A version of this blog was originally posted on May 30, 2018. It has been updated on Aug. 24, 2021, and has pretty much gone through an entire rewrite after I got through with updating it. (NOTE: This blog is ALL OVER THE PLACE, you're just gonna have to travel on the journey like it's an unexpected safari with lots of alligators and monkey shit thrown at ya.)
This past weekend I received some screenshots of posts made by former CVUSD Trustee Sandee Everett, and Tony Dolz (who applied for the Area 2 CVUSD vacancy on Aug. 12) that were published in a private Facebook group for “Unified Conejo.” Because I believe some of the statements posted by Everett are libelous in nature, I am holding onto the screenshots for now. What I can share with you is that Everett, Dolz and members of Unified Conejo have efforts underway to collect signatures in the hopes of forcing a special election for CVUSD Area 2.
As you may recall, Rocky Capabianco was selected in the applicant interview process to fill the vacancy. Those opposed have 30 days (from Aug. 12) to collect 1.5% signatures of Area 2 residents in order to trigger a special election. You probably aren’t surprised this effort is underway, as groups like Conservative Moms of Conejo Valley (of which Everett is an admin for) strategized this even prior to any candidate being chosen to fill the vacancy.
What is Unified Conejo?
Per a letter to the Thousand Oaks Acorn, in September 2017, community member Tim Bond mentioned he was the founder of a group called Unified Conejo.
To my knowledge, Unified Conejo (UC) first emerged around the time the FAIR Act implementation was being discussed at the CVUSD school board meetings, around the time I first started attending the board meetings in January 2017. At this time, Sandee Everett had just been elected.
In the meetings that soon followed, I noticed that community members who identified themselves as part of UC, or sat in the group's company, seemed to have an unweighted amount of extra support/and or special treatment from board members, specifically Mike Dunn (a UC member), who, at the time, was board president for CVUSD.
In fact, I noticed that one woman, Amy Chen, was given extra speaking time twice during her public comments at two different meetings, by Mike Dunn, and that he went as far as to address her from the dais during a board meeting and suggest that she write and submit an alternative assignment policy to the board for discussion. I would later learn that Amy Chen and Deb Baber (Citizen's Journal editor in chief) are/were both admins for Unified Conejo's secret (“secret” is a categorization for a Facebook group that means that the group is not searchable) Facebook group. Amy Chen, as we all know now, would go on to create a paper shell of a nonprofit in order to falsely claim she was an 'educational nonprofit director' as a ballot designation during her failed CVUSD board run in 2018. Currently, she is the CEO (having replaced the former CEO Jennifer Weir in December 2020) of the far-right "Conejo Guardian" propaganda paper that publishes missives and op-eds aimed at harming the school district, with the intention of "pushing the conservative needle."
The "pushing the needle" concept was discussed in the Unified Conejo group back in 2018, where they identified using Nextdoor as one platform for posting false information ... "even if it gets taken down, people will have seen it" being the general thinking on strategy, as it was discussed in the group. Beyond targeting other platforms to “push the needle,” the group also talked about a need to publish their own paper to push out their talking points to the community, often expressing anger and discontent over our local paper, The Acorn.
Pushing the Needle
Not long after these conversations, in 2018, the community was introduced to the now-defunct “The Voice/La Voz” “publication.”
La Voz, a conservative leaning "publication" (its own description) was launched by UC member and Conservative Moms of Conejo Valley Facebook group founder Angela Nardone. Weekly-ish during the 2018 election cycle, the La Voz paper would hit our driveways, packed to the brim with biased articles and Republican candidate ads. At least they were honest about the conservative political lean on their website. As it would happen, 2018 wasn’t a sweeping year for the “Red Wave” that was predicted by them on a local level, and I never heard from La Voz again. It looks like they attempted to put up a few social media posts in 2019 on their Facebook page, but that’s the extent of it.
A similar tactic re-emerged in 2020, when our community was introduced to a new “independent” paper, which calls itself the “Conejo Guardian,” on our doorsteps. The op-eds and features published don’t even attempt to adhere to journalistic best practices (or basic grammar) and its issues contain heavily-biased hit pieces which focus on CVUSD. It certainly may come from an “independent” funding source but the paper is anything but a good-faith community news resource, and like its failed predecessor, is a political propaganda tool which is being used to “push the needle.” If you haven’t read my latest on the Conejo Guardian, visit the blog.
