “Dear Erin Chan, Thank you very much for your letter. God loves you. Please be assured of my prayers for your beloved city. Remember, no act of love is ever small. A kind smile, a loving look, a gentle word—small things done with great love become great for Jesus. God bless you.” She then signed it in blue ink.
I sat there after reading it, my mouth agape for at least five minutes. I could not believe Mother Teresa had taken the time to read the specifics of a 14-year-old girl’s letter and then written back, referencing its contents. I then realized she did exactly what she had advised me to do: a small thing with great love. I still have the letter framed in our home, and a few times a year, I share that story with our kids. Because of Mother Teresa, I try to do those seemingly small things, knowing they ripple with great love.
Stay tuned for more Barrington 220 Board of Education candidate profiles in the weeks ahead. We’ve reached out to all twelve of them and are publishing profiles in the order in which we receive. (Click links to view profiles already published about Jonathan Matta, Thomas Mitoraj & Lauren Berkowitz Klauer.) Our schools are a big part of what gives Barrington its unique character and we appreciate all who are willing to help lead the way on behalf of Barrington families, children and young adults.
Formed in 1973, Barrington Community Unit School District 220 educates over 9,000 students at one high school, two middle schools (grades 6-8), eight elementary schools, and one early childhood center. District 220 encompasses 72 square miles in 4 counties and covers 12 villages: all of Barrington, Lake Barrington, Tower Lakes; and portions of Barrington Hills, Carpentersville, Deer Park, Fox River Grove, Port Barrington, Hoffman Estates, Inverness, North Barrington, and South Barrington. Learn more at Barrington220.org.