Proceed with caution

Dear Tom (if I may),

I hope you had a restful and celebratory Thanksgiving with friends and family.  Like my children, I had a few days off, and we hosted my husband’s parents from Minnesota.  Like many families who gathered for the holidays, we spent part of our time together in lively conversation.  One of the subjects we talked about was education.

President-elect Trump has been releasing his selections for major leadership posts in his administration and we were all very interested to learn that he has chosen Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.  Both my husband’s family and mine used to live in DeVos’s home state of Michigan and we still have lots of family there.  We also come out of the same religious tradition as the DeVos family—a tradition that strongly values private religious education.  I understand and feel the force of the argument for letting families use vouchers to pay for private schools or charter schools.  There is a strong tradition in America of private religious schools offering high-quality education to a diverse range of students.  Shouldn’t all children have access to that kind of education if that’s what their families want?  My oldest child attends a private religious school and I am grateful for the opportunity to make that choice.

But I also have close ties to public education.  My two younger children attend our excellent local public school.  My father served several terms on the school board in a rural school district in Wisconsin not dissimilar to some in western New York.  And when I look out my door and down the street, the evidence is everywhere of how our local school binds our community together.  From my front porch, I can see six homes that are occupied by people who are employed in or retired from the public-school system.  In rural communities like mine where there are only a few industries, the public school is a major employer as well as a source of “social capital” (if you’re not familiar with it, I highly recommend Robert Putnam’s excellent book: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community).  In the past decade, our community voted to raise local taxes so that we could add a beautiful auditorium onto our school—a facility that we proudly use for plays and concerts.  A local church holds services there, too.

I can see why options like voucher programs and charter schools might be helpful for children and families in districts with poor public schools—where children don’t have access to high-quality education.  Or they might make sense in urban areas where there are lots of different choices for schools and healthy competition for students could help schools be their best.  But the educational reforms that work for cities might not be right for rural areas with low population.  Our local public school is one of the best things my community has going for it; I’m worried about any initiative that might take resources from this school.

So at the national level, I would urge you to work with your Democratic and Republican colleagues to think practically, rather than ideologically, about education reform.  If an initiative makes sense for your largely rural 23rd district, don’t dismiss it because it’s coming from the other side of the aisle.  If we’re heading into another shift in education policy at the national level, I hope that you’ll advocate for rural districts and make sure that districts like mine that are already strong, stay that way.  Or that you’ll work on solutions for rural districts that need a boost.

I’ve been hoping to hear back from you.  This is my third letter to you in as many weeks but I’ve only received an email auto-reply.  I see that you’ve been busy passing the “Midnight Rule Relief Act of 2016.”  Next week I’m probably going to ask you whether that was a good use of your time.

Keep in touch,


It gets harder

Dear Tom (if I may?),

It’s the end of a long and tiring week and I’m trying to keep focused on this task that I set before myself: to write regularly to my congressional representative.  It seemed like such a good idea and I was full of energy and enthusiasm last week.  Now I’m sitting with a blank screen in front of me and I’m not sure what to say.

It does seem like my friends are more politically engaged than ever.  I received numerous pleas over social media this week to call your office and express my dismay over the appointment of Stephen K. Bannon as chief strategist for the White House.  I didn’t make that call but I thought about it.  Would it make a difference?  Would pressure from constituents to a member of congress make a president-elect change his mind about a key leadership role?  I felt the way that I think a lot of people do in America today—uninformed.  I don’t actually know very much about Stephen K. Bannon.  If I’m going to be completely honest with you, his name hadn’t even registered with me until this week.  And I’d have to trust the instincts of a lot of hurt and angry people who are telling me that this is a huge problem.  On the whole, I do trust those people.   But I wanted to know enough about this myself before making the call.  And I didn’t take the time to thoroughly research who he is and why his qualifications or his beliefs would make him unfit for the job.

