Cover Story - Not a Moment to Lose
NEA-Retired members bring experience and passion to 2012 campaigns.
By Rebecca Bright
Photo by Dan Ellis
From North Carolina to Alaska, over cups of coffee and in front of computer screens, retired educators have already begun to plan, organize, and participate in campaigns and committees that will impact next year’s elections. These activists know that an election is rarely won during the week or even month before voters hit the polls—crucial victories are the result of the many hours put in by dedicated volunteers who organize, write letters, make phone calls, and pound the pavement in the year leading up to the big day.
“We don’t have a moment to lose,” says Frances Cummings, a political activist, retired educator and former member of the North Carolina State House. “It’s time that those of us who realize it roll our sleeves up and get to work.”
With recent attacks on teachers, threats to collective bargaining and retired educators’ benefits, the stakes—and the opportunity for retirees to make a difference—have never been higher.
“The 2012 elections will have an immense impact on public education. The experience and dedication of NEA’s Retired members is critical to our efforts to elect pro-public education elected officials up and down the ballot,” says NEA’s Political Director Karen M. White. “Retired educators are respected in their communities, and when they speak up about what’s good for public education, it makes a difference.”
But with all of the political activities available—from traditional phone banking and lobbying to online options like blogging and social networking—it can be overwhelming for a political rookie to jump into the game, especially a year before the big elections. To help you get moving and stay motivated during the coming campaign season, we’ve asked retired educators with a few elections under their belts to share their experience and advice.
So mark the date on your calendar—November 6, 2012—and start working for public school teachers, students, and retired educators today.
Step One: Educate Yourself
Judy Burnette, a retired social studies teacher and curriculum director, spent much of her 40-year career guiding students through current events and the complexities of American government. Yet even she had to brush up on education policy and current legislation when she became active in politics.
“Being in social studies, I usually was pretty much on top of what’s going on,” she says, “But when you get out there and are talking to people, especially if it’s an opponent, you really have to know what you’re talking about.”
Burnette keeps up with issues affecting her home state of Missouri and the nation through a subscription to her state association’s daily legislative bulletin, which helps her understand and prioritize the news of the day. She also reads through her state association’s legislative positions online.
Another great resource is the NEA Legislative Action Center, which hosts a variety of tools for keeping you informed and taking action. There, you can use the Congressional Report Card to check up on your elected officials—have they earned an A, B, or F for their support of education policy?—or read the latest legislative updates from Capitol Hill (see “Activism on Demand” at left). NEA’s other online media resources include EducationVotes.org, where you’ll get all the latest on political news and crucial campaigns underway across the country, and neatoday.org, which offers a full spectrum of education news.
When it came to learning the skills needed for political action—lobbying, speaking with voters on the phone and in person, and writing letters to editorial boards or legislators—Burnette again relied on her state education association to hone the abilities she had gained throughout her career.
“When you’re a teacher you learn how to read and deal with people, and that’s important in politics. Just being able to speak to people is helpful too—as a teacher, you have to do that all the time,” she says. “And our Missouri NEA had workshops on how to organize campaigns, how to act when campaigning, and how to have a script ready, all of those important things.”
Step Two: Budget Your Time, Energy, and Funds
Nancy Allen cares deeply about the outcome of the presidential election next November—yet she’s decided to have no part in campaigning for her candidate of choice, President Barack Obama. Why? Allen lives in North Pole, Alaska, which lags four hours behind the East Coast and has been a staunchly Republican state for many years.
“By the time Alaskan results are in, sometimes the presidential election is already decided,” Allen says. “I’m better off dealing at a local level. I’ve learned that you have to budget your time and energy, and look at which campaigns are the most viable.”
Allen is in the midst of this process for the 2012 elections, acquainting herself with new and possible candidates for local and state elections, and meeting with members from NEA-Alaska to discuss the coming campaign season.
For Allen, budgeting for the coming elections includes a hard look at her finances, as well—she will weigh her priorities against her pocketbook, making sure that her campaign contributions go where they’ll be most effective.
Step Three: Build a Community of Activists
In an era of partisan battles in Washington, when some people think of political activism, they picture confrontation—face-to-face arguments, heated phone calls, or terse Twitter battles. But for Dick Bernard, activism starts early, and quietly, with his 6:00 a.m. cup of coffee in a local Woodbury, Minnesota, cafe.
“Normally, some of the same people are there. When you get to know people, sometimes they’ll raise their own questions and we’ll talk about the issues,” he says. “Politics is a business of relationships, and relationships aren’t born in explosions, but gradually, over time.”
