Friday, October 31, 2008

Why I Vote the Way I Do--Part 4

Doxy's Note: Another long one. Sigh....

(For those of you joining the party late, here's the Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

Up until now, I have focused on macro reasons about why I vote the way I do. This post is more specific--but it is one that speaks to my heart---and I think it is critical to our future as a nation.

I hope to have at least one more post before Election Day is over, but we'll see. There are many other issues that affect my vote
--and I may keep talking about this even after the election. I have found that thinking deeply about the reasons I vote the way I do is a very useful exercise...I encourage all of you to try it.

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I am passionate about education.
I’ve done a lot of things in my life—including teaching in both private and public institutions of higher education. But probably the most important and eye-opening thing I ever did was to volunteer in my neighborhood school before I even had children.

My ex and I bought our first house in a revitalizing urban area in Nashville in the mid-1990s. When we first lived there, we could sit in the back yard and watch our neighbors doing drug deals in the street. A week after we brought our infant son home from the hospital, an angry resident at the “boarding house” (i.e., rooms for rent by the week) across the street set off a pipe bomb in the front yard because he was angry with his landlord.

(That same boarding house was briefly home to mass murderer Paul Reid—who, before he was arrested, tried, and convicted for killing seven people and sentenced to death—occasionally stopped and spoke kindly to my grandmother as she rocked the Baby Emperor on our front porch swing.)

All of that aside, the neighborhood was a wonderful community of people who cared deeply about the area and worked hard to improve it. I served on the neighborhood association board, and my interest was in schools—I had worked as an education analyst for the Tennessee General Assembly for several years, and had a solid knowledge base on education policy, funding, and data. I knew that the middle school in my neighborhood was failing—in large measure because 98% of the kids in it were in the free- or reduced-price meal (FRM) program. (There are both free- or reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs—I’ll use the one acronym to include them both.)

If you don’t know about it, the FRM program is open to kids living at 130%-185% of the Federal poverty line, which in 2008-2009 is $21,200/year for a family of four (in 1996-97, it was probably under $16K/year). For many children, the meals they get at school are by far the most nutritious food they will receive in a day. For some children, they are the ONLY meals they will get.

(Think about what this means to kids over the weekend and on holidays and summer breaks…and if you are moved by the hunger they face, donate to the Backpack Buddies program at the Interfaith Food Shuttle or to Feeding America in your own home town.)

FRM percentage is THE indicator to look for if children in a school are not doing well—it is an almost-perfect marker for underperforming students. Schools with more than 50% of their students on FRMs are almost guaranteed to have a significant percentage (if not an outright majority) of kids who don’t perform to standards set by either their local school boards or the Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)

Most of those kids are Black or Latino. I point this out because race and class have been conflated in the public’s mind. People talk about minority kids who don’t do well in school—and it’s true that minority kids are hugely at risk for academic failure—but they are at risk because they are disproportionately poor, not because of the color of their skin.

Why do I tell you all this stuff? Because my experience with Lockeland Middle School—and with the racism and poverty that led to its poor performance—has shaped my politics and the way I vote in profound ways.

(Lockeland was converted into a magnet elementary school sometime around 2000. There is no one left on the faculty who was there when I volunteered.)

The principal and staff at Lockeland were, quite frankly, incredulous when I showed up on their doorstep. I was White, upper-middle class (in education, if not in income), and hugely pregnant with the Emperor. I had no child in their school—and wouldn’t have one in any Nashville Public School for at least 6 years. They weren’t sure what to do with me at first.

But they quickly got over their surprise (and probably suspicion) and put me to work. I helped them re-start a moribund Parent-Teacher Association. I helped them apply for a grant from the state legislature to repair a room in the school that had been destroyed by arson and to replace the equipment in it—the first grant I ever wrote and got funded. I sold cookies and cupcakes at Back-to-School night to raise money for supplies and books.

And I listened in shock as I heard some teachers talk openly and disparagingly about their students’ abilities and their futures. Watched the “soft bigotry of low expectations” (about the ONLY thing—other than the need to fund HIV/AIDS programs worldwide—on which George W. Bush and I have ever agreed) in action. Watched the principal and other staff work their asses off to try and overcome the societal influences and inequalities that stacked the deck against these CHILDREN—and fail, so often.

