Close Up inspires young people to advocate for themselves by raising issues that they are passionate about, and by bringing them together with their elected representatives to talk and to listen. To build. Often, without adequate preparation, advocacy can ring hallow, and become a bit chaotic; sometimes even adversarial. Worse yet, there are encounters when nobody says a thing.
Not this time. Students were informed, direct, and persistent with each of our states’ two Senators, and a knowledgable senior staffer from the Huizenga office. I think in the two decades that I’ve been doing Close Up, this may have been the most useful Capitol Hill exchange that I’ve witnessed between student-citizen and representative.
The morning was as usual, the highlight of the day. As we have for the past six years, nine to noon at the D.C. Central Kitchen, three blocks from the Capitol, we chopped and cooked and cleaned, washed the dishes and squirted Teriyaki sauce all over the place. We shared with staff. We ate our best meal of the week, changed into our Sunday School clothes and hustled up to Capitol Hill for three important meetings. Close Up always hooks us up with representatives or staffers on Capitol Hill day.
AmeriCorps. If you’ve been following our efforts recently, you know we’ve worked hard to bring focus to the President’s 2017 budget, which cuts AmeriCorps (and consequently College Advising Corps) funding to zero. Sarah and Sam and Mara Tuschy have spearheaded a month long campaign, that has included the efforts not only of other students, Close up and non, but community members as well. The possibility of losing Mr. Frechen’s College Advising Corps position thru unenlightened and partisan budget cuts, inspired us in thirty days to gather 1240 petition signatures calling for the program’s full funding. We took with us to our Close Up schedule of Capitol Hill meetings, copies of those petitions in triplicate, and we delivered our message.
12:45 PM – Stop one – Senator Stabenow, in the Atrium lobby of the Hart Office building. If you’ve been on Close UP at all during the Stabenow era, you know that her forte is not quality time with young people. Normally she pops in for a photo op, answers a question or two, then pops out. No follow ups, no probing inquisitive questions for the kids. She seldom listens; and rarely seems to care what any of the students have to say. Still by day’s end our official Senatorial group photo always makes her webpage.
This Wednesday, once again,Senator Stabenow didn’t disappoint. Mara Tuschy began our meeting by reading aloud our petition language. The Senator interrupted her two sentences in, yanked the petitions from her hands. and passed them over to an aid. Strike one on our first petition batch. The Senator then spent the better part of ten minutes deflecting questions, and making statements; most non answers about the Great Lakes to legitimate student queries. We posed for her obligatory photo and she turned things over to a couple of staffers, as she scooted out the door. The staffers unlike their boss were thoughtful. They were inquisitive and respectful. We took a straw poll at the end of our “session.” Amazing that you can have private face time with one of 100 United States Senators and sixteen of eighteen kids see it as a negative experience. Check the faces above…
An official Senator Stabenow group photo was posted to Twitter by 4:00 PM.
We learned from the Atrium. Stop two, a half hour later, in the same Hart Office building, at Senator Peter’s office took on an entirely different tone. We had been in touch with Devin, the Senator’s Health and Education policy specialist a week earlier, on one of our daily Matrix Calls to Congress. Our classroom matrix goal through every six hour day until the end of the school year, is to make at least one student phone call on speaker, on any topic to Washington – with a topic default of AmeriCorps. Depends on student courage for the day – sometimes we make one; sometimes it’s six. Devin greeted us, and took questions until Senator Peters arrived. This time Sam read the petition language. This time she was not interrupted. This time the Senator allowed us to hand over the signatures. And this Senator seemed genuinely interested. He fielded questions – and provided thoughtful responsive answers. He didn’t stay long – however with politicians other than Senator Levin in the good ole days, they never do. No doubt this was quality time.
There was a moment in that experience, on the hallway bridge, outside of the Senator Peters office, that I looked around at our eighteen students; three intense discussions clustered about a pair of Congressional aids and the Senator. All on different issues…each it seemed moving in a thoughtful direction. Joe, like only Joe can, persistently and with backing statistics hammered Citizens United. Sarah and Sam echoed for AmeriCorps support. The Germans pressed Climate change. Several students, from numerous angles pushed Devin on the crazy cost of college funding. For another fifteen minutes, following Senator Peters departure, aids took notes; students left with business cards. Democracy should always be so productive.
Our last scheduled stop was with Congressman Huizenga outdoors on the Eastside steps of the Capitol Building. Unfortunately the House was out on another week long recess (you would think with all that vacation time, something might actually be getting done in the United States House of Representatives); so the Congressman wasn’t in town. He sent a senior policy advisor in his place; Raaed served as a more than capable replacement. This time Sarah read our petition language. Like at Senator Peter’s office she was heard. The 1240 signatures we are holding for a face-to-face with the Congressman in the home district. However, for the next thirty minutes with Raaed, we touched on topics of interest and importance, from the firing of the FBI director (Mr. Wood), to the Congressman’s disparaging of the theory of Global Warming (the Germans again), to the Congressman’s long list of campaign donations from leveraged financial institutions (Joe), immigration bans (Simon) and college costs (Mariyah). And of course…AmeriCorps. Always AmeriCorps.
There were a few moments where things got spirited, however the give and take of the back and forth, was healthy. Follow up questions and answers, were honest and telling. Maybe that was why our daylong exchanges were so productive. Students knew what they were talking about, and what they wanted to hear from their elected representatives. No patronizing smokescreens about Lake Michigan’s beautiful beaches or a fluffy expos’e on “A day in the life of a Congressman,” today was about the issues; about public policy. And for an afternoon anyhow, our government had to engage.
Ben, a Close Up representative who set up our meeting with Raaed, oversaw the conversation on the Capitol steps. Afterwards, as the Congressman’s aid was walking away, Ben told us, and I believe in full sincerity, in all his time with Close Up monitoring such meetings, he’d never seen students so effective in their conversations, so convincing in advocating for their position – as we had been that day.
I agree with Ben.
Well done citizens… Very well done.
“The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
WZZM ran two segments covering the Oakridge High School journey to Washington D.C. on Friday May 5 prior to the trip, and on Wednesday May 17 as a follow up segment. Each is posted below…