Skip to Content

Activism in Action

Retired Educator Knows That When It Comes to Education, ‘Everything is a Political Decision’

by Janet Rivera Mednik

Gov. Tom Corbett’s (Pa.-D) term in office was nothing short of a nightmare for the Keystone State’s schools and the teachers who work in them. Front and center was a $1 billion cut from the state’s public education budget, which resulted in larger classrooms, a spike in college tuition, and increased workloads for education professionals.


Fortunately, Pennsylvanians woke up and booted Gov. Corbett out of office in 2014, making him the first incumbent governor to lose a bid for re-election. It was an awful defeat for him, but it marked the greatest political victory for one of NEA’s most dedicated and experienced political activists: Helen Bonsall, of Coatesville, Pa.

Educate, Motivate, Inspire

Bonsall’s winning smile, caring manner, and no-nonsense speaking style served her well for the three decades that she worked as a school nurse practitioner. But it is her ability to educate, motivate, and inspire that has made her a top-notch political activist who can—and does—work harder than many people half her age.

“I’ve been retired for about 16 years, but I feel that it is important to continue to fight for candidates and issues that will improve education in our state and in our country.”

Retired, and a former chair of her union’s Political Action Committee for Education (PACE), Bonsall says, “I wish everyone would realize that the way to make a change in our schools is through political involvement and, of course, through activism.”

Bonsall says she is somewhat baffled by those who don’t want to get involved, and says it makes her sad. Most young people today aren’t activists the way we were when we were their age,” says Bonsall, who maintains that educators, in particular, need to get involved.

“It’s hard to get some teachers to realize that everything related to education and to our profession is a political decision, but it really is. I know everyone is busy these days, but we need to make sure our voices are heard,” says the retired grandmother of nine who was once a working mother of three, and who has never been afraid to speak out—especially when it comes to politics.

For almost as long as she can remember, politics has been one of her favorite topics. She loved listening to her father talk about political leaders and hot-button issues at the dinner table, and it was a special treat to accompany him to the polls on Election Day. And although her father—who for a time worked in the coal mines of Scranton when he was an eighth grader—never ran for office himself, he earned the moniker, “The Mayor of Newton Ransom,” as a result of his love for politics and his willingness to get involved in races.

Giving it Her All

Like her dad, Bonsall never ran for office. Today, she lobbies elected officials to support the union’s causes, knocks on doors to urge people to go to the polls, and helps to raise funds for the union’s political war chest. She is making an impact. To each role she gives her all. Importantly, she also continues to learn and is always looking for ways to hone her skills.

Years ago, one could rely on door-to-door canvassing and a strong phone bank operation to reach out to try to enlist the political support of union members. Things are different today. For starters, over half of Americans don’t have or use a land line, and cell phone numbers are harder to collect. In addition, more and more of the people are relying on technology to keep in touch. Political activists, like Bonsall, know that while phone banking and door-to-door visits are essential, technology is a tool that they can’t be without.

That’s why Bonsall, who heads the phone bank in her area, has embraced the new technology and, more specifically, social media sites. While some seniors may be intimidated by electronic personal devises and social media platforms, Bonsall understands their advantages, “A website enables us to get the word out to union members and union retirees quickly. And Facebook does the same thing. These tools give us a chance to share information.”

One vital lesson Bonsall learned, and now teaches others, is that electing pro-education candidates is only half the battle—keeping them accountable is just as important. “I’ve learned the hard way that no matter how successful you are in electing good candidates, you still need to lobby. You have to present your issues and make a strong case for the people you represent,” says Bonsall. Whether lobbying locally, or in Pennsylvania’s capital of Harrisburg, the longtime activist keeps the students, teachers, and school employees firmly in her mind, and does what she can to fire up the troops.

When Bonsall started working in the school system decades ago, teacher pay, class size, and the education budget were on the forefront. These issues are as important as ever, but other hurdles face teachers as well. Increased focus on standardized testing, mandated curriculum standards, and support and funding for charter schools are newer areas of concern. As the issues of concern grow, so does the need for a motivated membership.

No doubt, today’s students, teachers, and communities are the true benefactors of activists such as Bonsall, who could spend the bulk of her retirement creating quilts, reading best-selling mysteries, going to the gym, or attending her community’s high school sporting events (all of which Bonsall enjoys), but who instead dedicate significant precious time to improving the lives of those who are in the classroom today and those who will be entering the schools of tomorrow.


Published in:

Published In