Thursday, January 26, 2017

Advocacy 101: A Citizen's Guide to Anger Management

It’s a new year and a new administration, and quite a few of us are sick about it. One thing I have learned since my local activism took a more public turn is that many citizens aren’t experienced in advocating for or in interpreting public policy. In addition, a huge number are intimidated by public officials (when, constitutionally speaking, public officials should be intimidated by us). So here’s a guide for managing your rage to make the world a better place. I hope it helps. [This post can be a guide for anyone of any political perspective, but, as always, I am candid about my own in it. You can take it or leave it.]

You're mad, and so am I.

1. Rage Against the Machine: The Value of Your Anger
First of all, when elected officials take actions that you believe harm Americans and the future of the nation, your anger is justified. People who disagree with you about that will try to scold you and say that we should “all be coming together” and will advise you not to “ take everything so seriously.”  If you care about your country and how it treats people here and abroad, you are right to be angry when your government makes mistakes or, worse, betrays its own values.

Don’t let anyone (who cares less or is more cynical than you are) shame you about caring for your nation or for others.  

There is a no logical reason in the world to back off when you genuinely believe that danger is afoot for your nation and its people. When people scold you for being vocal and active about political events, they will tell you to “be respectful” or “be nice” to them about it, and some of them are genuinely asking merely for polite behavior. That is a reasonable expectation. But when they use similar admonishments as a polite way of saying, “Shut up,” that’s not a reasonable expectation.

You owe no one an apology for speaking out about issues that matter to you.

The problem with anger, though, is that it can dominate your thought processes to the point where you act irrationally, disrespectfully, and overbearingly. I have plenty of experience with all three of those behaviors myself, and they’re part of the reason that I maintain Ground Rules for my blog’s Facebook page. We all need standards, we all need to remain calm in the face of crisis, and if you want to persuade anyone to agree with you, you need to remain logical and focused on the issues.

Anger can (and should) be the fuel to keep you involved in your government, but it should not be the engine running your activism.

2. Channeling Your Anger into Action
A rant here and a diatribe there can feel amazing, but how do you channel that energy into something that does more than alienate your Aunt Misty on Facebook? Here are my recommended follow-through actions for you once you step down from the soapbox.
  • Be factual (not the “alternative facts” kind--in other words, not lies). First and foremost, if you’re going to talk politics at work or on social media, get your facts straight. Don’t cite fake news sources, don’t repeat rumors or news stories you have only heard by word of mouth (“My cousin over at the county building says…”), and back up everything you say with verifiable information. Otherwise, you’re just a sassy crackpot, and no one wants that.
  • Be public. Speak your mind in forums such as letters to the editor of your local paper, county government forums, marches of like-minded people concerned about an issue, and petitions circulating for a cause. If you’re not willing to stand publicly in some way (and to withstand public scrutiny) for the things you say you believe, then you don’t really believe them.
  • Be consistent. Public gestures are fine, but private ones matter, too. When people discuss public affairs with you face-to-face and are clearly wrong in a factual sense or in an immoral sense, say something. Too many times, my white skin has led other white people to think that, once all people of color are out of the room, that I want to discuss “the blacks” and “those people’s problems.” I say, “Please don’t speak that way in front of me,” or “I am not at all comfortable with this conversation. Please stop.” I don’t let them get away with it. If you can’t summon the words in the moment, roll your eyes and walk away. That works, too, in a pinch.
  • Be organized. Keep notes on the actions you take and on the causes that worry you most. I have an advocacy notebook where I keep my government representatives’ phone numbers, blog post ideas, reminders to make those phone calls, and a weekly list of everything I want to do over the next seven days to make the world a better place. It keeps me working (not just ranting).
    My advocacy notebook (which is kind of fabulous, if I do say so myself)
  • Be strong. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless, especially when one feels as though the government is doing so many irresponsible things at once. Also, plenty of people will criticize you for speaking up, and some of them will be quite mean about it. Difficult as that is (especially from people you consider to be your family and friends), you cannot let them get to you if they are asking you to betray your fundamental beliefs about what is right. This is one of the toughest aspects of activism, but integrity is important. So remain calm and firm when they attack, and be prepared to stand up to them over and over again. We all need to fight this fight day by day. Officials don’t get elected overnight, and we can’t stop their most dangerous actions overnight. Eat well. Rest up. Stay cool. We have work to do--years of it. After all, representative democracy never promised us a rose garden.

