Our District

A Good Day for Democracy

A Good Day for Democracy

by Bob Wood (OHS Teacher)

Close Up 2017

Close Up inspires young people to advocate for themselves by raising issues that they are passionate about by bringing them together with their elected representatives to talk, and to listen. Often, without adequate preparation, advocacy can ring hallow, and become a bit chaotic; sometimes even adversarial. Not this time. Students from Oakridge High School were informed, direct, and persistent with each of our states’ two Senators, and a knowledgeable 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 citizen and representative.

The morning was, as usual, the highlight of the day. As we have for the past six years we spent three hours at the D.C. Central Kitchen, three blocks from the Capitol, where we chopped and cooked and cleaned food, washed the dishes and squirted Teriyaki sauce all over the place. We ate our best meal of the week, changed into our Sunday School clothes and hustled up to Capitol Hill for three important meetings. The Close Up Organization always hooks us up with representatives or staffers on Capitol Hill Day.

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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. OHS Close Up students Sarah, Sam and Mara have spearheaded a month-long campaign, that has included the efforts of students and community members. The possibility of losing Mr. Frechen’s College Advising Corps position unenlightened and partisan budget cuts, inspired us to gather 1,240 signatures in thirty days calling for the program’s full funding. We took copies of the petition with us to our Capitol Hill meetings arranged by Close Up, and delivered our message.

Our first stop was with 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. But by the end the day our official Senatorial group photo always makes her webpage.

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Senator Stabenow didn’t disappoint. Mara (OHS student) began our meeting by reading aloud our petition language. The Senator interrupted her two sentences in, took the petitions from Mara’s hands and passed them over to an aid. Strike one to our first petition batch. The Senator then spent the better part of ten minutes deflecting questions, and making statements rather than answers 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. An official Senator Stabenow group photo was posted to Twitter by 4:00 PM.

A half hour later, in the same Hart Office building, our meeting in 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. Devin greeted us, and took questions until Senator Peters arrived. This time Sam (OHS Student) read the petition language, and Sam was not interrupted. This time the Senator allowed us to hand over the signatures, and seemed genuinely interested. He took questions, and provided thoughtful responsive answers. He didn’t stay long (they never do), but this was in no doubt considered quality time.

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There was a moment in that experience, on the hallway bridge outside of the Senator’s office, that I looked around at our eighteen students. Three intense discussions clustered about a pair of Congressional aids and Senator Peters. All on different issue; each it seemed moving in a thoughtful direction. After the Senator left, for another fifteen minutes aids took notes; students left with business cards. Democracy should always be so productive.

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Our last scheduled stop was with Congressman Huizenga outside on the Eastside steps of the Capitol Building. Unfortunately, the House was out on another week-long recess, so the Congressman wasn’t in town. He sent a Senior Policy Advisor in his place named Raaed, who served as a more than capable replacement. This time Sarah (OHS student) read our petition language. Like at Senator Peter’s office she was heard. We are holding the 1,240 signatures 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, to the Congressman’s disparaging of the theory of Global Warming, to the Congressman’s long list of campaign donations from leveraged financial institutions, immigration bans, and college costs. And of course, AmeriCorps. Always AmeriCorps.

Close Up 2017

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 talk about. Today was about the issues and public policy. And for an afternoon anyhow, our government had to listen.

Ben, a Close Up Rep who set up our meeting with Raaed, monitored the conversation on the Capitol steps. At the end of the meeting, as the Congressman’s aid was walking away, Ben told us, and I believe with all sincerity, in all his time with Close Up monitoring these meetings, he’d never seen students so effective in their conversations, so convincing in advocating for their position. I agree with Ben.

Well done citizens… Very well done.

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