I was radicalized by my experience in that school.

I learned that segregating poor children into their own schools was a recipe for academic failure—and a prescription for lifelong poverty. I learned that parents who are too overwhelmed with trying to keep a roof over their children’s heads and food in their bellies don’t have the energy to fight for better schools for their kids—or even to come to PTA meetings. I learned that parents who were poorly educated themselves too often do not appreciate how important education is to their children’s futures—and thus do not encourage academic achievement at home. I learned that parents whose native language is not English are doubly disadvantaged. I learned that not all teachers have their students' best interests at heart.

Mostly, I learned that when there is no community responsibility for educating children, only White, middle- and upper-middle class children get the education they need.

Like many Southern cities, Nashville did not respond positively to desegregation. The movers and shakers in Nashville removed their children from public schools and built their own network of educational enclaves that were “safe” from an influx of poor, mostly Black, children. Once that happened, there was no one left in the Halls of Power to push for better schools—with predictable results.

I vote for progressive politicians and policies because I am convinced of the need to have schools that are integrated—both racially and economically. I have seen the results of not doing so, and they are ugly. In fact, I will go so far as to say that educational segregation is a metastatic cancer at the heart of our democracy.

I am also convinced of the need for accountability for educational results--and the need for us to be accountable for supporting public schools adequately. NCLB was originally supported by a wide coalition of education advocacy groups—in large measure because it required school districts to be transparent about their achievements with different racial/ethnic groups and students living in poverty.

Before NCLB, school districts had been able to hide how badly they were doing with their poor and minority students by offering aggregate achievement statistics. If a district had a predominantly White, middle-class student body, its generally higher test scores tended to mask academic failures among struggling kids—which allowed districts to continue ignoring those children with special educational needs caused by racism and/or poverty. NCLB blew that shameful closet door off the hinges.

Where NCLB fell apart was in mandating student achievement without providing the resources necessary to make it happen—and in treating schools like factories that can produce widgets to spec.

Children, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, are not widgets. Factories that make widgets can cull and destroy widgets that aren’t up to spec. Humans shouldn’t be able to do that to one another, but we do. We are effectively treating poor kids as if they are widgets—we are destroying their hopes for the future and casting them on the economic garbage heap when we do not support public education adequately.

You can talk all you want about how it takes more than just money to educate children, and you can also talk all you want about “throwing good money after bad”—but the truth is that education is ENORMOUSLY expensive and in order to fix what is wrong in our public schools it will take community will, collective responsibility for outcomes, and lots of money.

For most school districts, approximately 80% percent of their annual budget goes for teacher salaries and benefits. When you talk about “throwing money at education,” you are talking about whether you are going to pay teachers decently—and about how many children are going to be in a given classroom.

You want smaller class sizes, and better-educated, more experienced teachers? Open your wallet.

Most school district budgets are based on property taxes—which is great if you live in an area where there is a lot of valuable property than can be taxed. If you live in a poverty-stricken or rural area, or an area with lots of untaxable property (e.g., military bases, businesses that have been given tax breaks to come to, or remain in, an area), you may be SOL.

Of course, lots of people believe that they shouldn’t have to pay higher property taxes for schools. If you send your kids to private school (as my family did me), or you don’t have children (or grandchildren) in the public schools, you may think it’s not your responsibility to fund education for other people’s children.

I will tell you, loudly and unequivocally, that you are as wrong as it is possible to be wrong.

(I will also say that I think property taxes are a piss-poor way to fund schools and yet another guarantee that the “haves” will continue to have. Yet another post….)

Our future as a nation depends on a well-educated citizenry. And by “well-educated,” I do NOT mean kids who can fill in a bubble on a standardized test. I mean citizens who can think and reason and ask questions. I mean citizens who understand their responsibilities qua citizens—and who do not shirk their responsibilities to educate themselves about issues, vote, communicate with their elected officials, serve on juries, pay taxes, and be actively involved in the common life of their communities.