Now, I think many of us have wondered where the funding is coming from for the Conejo Guardian. We know people behind it (at least those willing to put their names on the official paperwork) … but where is the money coming from? If you ask the people delivering the Conejo Guardian, they straight up tell you it’s from Godspeak Calvary (Rob McCoy's "church"). I put church in quotes, because … it’s not a church — it’s a building (funded by Texas-based Republican fracking billionaires) that houses a political cult. As you may recall, McCoy endorsed Conejo Guardian CEO Amy Chen from the Godspeak Calvary pulpit in 2018. He also happens to be flush with cash and has expressed a desire to launch his own paper. But … what do I know?
McCoy is no stranger to political activism (he ran unsuccessfully for assembly and successfully for Thousand Oaks City Council), especially at is relates to public schools. Not only does he sit on the advisory board of a movement called Public School Exit (published mission: to facilitate an exodus of American children and families from government-controlled education by educating the public and helping families); he is affiliated and profiled with far-right personality Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA (published mission: The organization’s mission is to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.) In fact, he just attended and spoke at the organization’s Student Action Summit on July 28, 2021. Godspeak Calvary has also been used as a venue to host anti-public school forums and has additionally promoted and hosted a Citizen’s Journal (another far-right online website based in Ventura County) writer training course, in which it sought out students to train on reporting based on the concept of “forgetting everything you learn in journalism school” and noted that there would be a workshop attached to the training on “upholding the American Legacy.”
(As an aside … one feature that stuck out to me on Turning Point’s website is its “professor watchlist.” Here, they invite people to submit “radical teachers” and then they profile their pictures, names and contact information. I found this interesting, as Sandee Everett regularly calls for parents to publicly name teachers they think are too liberal … and we know that UC and Citizen’s Journal target and publicly blast public teachers by name as well. Fear is part of the chilling effect strategy, and cruelty is the point.)
Speaking of Citizen’s Journal, I’ve already mentioned that Deb Baber, its editor in chief/co-founder was an admin for the UC group. The “paper’s” publisher/founder, George Miller, also belongs to the UC group. So, it was not surprising that the efforts led by UC members at school board meetings then received a boost from the online website, which published hit pieces on community members, teachers, and CVUSD staff. For examples of these articles, see HERE and HERE. You already know CJ doesn’t adhere to journalism best practices because they literally boast about it on the flyer attached to the “writer training.”
And then there’s the time they also plagiarized The Acorn. So um, CJ’s Mikey wrote a news story about me ... actually! One in which he didn't reach out to me for a quote but did pull two paragraphs of content from another paper. So we're all on the same page, to recap, this local "publication," hosted a fundraiser for Ronda Baldwin-Kennedy and endorsed her, wrote an article about my court case in which she was involved in, didn't reach out to me for comment, plagiarized content, and then went to Godspeak Calvary to "train" students on reporting.
Anyone else have the sudden urge to throw all of your money toward verified, reputable local publications like The Acorn? I don’t always agree with Kyle Jorrey, but my god … at least they believe in adhering to best practices. And given that conservatives are funding MULTIPLE local “independent” “news” sources filled with biased takes and bad reporting … it’s absolutely critical that we support professional, good-faith, best practices-based local journalism.
They’re All Connected
I wanted to circle back to Unified Conejo and talk a bit more about connections. UC isn't a group that acts in a silo, nor is it the first of its kind. In fact, it's just one of many groups that a lot of the same people populate and run.
You may wonder why this is done. Why not create just one big group since it’s pretty much all the same people? The goal through using various groups and pages and "publications" is to target multiple audiences using different messaging. For example, perhaps some Republicans/conservatives would be horrified by the tactics of Unified Conejo (more on those in the next section), which may prevent them from supporting the group's efforts. However, pages like "Concerned Parents of California" sound neutral enough, right? CPOC is a movement launched by Tony Dolz back in 2014 when he first ran for school board. The CPOC doesn’t publicly affiliate itself with a group like Unified Conejo (of which Tony Dolz is an active member). By parceling out messaging via various groups, it gives the impression of "small and grassroots" versus "organized political advocacy." And, when you want the messaging to feel as though it's just a group of well-meaning parents advocating for parental rights, you need to actually make it appear that way to get buy-in. Sometimes this means stoking fear and distributing disinformation related to specific topics in order to garner group support … we saw this with the literature opt-out policy and are experiencing it currently with the health and sex ed curriculum update.
To be effective, Unified Conejo members work with/run various groups/churches/pages in order to circulate their messaging, which is heavy on the anti-public school, anti-teacher sentiments.
From Citizens Journal (who hosts fundraisers for local Republican candidates like Ronda Baldwin-Kennedy) to Unified Conejo to Conservative Moms of Conejo Valley to Conejo Guardian to Concerned Parents of California to California Parent Alliance to Informed Conejo Valley to Rob McCoy's Godspeak Calvary ... FOLKS, these are all the same people creating multiple papers and pages to push their narrative.
