This is a personal blog. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
“Hi Reed. I apologise for the very short notice but we were advised late last night that due to the federal budget impasse in the US, Ms. DeVos has had to cancel her visit to the UK.”
I woke up to this email the morning of an event arranged to showcase a fellow fulbrighter’s dance performance. The event was also set to be followed by “an informal tea” with U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Unfortunately, my wife and I had already arrived in London, having taken a four and a half hour train ride from Edinburgh in order to have informal time with the person tasked with running our country’s education system.
Two weeks before, when the invitation went out, my first response was, “No way! Why would I want to meet with her!?”
My work in education has always been political. It has also always been personal. The DeVos name wedged itself into my upbringing. It rang out as an attack on all the things I was raised to believe. And, in the last decade working in public education, the name would continue to rear it’s ugly head in stark opposition to what I believe is best for the overwhelming majority of students and families in the country.
I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Home of the Amway Corporation, a now, multibillion dollar business started in 1959 by Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos, well-known for supplying hotels across the world with mediocre soaps and shampoos. More importantly, known for developing a business scheme that when drawn out, gives you the same look as those beautiful structures in Egypt. Although a federal trade commission in 1979 found that Amway was not technically running a pyramid scheme, years later they settled a class action lawsuit for $56 million that alleged they did indeed run an illegal pyramid scheme.
In my parent’s generation, it was common place to have sold or have a friend or family member that sold goods for the Amway Corporation. In my generation, not so much. For me, I knew the DeVos name for the splattering of businesses and city buildings that bore the name. DeVos Place, DeVos Performance Hall, DeVos Center and what seemed to be several, multimillion dollar expansions that would pop up at the christian high schools, constantly reminding me of the inadequacies with the facilities at my local public school.
Moreover, I knew the DeVos name most personally for the impact the family’s business had on my folk’s work in downtown Grand Rapids. Through running a non-profit serving the homeless and low-income community in the Heartside district of Grand Rapids, my parents encountered the ills of downtown development and gentrification that continually pushed out residents in the Heartside community. Dinner table conversation at my house would often weave together the emotional toil of seeing a community stretched and disemboweled along with conversation of the related right-wing reform efforts, that were continually backed by the DeVos family dollar.
The Betsy family tree becomes fully actualized when looking at the riches from her own Prince family name in addition to her eventual marriage to Richard DeVos‘ son. For my faith-driven, pacifist parents, The Blackwater Incident was yet another highlight of the gross misinterpretation of God’s word, this time by Betsy’s own brother, Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company responsible for not only the 17 civilian deaths in Baghdad, but a handful of other corruption charges a long the way. Her husband, Dick DeVos, ran for governor of Michigan, continuing his family’s quest to break up unions and privatize the state. He later funded the Right to Work legislation, partnering with the ever-loving Koch family in effort to dismantle worker’s rights in service of a far right-wing agenda.
For me, the DeVos name became synonymous with corporate greed, toxic white wealth, gentrification and parochial school expansion. When she was nominated to be the next Secretary of Education, I, like many of my hometown friends and family, thought it was a bad joke. What did she know about education? Yes, she had funded voucher programs and private schools for years, but education policy and practice? Did she understand the practice of teaching on a deeper level than when her and her church lady friends donated a few hours a week to read to students in a local school? (I’m a big fan of my mom and her church lady friends fyi, not trying to take a cheap shot there). The nomination hearing more than reinforced her extreme inability to navigate the world of national education policy and practice while also digging deeper into my anger and frustration with our current political reality.
So when the invitation came, thoughts of teachers blocking their school doors, letters written by folks doing real classroom work, and the myriad of student protests all came flooding back to me. Shouldn’t I refuse the invitation on the grounds that I am wholly opposed to her work? Unfortunately, I decided – with some healthy coaxing from loved ones – that my work now, having the privilege of time, title and location, is to be outspoken when given the chance. A fellow fulbrighter said to me, “It is important that she feels uncomfortable.” In our world of racist, anti-immigrant policies that immediately trickle in to our school buildings, the least I can do is express my concern – to her face.
The morning I received the email saying she cancelled, I still wasn’t quite sure what would come out of my mouth and how my visceral response would impact the words I wish I had (often an issue for me). That being said, here are some questions and thoughts I was bringing with me in to our “informal tea”.
“How have you worked to make students and families feel safe in our school communities amidst the racist, sexist and xenophobic policies and practices of this administration?”
(Straight out the gates with that one. no chaser)
I wanted her to think about baseline human needs. Maslow’s hierarchy. Physiological and safety needs. Human necessity that precedes any potential academic learning. I planned to tell her that on the morning after the election I greeted students and families at the front door of our school and watched them grapple with feelings of anger, disillusionment and more than anything, fear. Fear for their ability to enter a public building without being detained and sent to another country. I listened to students in our morning circles express their deep concerns that their families or their friends would be taken away. I wanted her to then know that weeks later, when the travel ban was issued, that same fear was reinforced and heightened. The act of living, being, maintaining a public presence for many of my students and their families was under constant attack. What, Betsy, have you done to recognize this reality and how have you met the need for students to feel emotionally and physically safe in school?
Prepared for her dismissal, maybe saying immigration policy is outside of her control, I planned to then side step, to her egregious destruction of federal guidelines to manage sexual assault cases on college campuses. How can young women feel safe in their supposed place of learning when their attacker could be across the room, allowed to go to school, pending a case that may never see the light of day? How might a victim feel when the person put in charge of overseeing all of our higher education institutions is meeting with men’s rights groups and those claiming to have been falsely accused? How might her words do harm when she makes the comment, “if everything is harassment, than nothing is.” What level of self-actualization can come out of this type of environment? Where are your priorities?!
If she was still sipping tea with me, I wanted to ask:
So really, what’s your obsession with school choice, vouchers and private schools? No, for real…
(At that point I figure my eloquence would have been all used up and the earl grey would have been flowing, so quippier language might find it’s way in to the fold. There is also the potentially important side note that I may have, at this point, offended several others, co-opted an experience set up to highlight someone’s brilliant work in dance and been asked to leave.)
I wanted to remind her about priorities once again. Did she know that public schools serve 91% of our nation’s students? That, her energy and apparent life mission, this mission from God if you will, is really only looking at less than a tenth of the country’s students. Did she think an effective management of a nation’s system means working almost exclusively for just a sliver of that population? Once again, how might the rest of the country feel? That whole stopped-at-the-door-during-your-school-visits thing might make sense, huh?
I would have been eager to get deep in to a conversation about the illusion of choice as a means to continue to hold poor and working class families back, swimming continuous laps in her market-based schooling scheme, but I recognize that might have been too much. Let alone a healthy dialogue about choice only working for those with multiple forms of capital. Or, did she know that already? Was it all just a clever scheme to maintain white, upper-class, protestant superiority? Really, Betsy, you can tell me…
We would have had such a riveting conversation. Or, more than likely, I would have taken a sip of tea, blacked out, groaned or shouted some guttural form of a question or comment and then leaned back in my seat, seething for the rest of the afternoon. I guess we will never know.