Public schools are the only way to get that educated citizenry. They are open to all—regardless of race, color, creed, or income. Public schools are our best hope of leveling the playing field and ensuring that all Americans know the things they need to know to be good citizens—and productive workers. If you want a stable society, supporting public schools should be at the top of your list of things to do.

And that’s another reason I vote progressive. Because for at least the last 25 years (and really more like 40, since desegregation), there has been a concerted effort by conservatives to undermine public schools and the public’s confidence in them. There is a long and painful history of racism and classism in that story—and the end result has been to ensure that millions of American children have received substandard educations.

To me, this undermines democracy and endangers the future of our nation. So I vote for those who support public education.

(And I ALWAYS support bond referenda for schools. Just in case you were wondering…)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Write to Marry--Save the Heterosexual Females!

How could same-sex marriage possibly affect heterosexual marriage?

Well...if same-sex marriage had been available in 1987 (when I got married the first time), it probably would have saved me from one divorce.

Maybe P., who was gay, might have been able to envision a marriage to his long-term partner (17 years and counting...) and not put both of us through the wrenching pain of divorce. Maybe he wouldn't have had people at church telling him that the way to deal with his homosexual attractions was to marry me...

So save straight women from divorce! Vote NO! on California's Proposition 8.

Oh, and go read this: John Seery

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Why I Vote the Way I Do--Part 3

Doxy's beginning note: This one is ridiculously long, and I would have separated the two if I could. But, for me, they are two sides of the same coin. As always, you only have to read what you want to...

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I am a feminist.
Discovering feminism was like breathing for the first time. All of a sudden, the world finally made sense.

I could finally understand why I felt compelled to seek male approval—even to the point of erasing my own self. (Didn’t necessarily stop me from doing it, I’m sorry to say—but that’s another post…) I could see the social expectations that worked against me in the classroom and the workplace.

Becoming a feminist changed my life. Probably much more than becoming a Christian did, to be honest. Claiming my identity as a feminist propelled me into political activism for the first time in my life, because it showed me exactly how politics could improve my life.

Most important—becoming a feminist opened my eyes to the way that laws and social structures perpetuate inequality. The list was long:

  • Unequal pay
  • Discrimination against married women, pregnant women, and mothers in the workplace
  • Domestic violence laws that favored batterers
  • Rape laws that allowed the “justice” system to put the blame on women—or allowed husbands to rape their wives
  • Attitudes that sexual harassment was just “boys being boys”
  • An assumption that government could intervene in women’s reproductive decisions in ways that would never be tolerated if men were the ones being affected
  • Attitudes that taking care of children and home was “women’s work” (and thus underpaying anyone who does those things professionally…teachers, daycare workers, domestic laborers, etc.)
  • An economy that rests on the unpaid work of women in rearing children and keeping their homes going

I have never been able to look at advertising, religion, politics, economics, relationships—anything—the same way that I did before I become a feminist. Feminism made me look hard at all those things and clarify to myself what it was that I wanted out of life—and what I was willing to do to get it.

Here’s what I decided. I want a fair and just society. I want a society that doesn’t constrict women’s choices around careers and motherhood.* I want a society that recognizes the important unpaid work that women do—and that doesn’t penalize them economically for taking time out to care for their families. I want a society that recognizes women as mature moral agents, who do not need the government or other unrelated individuals telling us what we can and cannot do with our bodies.

I probably did it backwards from most people, but becoming a feminist is what made me a liberal. Feminism made me aware of, and angry about, the injustices in this nation that prides itself on the idea that “all men [sic] are created equal.” Becoming a feminist opened my eyes to ALL injustice.

I cannot tell you how mentally and emotionally exhausting that was.

You see, it was easy being a conservative. When I was a conservative, I was able to compartmentalize things very neatly. In the conservative world I used to inhabit, there was no such thing as institutionalized injustice. There were “people who made bad choices and had to pay the consequences.” In my little conservative head, that meant being born into the wrong family and attending inferior schools, I guess. Each single issue had its own cause and nothing was connected to anything else. That way, it was easy to assign blame and offer facile “solutions” that weren’t solutions at all—certainly not solutions that cost ME anything.