Right now, they're collecting signatures to petition for a special election for CVUSD, dispersing disinformation about the sex ed curriculum, standing outside of our public schools and handing children propaganda papers filled with false information about critical race theory, and manning Recall Linda Parks booths in front of Trader Joe's and Godspeak Calvary Church.
Don't go to Godspeak Calvary? Don't worry! Some of its most active church members admin and dominate conversations in online groups like Conservative Moms of Conejo Valley. Not in CMOCV? Don't worry, you'll hear about it via Conejo Guardian, as most of its op-eds are penned by CMOCV and UC members. Don't read the Conejo Guardian ...? That's not a problem — a different version of the same op-ed will be published on Citizen's Journal using a fake pen name. Don't read the news, but hang out on Facebook? Well, you then might find your feed full of posts from California Parent Alliance, Informed Conejo Valley, or Concerned Parents of California. Or, you'll see an organized string of comments hit the comment sections of our local paper, The Acorn, to give the false appearance of "majority support" for opinions expressed by the group's most vocal voices on social media. Not on Facebook? Just head over to Twitter. UC group members have multiple Twitter accounts under different aliases that they use to tweet, fight and dominate a thread in attempts to control the narrative and convey massive community support.
It's a heavily organized operation, friends. I'm not saying they're good at it, but they sure are persistent!
The Lengths They Will Go To
Now, before we really dive in on this section, I must note that I see nothing wrong with a group of parents/community members forming together to be advocates for causes they are passionate about. As someone who strives daily to be an advocate for issues important to me, I understand the importance of connecting with those in the community who share my same value set. At its core premise, I find absolutely nothing wrong with the concept of Unified Conejo or similar groups that form for advocacy-related reasons.
But what I do take issue with the lack of transparency these groups provide related to their efforts and funding sources, and I especially take issue in HOW we disagree and behave. As someone who was a direct target of the group's various "advocacy efforts," I can vouch for the fact that these individuals and groups will stop at almost nothing in order to gain control of our public schools.
In 2018, I became the focus of retaliatory efforts from the UC group after Mike Dunn (a UC group member) threatened my employer over my public comments at a school board meeting. As a result of Dunn's written threat to my employer (I didn’t say he was bright), and the news coverage that followed, the board voted to censure Dunn. Days prior to the censure vote, one of the UC group members attempted to organize a picket through the group at my private residence in a show of support for Dunn and his actions. Days after the meeting, public Facebook pages (now defunct after anonymous admins were identified) launched. For those who are/were familiar with the hate pages, you'll recall that they falsely claimed I stole money from the American Cancer Society and from my own nonprofit, that I was abusing my children, that I had a mental illness, and encouraged disparaging comments about my children, created weird cartoons/memes about me, and beyond. They went as far as to encourage people to follow me in public places and send them photos — and then posted them. Wild times. In the past now, mostly, but it gives you some good background/context as to why people were probably afraid to speak up and they got as far as they did.
UC members took credit for these pages, with the then-anonymous admins identifying themselves as UC members via the page’s posts. Around this time, Cathy Carlson — Mike Dunn Fan Girl #1who also applied for the Area 2 seat earlier this month and was not selected) was also emailing the board (specifically UC members Mike Dunn, John Andersen and Sandee Everett), while CC'ing multiple UC members on these emails. Cathy Carlson had been spending a lot of time investigating my personal life and she shared details about my employment and private life in these emails. One email discussed my pregnancy and speculated about my birth control. Another UC member's threats were serious enough that a judge granted a 2-year restraining order.
Why all this??
Because I publicly stated that I disagreed with their effort to force a literature censorship policy on the district.
Beyond my personal experience with the group, I noticed that the UC presence at board meetings often brought a high level of contentious energy to the board meetings — with those affiliated with the group insulting both teachers and students in our district with whom they disagreed. Additionally, I noticed that out-of-town activists accompanied the UC group, in order to strong-arm the board/and or support the board majority's agenda. (Really, not all that dissimilar from the strategy we saw happening at city council meetings regarding SB 54, with the likes of people like Genevieve Peters, who traveled up and down the state to speak at various city council meetings.)
What’s Ahead For Our Public Schools?
Unified Conejo may appear dormant publicly, but its members are very active in using multiple platforms and page at this moment to stir the chaos machine in Conejo Valley, not limited to, but heavily focused on our local public school district.
As we make our way closer to 2022, expect more aggressive actions organized and channeled out through this group, through some of its most vocal members, like Sandee Everett, Amy Chen and Tony Dolz. Being aware of these efforts and arming yourself with factual information will be key as I expect massive local disinformation campaigns to stem from them, as we've already gotten a taste of recently.