Like a lot of Americans, I’ve never been particularly political. I’ve never voted in a midterm election. I’ve never voted in a local race, never voted for mayor. I don’t recall voting ever except for the presidential elections. I would read political articles and keep up with the news, but I didn’t do much research before heading to the polls every four years. My Facebook feed was mostly cat photos.
But then President Trump was elected, and he nominated Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education.
Prior to DeVos, I hadn’t followed a single Cabinet nomination, which is probably true of most people. (Surveys regularly show that we aren’t particularly informed about our own government.) If I were to be at happy hour with my girlfriends, out of the five of us, we probably could have named two members of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, and the secretary of education was not among them. I feel bad saying it, but it’s the truth: I simply didn’t think I needed to know. Why? Because I always had a sense that things would be Ok regardless. If Mitt Romney had won instead of Obama, things would have been fine. I always thought, “There’s a system of checks and balances in play. There will always be some laws passed that I might not agree with, but it will be OK.” This is the first time in my life that I feel like things could not be OK. And I have found a political voice I didn’t know I had, or that I even wanted to have.
I can’t pinpoint the moment that things changed for me, but it started with Facebook. Like probably millions of people, I had never heard of DeVos, but she began popping up on my feed, with friends from all over the political spectrum posting about her more and more. I clicked on a few news stories and read some basic facts about her. I’m not naive - I know politics can be corrupt, and there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. I knew there was controversy over some of the other Cabinet positions, that some of the nominees didn’t necessarily have public sector experience, that some had links to people or events that didn’t look so good. But something about DeVos stuck out to me. The the more I read about her, the more baffled I became.
I learned she is a billionaire who contributes a lot of money to the Republican Party. I learned she has never been in public schools — not as a student, an educator or an administrator. There was nothing in her biography that suggested to me she had anything to contribute to the millions of children and teachers who would be under her leadership. I couldn’t even say, “Well, at least her kids went to a public middle school.” There was nothing. I realized she was as qualified to run the Department of Education as I was to run NASA. I don’t say this to insult her intelligence, or to insult her as a person. She simply doesn’t have any experience. I didn’t know that someone so unqualified could even serve in a Cabinet position.
Of course major political donors enjoy access and influence in our government. But I figured that money could buy you an invite to a White House dinner, not a Cabinet position. Have your time up on the stage with the president at a dinner. But you should not have the public education system, which educates 90 percent of the children in our country, depending on you.
I don’t have kids myself, and I attended both private and public schools growing up. I’m hardly an expert on education policy. But I always followed the news on my local school system, whether it was about a new superintendent, budget cuts or a shortage of teaching positions. I know how much public education matters, and so do my friends who are teachers or have children in school. A pregnant friend of mine told me she woke up crying in the middle of the night out of anxiety about what public school might look like for her future child.
So I started to act. Yes, there are still cat photos on my Facebook feed, but it has mostly become a platform for sharing information and political articles. I’ve sent things to people I said I would never talk to again, to friends I haven’t spoken to in years. I found myself having an internal debate: Do I really want to open this door? Is the person going to say, “Why is Elizabeth texting me?” But I knew they were open-minded people, and a person is a person. So I sent them information.
I also began calling and emailing my elected officials, something I had never done in my life. My cousin sent me a great tool where you click on a link and it automatically populates a number of fields: who your senator is, how to contact them and a little script for what to say. I picked up the phone and dialed Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia. On a voice mail, I said my name and where I lived. I said I was calling about DeVos and stated my objection. I wasn’t at all nervous, partly because I knew so many other people were calling. Knowing I am part of a huge wave of people calling and giving their opinions has made me a confident American.
I’ve seen it not only on social media, but in real life. My family and friends never previously talked politics. Now we do it all the time. Most of my girlfriends have transformed along with me. Normally we’d be talking about stupid videos or what Kristen Stewart did on “Saturday Night Live” or their kids or my cats or who knows. Now half of our texts or phone calls are about Trump and DeVos.
Of course I still have friends who don’t have much of an opinion and friends who are Trump supporters. If I can tell a friend really doesn’t want to hear about DeVos, I won’t push it. I’ve had friends post on social media to complain about “all the negativity” and how they “don’t want to see this stuff” on Facebook. I understand - a few years ago, I also rolled my eyes at political posts. But now, hearing those complaints only makes me want to do it more. They can unfriend me if they want.
I never heard back from the senators whom I contacted, but I’m not discouraged by that. I know that DeVos might still get confirmed. If she does, I’ll be devastated and sad for the future of our public schools. But it will fuel me even more. I know now that each person counts, and I will keep trying. This will not be the last time during this administration that I make a call to my senators. I plan on expanding my activism to other issues and becoming more engaged with local politics.
At first when Trump was elected, I wanted to disengage totally. My attitude was: “I don’t want to know.” I didn’t want to watch CNN. I didn’t want to think it would be as bad as it is. Now I’m glued to all of it. I will be voting in every election going forward. I will educate myself as much as possible on the issues. This has been a huge wake-up call to me and to a lot of politically dormant people. We can’t just sit idly by and hope that the government continues to function fine just because it has in the past. For the majority of us, things are still peachy keen. We still have our workplace-funded insurance. We’re still getting our medications. I might not be affected that much personally by what happens politically in this country. But my neighbor, who helps me out and who I care about, she might be.
Yes, the news can be overwhelming. Yes, there is a lot of overwhelming and negative information out there, and it takes work to read it all. But it hasn’t made me want to crawl into a hole. It has made me want to come out of the hole.
Wade lives in Richmond, Virginia, and works in the insurance field.