There was never any recognition that I was just “born lucky.” (See my last post on that one…)

When I became a liberal, I suddenly saw the web of connections between EVERYTHING. Sexism was tied up with racism and poverty. Discrimination (against minorities, LGBTs, the poor) was tied up in misogyny. Racism was used to divide the very people who should unite against those who would exploit them economically and politically.

Life suddenly became a very intricate spider web, and I couldn’t put things in neat little boxes anymore. Solutions got a lot more complicated—and expensive…both personally and politically.

Becoming a feminist and a liberal wore me slap out.

It still does—it requires enormous amounts of energy to keep at the fight, day by day, year by year. But I’ve been doing it for nearly a quarter of a century now, so I’ve learned to keep focused on the end goal. Feminism—although it presents itself as being about improving life for women—is ultimately about improving life for all of us. And that goal can only be reached by refusing to give up or give in to people and policies that maintain discrimination in any form.

I’ve learned when to take a news break and read some poetry—and then I get up and go to a rally, or volunteer for a progressive cause, or write on my blog...or vote. Because I’ve learned that life is complicated, but politics can make it better for a lot of people—not just for me.

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I am a mother. I vote progressive because I want the world to be a better place for my children.

Now every mother--progressive, conservative, or somewhere in-between-- says that. But I believe that the world will only be a better place when EVERYONE has a decent place to live, enough to eat, and a good education. I do not believe I do my children any favors by trying to construct a world in which they achieve at someone else’s expense—or live in luxury while children on the other side of the world literally starve to death.

Every day, nearly 30,000 children die of poverty-related illness and starvation.

Read that again.

30,000 children. Dead. Every. Single. Day.

I keep coming back to faith here, but combine it with motherhood and I’ve got no choice. How can we live with ourselves, knowing that this is the case? How—in the name of God—do we justify this?

The answer, of course, is that we refuse to think about it, because addressing it would mean we had to give up our own privileged consumerist habits to change things. We tell ourselves that we cannot “fix” things in Somalia or Darfur because they are too far away. Or we blame it on “those people” who starve their own for political purposes (never asking ourselves about the hungry children in our own backyards).

Or—worst of all—we assume that people in other parts of the world are “used to” losing their babies and children to death, and that they don’t feel the loss the way we do. (I’ve actually heard people make this argument…)

Now this is not all about starving children in Africa. I know that our ability to bring about change in other parts of the world is limited (see Iraq). But as a progressive mother, I believe I have a responsibility to push for domestic policies that safeguard the children here in my own North Carolina community—and international policies that have an impact on children all over the world.

When my children were toddlers, I spent a great deal of time teaching them to share with their peers. In my world of neighborhood playgroups, there was a lot of parental disapproval aimed at those children who, after the age of 2 or 3, wouldn’t share their toys. The last thing you wanted was for your child to be the one the other parents talked about when you weren’t around… (and believe me, they DO talk!)

Unfortunately, sharing does not seem to be natural to human beings—but the earliest humans realized that they would not survive unless they could pool their resources. And small children, when they have proper guidance from the adults who love them, learn this too. They figure out pretty quickly that their time with their friends will be much more pleasant (and last longer!) when they share, than if they are grabby and selfish.

I have difficulty understanding why this concept is so hard for most people to grasp. If you teach your children to share when they are small, why not expect them to keep doing it when they are grown? Why turn greed into a value once they leave preschool?

Voting for progressive politicians and policies is my way of sharing what I have. It is an acknowledgment that the values I taught (and am continuing to teach) my children—the need to share and play well with others—are values worth living by.

Voting the way I do is a way that I live my motherhood outside the boundaries of my own home.

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* Doxy’s ending note: I have made the argument elsewhere that one of the reasons I dislike Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is that I believe she did not consider adequately the needs of her family (special-needs newborn and pregnant, teen-aged daughter) when she accepted the nomination—and therefore, I do not trust her to care for my family.