3. The Elephant in the Room: The Mixed Blessing of Facebook
Oh, Facebook. We need to talk about social media, and especially Facebook. On other forms of social media (most notably Twitter and Instagram), the newsfeeds are more “in the moment” and less conversational, so avoiding politics is easier. (Those forums are ideal for people who hate political posts.) Also, the less emotionally charged “follow” and “unfollow” functions on those other platforms makes ditching Aunt Misty for her diatribes about President Obama's birthplace much easier. There’s no word like “unfriending” on Twitter or Instagram to make everyone feel uncomfortable.

However, Facebook is a more potentially toxic situation. Let’s examine that and why you should stand strong in using Facebook for advocacy and also in ignoring people who are ticked off at you for it.
  • Facebook is a social network, which means that you share the parts of your life you are comfortable sharing in that medium. Now, why sharing “I’m going to call my senator today” is a less acceptable status than “I hate people who don’t refill the toilet paper roll” is beyond me, but it shows the fundamental hypocrisy of some Facebook users: they want full acceptance of everything they post, but they do not extend that privilege to their friends. Those particular Facebookers often have no idea that they’re being hypocritical in that regard, and you can’t fix that. You can only persevere. One of the reasons I maintain separate Facebook accounts (one as a personal page and one as a page for my blog) is to keep political hostility on the blog page. I still post some political items on my personal page every now and then, and sometimes that line is a little fuzzy to draw (politics are personal, after all). Facebook can be wonderful, but it is also a major stressor in trying to navigate balance and standards of conduct. You need to figure out your own balance and standards there.
  • Social media is ideal for spreading the word on community action. How do you think that the Women’s March became so huge around the world? Social media. How did so many people know to take action on Betsy DeVos’ nomination for Secretary of Education (when no one has ever cared about the nominees for that job before)? Social media. Post events, speak your mind, and encourage conversation about ideas and issues to the extent that you are comfortable. If your friends are mad at you for discussing things that you care about deeply, are they really your friends? If they can only be rude and insulting when they discuss issues, do they really need to be in your feed? Let them go their own way, and insist that they let you go yours.
  • But that may not always work. On Facebook, if you don’t like someone’s behavior, you can “unfriend,” “unfollow,” and/or “hide” posts and/or people, but this has become a psychologically volatile topic for many. Just the word “unfriend” sounds so harsh, doesn’t it? But that tool is there for a reason. If you no longer want to be Facebook friends with someone, you should unfriend them, and it should be that simple, but it’s not. The reluctance to take that step leads to one of the things I do not like about Facebook: passive-aggressive status writing.
  • Passive-aggression is one of my least favorite personality characteristics. If someone is angry at someone, I wish the angry one would either deal with the problem directly or let it go. Posting snide statuses in response to something a friend posts is not kind, is not friendly, and is not effective. Many such posts surfaced last Saturday during the March for Women. Passive-aggressive memes and statuses that were attempting to shame anyone attending those marches were everywhere. Those posts usually started with something like, “I don’t usually post about politics, but…” or “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but…” “I don’t mind people speaking their minds, but…” In the words of Dr. Phil, “Once you put that word ‘but’ in there, you were really saying ‘Forget everything I just said.’” More ridiculous were posts equating completely peaceful protests by registered organizations with the previous day’s violent actions by self-proclaimed “anarchists.” Don’t get me started on that logic. The shaming of these posts doesn't work because passive-aggression reads as controlling, manipulative, and cowardly. Avoid that. If you won't take someone on honestly and directly, then don't take them on.
  • Then there are the "Can’t we all just get along?” memes, including ones asking that we all be nice to each other no matter what our politics are. I agree with those up to a point. Once someone starts spewing hatred at groups of people or to individuals with whom they disagree, I am not required to play nice any longer, and neither are you. “Play nice” is, by definition, phony, and I won’t be a phony when it comes to standing up for what I think is right.

4. So What Now?
In the United States, we citizens are responsible for our government. We are each 100% responsible for every elected official, every employee, every decision. Those “Don’t blame me; I voted for <insert election loser>” bumper stickers are factually incorrect. We are all responsible for all of it. Not taking action (and especially not voting) doesn’t make you any less responsible for it. Thus, direct action is imperative, especially if you feel like the people in charge are not behaving responsibly or morally, or may perhaps even be leading the nation to tyranny (something I never thought I would live to see in my lifetime).