Politics, says Bernard, is all about moments like these—whether it’s in person or online through an outlet like Bernard’s blog, where he invites discussion from readers through his comments section, postings on Facebook, or through his mailing list of like-minded activists. Through Bernard’s coffee shop conversations and online networking, he has been able to connect with a community of activists.
When looking for a community of support, newcomers to politics don’t have to start from scratch. Even if they’ve never helped with a campaign before, many retired educators have been involved in their local or state NEA chapters for much of their career, and it’s easy to use those connections to find meetings or forums to attend.
“The easiest way to start is to find your local NEA chapter and inquire about the local leadership. That way, you can find people with a common interest in the community,” says Frances Cummings. “Any person can be a change agent. It’s just a matter of deciding what one would like to see, and linking with people who have the same interest.”
Not only is activism more effective when it’s a team effort, it’s also more fun. When Judy Burnette looks back on her decades of political activism, she remembers nights spent with other activists, working a phone bank or waiting for the results of an election to trickle in. At a state convention one year, a party-like atmosphere took hold when many of the group’s favored candidates won their elections.
“Times like that really make it worthwhile and make you want to keep on going,” she says. “It’s fun being with people who are all on the same page, wanting the same thing. That’s one of the payoffs.”
Step Four: Get Out There
Online activism like Bernard’s—either through blogging, emailing legislators, and signing and circulating petitions—can be a good way for rookies who are nervous about going door-to-door or making phone calls to get their feet wet in politics. There are a variety of things you can do to make your voice heard right from home, right now.
But for the more traditional activists like Nancy Allen in Alaska, when a campaign really gets going, nothing can replace face-to-face discussion or phone calls.
“I think that personal contact will make a difference,” she says. “I can ignore an email, but I can’t ignore a phone call.”
Still, she concedes that phone banking and canvassing neighborhoods can be anxiety inducing. To combat nerves, Allen works alongside one or two campaign buddies, who can support each other and share the conversation. And when making phone calls, as Judy Burnette learned during her workshops, it helps to have a script and to remember that you’re not alone—you have the support of an activist community or NEA chapter, who can help you figure out what to say.
Door-to-door campaigning experience has taught Burnette that not everyone will be sympathetic, but this doesn’t have to lead to confrontation.
“When someone doesn’t want to talk to me, I usually try to remain very calm and pretty much just thank them for opening the door, and thank them for listening,” she says. “I don’t try to pressure them and try not to alienate people.”
As every activist knows, the work doesn’t end on November 6, 2012. No matter who is elected, they need to hear from educators and retirees about what they should be doing for the nation's public schools.
How best to convey your message to legislators? Again, letters, email, and phone calls are a good place to start, and resources available through NEA’s Legislative Action Center or your local chapter can help you get started (see “Activism on Demand” at left). And when you’re ready to take the next step, face-to-face lobbying efforts organized by local, state, or national NEA groups can help you get started.
Nancy Allen has been traveling to Alaska’s capital city to speak with lawmakers since 1991, when the legislature debated public employees’ right to strike. Since those days, she has learned to be respectful but not awed by legislators.
“When I go to Juneau, I can at least talk to these people—they may not listen to me, but they at least know that I’m there,” she says. “Just remember that they’re there because you put them there—they’re not privileged. Don’t be frightened of them, stand toe-to-toe and express your opinion.”
As with other forms of outreach, lobbying is about building relationships, and using your knowledge and experience to work toward common goals with your elected officials.
Whichever form of activism you choose—online petitions, coffee shop conversations, visits to legislators, phone calls, or a little of everything—it’s vital that retired educators harness their passion for public education and years of experience to make a difference in the next 12 months. Local, state, and national elections will be won through the hard work and dedication of activists.
“You have to speak for yourself, if you want things to change for the better. If you have a need for change, you have to go out there and make things happen,” says Cummings. “Even if you’re new to politics, there’s nothing to be afraid of—when two or more people come together, that’s power.”
Activism On Demand
Resources you can use anywhere, any time to support public education
Legislative Action Center
Communicate directly with your members of Congress, get tips for lobbying, writing your legislators, and crafting letters to the editor. Sign up to become a cyber-lobbyist and receive weekly Education Insider emails, alerting you to urgent calls to action on behalf of public education.
EducationVotes.org provides up-to-the-minute news and opportunities to volunteer that are crucial to advocates for public education. At the site, sign NEA’s Standing Strong petition, joining more than 85,000 people who have already signed to show your support for students, educators, and public schools.
NEA-Retired Facebook Page
This is the place to connect online with other activists who have public education on their list of top priorities. It’s easy, free, and a great resource for those who want to share their experiences and learn from others.
Keep up with the news that affects education each day with NEAToday.org.