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Advocacy Day 2009

by Fred Barton, Chair, SLATE Steering Committee
Michigan Council of Teachers of English
May 2009 SLATE Update

"Creatures, I give you yourselves," said the strong, happy voice of Aslan.

Chronicles of Narnia

Washington, D.C., has always impressed me as a city with a big footprint. Massive buildings loom over you (perhaps by design), larger than life statues seem to lurk around every corner and history hangs heavy in the air. I like the place though, despite its seeming ponderousness, and I especially like it in the spring when the trees explode in whispers until the skyline is filled with pinks and whites and yellows, each with a sparkle of blue jays, wrens, and finches flitting about the branches. You can almost see the tulips and daffodils growing, they seem to shoot up out of the lumpy brown carpet of soil in the flower beds so quickly, and the sky reflected in the Tidal Basin is so blue it hurts to look at it.

I was especially looking forward to getting to Washington for Advocacy Day this year, my last as Chair of the SLATE Steering Committee, because I wanted to see how the city had changed as a result of the new tenants in the White House. I think I was expecting something like the thawing of Narnia after Aslan defeated the witch, but Washington is too solid a city to be effected by yet another act in this American drama enough to accommodate my metaphor.

Probably just as well, as the new President gets saddled with enough salvation tropes, and besides, I was in the city to work, not wax poetic. And work we did, starting bright and early Thursday morning in the new Capitol Visitor’s Center where Barbara Cambridge, NCTE’s Washington Office Director, set out our goals for the day which were to get our respective legislators to sign on to a resolution to recognize October 20, 2009, as the National Day on Writing, and to feel them out about the coming comprehensive literacy bill.

We heard from Congresswoman Dina Titus of Nevada’s 3rd District, who was a sponsor of the National Day on Writing resolution and from Bethany Little, chief education counsel, Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP) Committee on the comprehensive literacy bill.

After that we focused on getting the most out of our visits. We got advice from Jennifer Mascho, legislative assistant to Congressman Timothy V. Johnson (R-IL, 15th District), then watched a mock legislator/constituent visit performed by Katie Van Sluys (WLU President) and Stacey Novelli (NCTE legislative associate) whom I think were flown in from Hollywood for the occasion.

And then we were off. My first stop was Senator Stabenow’s office, the junior Senator from Michigan, where I encountered some unanticipated help in the form of Alice Horning from Oakland University. We both had appointments with Stabenow’s legislative aide Trevor Clark at the same time, so we were able to double team the young man. Turns out it was an easy sell though, because even though Senator Stabenow does not serve on any education committees, she has generally been a friend to our concerns over the years.

After running through our paces with Trevor, it was off to Senator Levin’s office for Alice, and I headed towards the lair of Mike Rogers, representative of the 8th District in Michigan and long time Bush toady. As you may surmise, Congressman Rogers and I didn’t share much common ground when it came to policy issues, and education has never been high on his list to begin with. Still, I was hopeful because I was meeting with his aide Schuyler Haynes and I knew I was going to open with the National Day on Writing resolution. What constituency could he tick off by supporting this resolution I thought, and besides, it didn’t cost anything, which I thought would be an additional selling point as the Congressman had become quite the fiscal conservative since the new administration had taken over.

It turned out my assumptions were correct as Schuyler was quite interested in the resolution, but had heard nothing about the comprehensive literacy bill. I was not surprised considering the newness of the bill (it had only just come to Capitol Hill three days before) and the emphasis placed on educational issues by Rogers’ office. This turned out to be an advantage because I was able to paint a bright picture of the potential payoff of this bill without having to talk about costs. Schuyler listened patiently, asked a few questions and promised to go over the material I left. I suspect Rogers will do what the national party tells him to do when the bill comes up, but it felt good to speak truth to power and it was just too nice a day to spend much time ruminating over the few obstacles scattered about the political landscape after the last election.

I couldn’t get an appointment with Senator Levin’s office but that didn’t bother me much because I knew Alice, Magdalene Tobias, Anne Ruggles Gere, and my good friend Nancy Patterson had, so whoever that aide was, he or she was going to have to deal with a whole lot of feisty in a short period of time. Instead, I decided to take a walk over to the White House.

As I headed down Constitution Avenue and over to Pennsylvania among the tourists, the buildings, and the statues, under a perfect azure sky, it hit me that by adding my voice to the voice of my colleagues who were here in Washington with me, I had become a small part of the history of this city. Then something President Obama said during the campaign came back to me, and I think I truly understood what he meant when he told an audience in Chicago, “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.”


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