Every day, the news overwhelms us with information on so many difficult and troubling issues. Tackling all of it yourself is not reasonable. Here are a few steps you can take to manage that deluge of information.

1. Decide which issues you care about the most. Obviously, public education is my priority. Because of recent events, my background in language and communications also compels me to speak out about the deceitful public messages from the Trump Administration and about transparency in government. That's what I can handle right now.

Other issues I care about deeply (the environment, health care, foreign affairs, etc.), are still on my radar and are still something I act on but are not the agenda items on which I focus most of my energy. I hope you will take one of those and run with it. My list alone has me tearing out my hair. (I read an article the other day that advocates not fighting back and lying low during this time because the writer believes that action only feeds our opponents' mindset. I call "Hogwash" on that. No totalitarian government was ever stopped from perpetrating its misdeeds on the populace by having citizens quietly cooperate with it.)

2. Maybe you need a guide to help you. Since the November election, a few guides have come about that can help people organize and understand what to do. Here are some that unapologetically support many issues that I support. If you are of a different perspective, then by all means search for those yourself.
  • Together We Will, a local grassroots movement in Harford County that is trying to make the world (and our area) a better place
  • Resistance365, a daily list of actions you can take to stop prejudice and hatred in the world
  • Rogan's List, the work of a former university librarian who provides you with a daily list of actions to take to fight for good in the world
  • The United State of Women Action Network, a group that provides information and action to take on the issue of gender equality (For those who questioned the need for a women's march last week, this would be a great place for you to learn about the experiences of others who have been less fortunate than perhaps you have.)
  • Indivisible, a guide written by former congressional staffers that uses the lessons learned from the rise of the Tea Party to advocate for specific actions to stop the Trump agenda
  • Your favorite nonprofit, charitable organizations that are promoting a better world through improved health, education, or social justice. Nearly all of them have an advocacy guide to assist you in how to help them further the cause. (Here are some of my favorite causes as examples of those advocacy pages: Episcopal Relief and Development, UNICEF,  Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance, International Rescue Committee.)
3. Talk to your friends. Close friends often have similar beliefs about the world. If you and your besties have the same political agenda on specific issues, then divide up the work among you. Maybe one of you commandeers health care, one of you manages education, and one of you handles foreign affairs. You can provide each other with articles and information on your designated topics and let each other know when to call your representatives about upcoming legislation. Pool your people and share the load.

4. Read and learn. One of the most important things you can do in this political climate is to stay informed and buy your news. Online news outlets that still practice actual journalism (New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) charge a fee for news online because they are legitimate news sources, and producing that product costs money. Fake news outlets and other less reputable sources of information are often free as a bird, sucking you in by posting provocative “click-bait” article titles that bring them dollars from online advertisers. To make sure that you are getting reporting that is verifiable and holds itself to established standards of journalism, pay for your news.

(For those who, in response to this suggestion, scream about the "liberal media," scream all you like, but if you hold legitimate news organizations in the same category as Breitbart and even sites like Occupy Democrats, then you know little about journalism. Bias is inherent in every single news report. The degree of bias, the standard for evidence in a report, and the accountability for that information are the differences between legitimate news organizations and fake news purveyors.)

After November 8, one of the first things that my husband and I did was to ensure that our online subscriptions to the Times and the Post were current. The new president has been clear in stating that he thinks freedom of the press is not something he has to enforce, that he will punish news outlets who do not post events as he perceives them, and that he is willing to lie regularly to get the kind of public attention he seeks. Support the journalists who are holding down the fort and calling him on it.

I hope this advocacy primer gets you started on speaking up if you haven’t started already. This nation was founded by citizens who believed that their government was not behaving in a fair, rational, or noble way. Dissent and rebellion are as American as 4th of July parties, and we have the right (as our Founding Fathers so specifically told us) to fight back against tyrannical demagogues and their toadies when they rise to power. Advocacy that is smart, organized, caring, and consistent is the only way through the next four years.

Toughen up, buttercups, and GAME ON.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Stop the Swamp: A Teacher's Top 5 Reasons to Stop the Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

Everyone loves a “Top 5” list. I click on them all the time, especially when they are silly and light-hearted. This one is neither silly nor light-hearted. It concerns one of the (many) deeply concerning cabinet appointments of President-Elect Donald J. Trump, Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. After reading this list (and its accompanying verifiable references from legitimate news sources), I hope that you encourage your senators to
  1. delay consideration of her nomination until her ethics issues are resolved, and
  2. once those issues are resolved, vote against her based on her lack of qualifications, her inability to achieve objectives, and her proven disdain for public education.