The one story this week that I did follow more closely was the one about the small city in our district that made national news after the election.  I’m sure you heard that someone in Wellsville (down at the southern end of my county) spray-painted a swastika on a Little League dugout, accompanied by the slogan, “Make America White Again.”  The image of this sign and slogan was widely distributed, reinforcing the storyline that Donald Trump’s election had emboldened people who hate people with brown skin.  There is truth to that story.  Someone full of hate chose the post-election period as a time to paint that message.  But there is another story too.  After the dugout was quickly repainted, the people of Wellsville and the surrounding area showed that many more people were appalled by that symbol and slogan.  On Thursday, a group of people, some of them close friends of mine, showed up for a candlelight vigil, testifying to their commitment to kindness—the virtue I witness daily in my neighbors and friends.  I wish I could have been there.

So my take-away this week is that political engagement is hard.  It’s hard to make phone calls and to show up to vigils.  It’s hard to keep up enough on all the information that’s swirling around to be able to act in thoughtful and informed ways.

I’m counting on you, Tom.  We’ve elected you to work full-time on this.  I can put in my two cents, but you’re the one who gets to work on legislation and has some access to people in power.  Are you troubled by the appointment of Stephen K. Bannon as chief strategist? If you are, perhaps you’ve talked to your Republican or Democrat colleagues about naming your concerns to the president-elect.  Have you considered making a statement about what happened in Wellsville?  Maybe you should go over there and have a picture of yourself taken with this sign:

Photo credit to David Frederickson of the Buffalo News

Thanksgiving week is coming up and I get to take a few days off from work.  But my in-laws are also showing up, so I need to clean the bathrooms and sweep the kitchen floor.   A neighbor from two doors down is coming for dinner on Thursday and, after the big feast, we’ll all walk over to another neighbor’s house for pie.  What are your Thanksgiving plans?

Talk to you again soon,



Dear Representative Reed (may I call you Tom?),

First of all, congratulations on winning back your seat in the U.S. house of representatives in last Tuesday’s election!  You did pretty well.  149,779 people in your district (58.1%) voted for you.  I live in your district—in the far northern part of Allegany County—so I’m one of the people you’ll be representing in Congress for the next two years.

I didn’t actually vote for you.  I was one of the 107,822 people (41.9%) who voted for the guy who was running against you.  You can probably guess that if I voted for him, I probably did not vote for our president-elect.  And you would be right.  But this worries me.  Why should you be able to figure out how I voted for president?  It’s probably because I fit into a category.  Our country is really, really, divided.  The people like me, and the 149,779 people in our district who voted for you live and work alongside each other.  We are neighbors and coworkers.  But we’ve having a hard time working together, politically.

I’m pretty discouraged about what happened in the presidential election.   But I’m also energized.  I’ve decided that I need to be more politically engaged.  I need to know more about my congressional representative.  And I need to tell my congressional representative who I am and what I care about.  My big dream (and sometimes it feels like a futile one) is that we can get elected officials who represent the middle—who speak both to me and to people who are not like me.  I dream that I and my neighbors and coworkers who voted for you can work on projects that that we all care about.

I have some ideas about what those projects might be.  But I’ll save those for future letters.  In the meantime, let me tell you just a little about me and what I’ve got coming up this week.

Let’s see: what order should I put these in?  I’ll start with my deepest commitments and then move to more specially personal information.  I’m a Christian.  My belief that Jesus rose from the dead and that everything will eventually be remade is foundationally important to how I see the world. I’ve been married for 19 years and I have three children.  I’m a gardener who loves to produce food and flowers on a little plot of land—and so I care a lot about the water, the air, the trees, and the creatures in my neighborhood.  I work full-time at a private religious college.  I’m a woman.   I’m white; my ancestors came as immigrants from the Netherlands in the late 19th century. And I’m pretty well-educated, with a couple of degrees beyond college.  And you can probably guess that I’m in my early 40s.

What’s going on with me this week?  I’m doing conferences with students in my Writing 101 class because they are writing research papers.  In my other class, I’m going to be teaching Matthew Arnold, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  I’m still harvesting some bok choy and a few golden beets from the garden and waiting to see if my chickens start laying eggs.  And we’re taking one of our cats to get spayed on Friday.

What are you going to be doing this week?

I’ll write again soon,