My criticism could certainly be construed as being anti-feminist (as, indeed, some have done). But that assumes that there is only one kind of feminism—and that career and choices in and for the public arena are the only choices a “true” feminist is concerned with.

Obviously, I disagree.

I believe that parents (not just mothers) have an obligation to put their children first, once they have chosen to bring them into the world. Sometimes the direction that such choices will take is not obvious—as those of us who are divorced with children know all too well. Palin may very well have decided that being Vice-President WAS the best way to put her children first. I believe I can disagree—and still hold tightly and proudly to my Outspoken Feminist card.

There are many branches of feminism—liberal feminism being the one that most people mean when they use the word “feminist.” While I am grateful for the hard work that liberal feminists have done, I am not a liberal feminist (though I am liberal and a feminist!). Call me a cultural feminist, if you like—one who believes that the values often attributed to women (nurturing, relational, connected to family and community) are values to be encouraged in the public sphere.

(You can read the “cultural feminism” article at Wikipedia if you like, but I can promise you it was written by a liberal feminist and does not accurately reflect what I’m talking about. One more thing to add to my To Do list…)

Liberal feminism, in my view, basically sought to give women the right to be men (i.e., to give them political and economic power, as well as bodily autonomy), and little else. It has tended to be disdainful of motherhood and family relationships—focusing on ensuring that women have career and political options, rather than on ensuring that society respects the choice of women to be mothers, wives, lovers, and community activists, in addition to being business executives, Congressional representatives, and Supreme Court justices. It takes our cultural standards of success—power over self and others and wealth—which have traditionally been hallmarks of masculinity, and accepts them in toto as the things for which women should strive.

I believe that liberal feminism was absolutely the right place to begin. Changing laws and politics was, and is, necessary—and I am deeply indebted to all of those women who have worked so hard to bring those changes about. But I think changing hearts and minds to value family, children, and a kind, more caring, and less competitive society is the next step.

You see…I want it all. I want open doors for anything that I, or my daughter, can dream and do. I want laws to protect my rights and my autonomy, AND I want a community that supports women and their families.

I want a world I know that I will never live to see this side of the Eschaton—but that does not absolve me of the responsibility of doing my part to create it.

I am a Feminist Mother. And I vote.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Things left undone...

A little while ago, I was working in my hotel room when the housekeeper knocked and asked if she could come in to clean my room. I said if she didn't mind me working, I would try to stay out of her way.

She was young, Hispanic, and very polite.

As she got close to finishing, she disappeared into the hallway to get some supplies, and all of a sudden, I heard this loud male voice.

He was asking her for directions--and as it became clear that she didn't understand what he was asking, he got louder. And, frankly, abusive.

His last comment? "Jesus Christ! Nobody around here speaks English!" Then he stomped away.

This all happened very quickly--so quickly that, as I was sitting watching this encounter through the open door of my hotel room, I barely had time to make it out from behind the desk and head for the door before he was gone.

But I didn't chase him down the hall. And I wish I had. I wish I had said:

"Did that make you feel like a REAL man? To yell at a young woman who clearly didn't understand what you were asking?"

"Do you realize how hard that woman is working to feed her family? She isn't on the welfare line---she's scrubbing YOUR dirty toilet and picking YOUR dirty underwear up off the floor. She's doing work that fine, upstanding (cough, cough) white Americans like yourself won't touch with a 10-foot pole. Why don't you change places with her for a week and see if you can learn some manners?

"Did YOUR ancestors speak Escamacu or Combahee when they got here? If not, then you need to shut the fuck up."

I am clearly not a nice person to want to say such things---but I'm not a brave one, either...or I would have chased him down the hall.

Jesus wept for both of us today, I'm afraid.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Too busy to blog...

I'm headed out to do an HIV/AIDS training for a large, national faith-based group. I'd appreciate your prayers for the success of this conference---it will mean better, more compassionate care for tens of thousands of people at risk for, or living with, HIV/AIDS.

More on voting when I get back. But while I'm away, go and read the Feminarian's take on this subject. Friend speaks for me.

Pax,
Doxy