Over the past two months, President-Elect Donald Trump has nominated the least qualified, least distinguished panel of cabinet and staff appointees in American history, and the Republican-controlled Senate has promised to move those nominations through quickly (before their ethics reviews have been completed) to avoid as much bad publicity as possible over the nominees’ collective awfulness. Some of those appointments do not require confirmation by the U.S. Senate (for example, appointees such as white supremacist Steve Bannon and morally vacuous aide Kellyanne Conway get to set up shop in the Oval Office with no governmental barriers), but many of them do. You, as a citizen, have a voice in this matter and can speak up to encourage or to stop these nominations.

This blog has traditionally focused solely on public education, and although that may change during this next presidential administration, for now, that’s where I will spend my energy. That brings us to Education Secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos.

When Michelle Rhee, the self-promoting former chancellor of Washington, DC, public schools, was Trump’s rumored first choice for the job of Education Secretary, I thought, “Oh, dear God, no.” I now view those few days as Trump’s happy “education Camelot” period before he delivered the real bad news: Betsy DeVos. Here are my Top 5 reasons why she should not be Education Secretary.

1: DeVos wants to privatize public education (note that “privatize public education” is an oxymoron, and that is emblematic of the ethics issue here). Since the 1980s, the issues of charter schools and school vouchers have been fringe issues on many Republican education platforms. Charter schools come with a raft of problems (that I have explained in other posts), but vouchers are even more concerning.

Vouchers are essentially government “gift cards” with which parents can choose a school for their children, public or private. Because vouchers fly in the face of the most basic standards of accountability for public monies, they have never had much support nationwide. Additionally, the perceived superiority of private schools regarding student achievement was disproved by Mr. Vouchers himself, George W. Bush, and research has shown time and again what the Brookings Institute data show: vouchers do not significantly impact student achievement and usually have no impact at all.

During the presidential campaign, Trump espoused a voucher scheme involving $20 billion in federal funds that would go to 11 million children living in poverty as vouchers to attend private school. Here are resources to explain the problems with that.
  • The number of children in the U.S. living at or below the poverty level is actually 15 million, not 11 million. Most data indicate that students living within 100-200% of the poverty threshold should be included in any calculations of “students living in poverty” because our government poverty threshold is so inadequate. That would mean that the number Mr. Trump should be using is (conservatively) around 30 million children, but he is using the number 11 million. I wonder why.
  • Mr. Trump’s math would give each of his 11 million students $1818, which would certainly not pay for any private school in these parts.
  • Thus, Mr. Trump expects states to cover the rest of that tuition gap with state vouchers. For the 13% of children in the state of Maryland who live below the poverty line, giving them that same amount ($1,818 per child) would mean that the state would pay somewhere near $300 million dollars for those students’ private school tuition. That would still give parents of those 11 million kids less than $4,000 a year total for private school tuition. (Average Maryland private school tuition is around $9,000 for elementary school and $12,000 for secondary school.)
  • But that is not what Mr. Trump wants to do: He wants states to give those 11 million students a total of $110 billion ($10,000 each per year), which in Maryland would be a grand total of approximately $1.7 BILLION (and that’s just the students below the poverty level in Maryland--not all students living in impoverished conditions and certainly not working-class or middle-class children). A voucher program of this scale clearly eliminates public education budgets nationwide. What happens then to your child’s school, working-class and middle-class parents? Remember: you get none of that voucher money, and neither does your child’s school, and no one at those private schools is answerable to the government for what happens to the cash. Is that the best use of your tax dollars?

What does this mean for your child’s public school?
Every dime that goes to vouchers will come directly out of the public school budget, and that means the money for your public school student. The idea of vouchers tends to play well with uninformed middle-class voters who think, “Well, I want to put my tax dollars toward a school for my kids that I choose. Now we can afford private school! Vouchers sound great.” Middle-class kids are nowhere on the radar here. Middle-class and working-class parents will not see that money. Vouchers have always been a passive-aggressive attempt to gut public education budgets by people who do not support the concept of public education. If you want an educated populace, or even if you just want your child’s school to receive adequate funding, do not support vouchers.

2: DeVos engages in unabashed influence peddling. Mrs. DeVos and her family donate millions of dollars to political candidates, and Mrs. DeVos herself has publicly stated that “We do expect some things in return” (page 234).  Thus far, the Senate has been unwilling to engage in much criticism of her on that score, perhaps because 17 of them received campaign money from Mr. and Mrs. DeVos (4 of whom are on the Senate confirmation committee reviewing her nomination) and because their other campaign contributions would then be under scrutiny. But we citizens can question these matters. We can object, and we should.

What does this mean for your child’s public school?
She is unapologetic about the influence she hopes her money plays, and that means that, as a public official, she would certainly let “money talk” on policy. Is that what you want for America’s public schoolchildren? Whom would you want buying her favor:
  • standardized testing giant Pearson Education?
  • the Tea Party?
  • Common Core author and College Board President David Coleman?
  • the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?
  • religious groups promoting curriculum geared to their religious beliefs (and not yours)?
To whom should she sell her soul (and your child’s education)? Let her know now because she should have no problem selling it after buying herself this nomination.

3: She and her family do not believe in public accountability for their financial practices. In fact, she has not even completed her forms for the required ethics review before her nomination is considered. That review is important not only because of the public monies that went to private schools in her Michigan voucher programs. The review must also extend to her donations to political campaigns and superPACs and to her connections with Blackwater (her brother’s business) and Amway (her husband’s business). The best explanation of all of this DeVos family “funny money” is in the excellent (well-researched and well-documented) book, Dark Money, by Jane Mayer, published many months before Mrs. DeVos’ nomination (start on p. 230, and you should probably sit down when you read it). No one whose financial web is as tangled as Mrs. DeVos’ should expect confirmation from the Senate until all of those potential conflicts of interest have been thoroughly scrutinized (and if you disagree, please spare me any of your accusations about any other public official lying to you or stealing from you).

What does this mean for your child’s public school?
If a voucher system is implemented in your area, you can count on no accountability system for how those private schools are using your tax dollars. In addition, charter schools have all sorts of accountability issues. Some are very transparent in that regard, but Mrs. DeVos’ charters in Michigan are not. Is her lack of financial transparency acceptable to you? If it is, I hope that you are not one of the people who create conspiracy theories around everything in Cecil County Public Schools’ crystal-clear annual budget. If you are OK with her financial practices and not CCPS’s, then you have a problem, and I’m not sure who can fix it.

4: She has no experience as either a school leader, a government official, or even as a public school student. She would be the first Education Secretary never to have entered a public school as a student. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush  (three of the biggest Education Department haters in history) appointed much more qualified and public education-supporting secretaries of education. Those gentlemen respected the fact that cabinet-level positions are important and demand someone who not only supports the president philosophically but also is qualified for the job. Mr. Trump does not share this approach to hiring government employees.

This brings us to the “drain the swamp” issue to which I allude in the title of this post. During the campaign, Donald Trump attacked what he viewed as Washington, DC’s “swamp” of cronyism, a muddle of entrenched politicians who don’t care about average voters. Now, why many Americans fell for that line from one of the nastiest, most dishonest, most narcissistic, least Christian, least Republican billionaires ever to stain American politics is beyond me, but let’s examine the consequence of that.

He has not only nominated the wealthiest Cabinet in history, but also he has included mostly entrenched Washington insiders. So much for his “man of the people” schtick. In other words, Mr. Tell It Like It Is lied to his supporters (again). As for the “outsiders,” Mrs. DeVos is symbolic of the few he has chosen in that realm: she appears to be on the “outside,” but her campaign donations clearly make her an insider, albeit one who likes to remain behind the scenes while financially pulling the strings of elected officials.  

Trump voters, when you wanted “career politicians” out of Washington, did you mean that you wanted poorly qualified people with unscrupulous histories of dirty money and a complete lack of understanding of the problems facing average Americans (including their public schools) to be hired for the most powerful government jobs in the country? Is that really what you meant? You should want the best people making education decisions for your children. Betsy DeVos is not the best person for the job; in fact, she is one of the worst choices Mr. Trump could have made.

5: She is incompetent. It’s as simple as that. I submit three articles for your consideration on that score:

What does this mean for your child’s public school?
If you like the idea of charter schools or even school vouchers, perhaps you want those policies implemented ethically and effectively. She has not shown the ability to do either. Maybe you agree with her on every issue, but she has not gotten the job done. That should bother you.

Betsy DeVos should not be the Secretary of Education. Reach out to your senators and let them know your thoughts. Our senators will not stop the governmental crazy train our new President-Elect is steering unless we tell them to do so.

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