‘This is grassroots: just authentic’

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If there’s one word I do not associate with the frantic struggle against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, it’s “fun.” But when I called a stranger more than 6500 miles away who’s in the thick of that fight, she reminded me that fun is a key component of activism, even when the stakes are dire.

(Courtesy of Alyse Surratt Galvin/Via Facebook)

Three years ago, Alyse Surratt Galvin, 51, attended a school board meeting to find out why funding cuts were threatening the job of her kids’ beloved art teacher; she went on to co-found Great Alaska Schools, a non-partisan advocacy group focused on quality public education statewide. The educational consultant and mother of three eventually stepped back from her consulting work to focus on the organization full-time.

Great Alaska Schools supporters made headlines across the country last week when they took on their first national education issue, flooding the offices of Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to ask them to oppose DeVos. Murkowski then announced she would oppose the nomination, telling the Alaska Dispatch News that the estimated 30,000 calls her office had received were “overwhelming.”

As I scrolled through the story, a woman with a megaphone caught my eye. Who was she? How did she get there, and how were Alaskans creating such a vibrant movement?

Less than a week later, Surratt Galvin spoke to me fresh off a daylong event focused on the Alaskan Senator who hasn’t opposed the nomination, Dan Sullivan. We discussed her group’s origins, why so many Alaskans oppose Devos, and how she turned 30 pies into $16 million dollars. Excerpts follow.

What’s the latest up there?

Today what we did was [going to be] more of a press event: the idea was to report out what we found out on Friday, which was our telethon, when we gathered up comments from Alaskans all over the state. But there were so many people there who were ready to do something that we divided up the stack of comments, giving each person a few of the pages, and we took the elevator up seven floors to the Senator’s office and delivered them.

His staff allowed every person to fill out a position paper. They used the hallways. People were writing their positions with pencil up against the wall. Many of those people had never been into his office, or into any legislator’s office, for that matter.

Has this level of organizing been new for you as well?

It was brand-new for me three years ago… well, I should back up just a little more. The year before that, there were [proposed education funding] cuts that were very disturbing to me. We were going to lose our awesome art teacher, so we went into the school board, sat in, listened to testimony and found out this wasn’t just art teachers. It was also happening to counselors, who were there explaining how they help to mediate students’ issues and make a difference. They shared stories of suicide attempts… I realized, this is about more than just my art teacher. Schools are losing these integral pieces of community life.

I got together with the kiddos from the school we were from and said, “Look, you guys, this is bigger than us. We have to figure out what we’re going to do.” The next meeting was packed, and from that grew this group, Great Alaska Schools.

We did not know what we were doing. None of us had ever been in to see a legislator. We didn’t know what levers to pull.

That’s the situation a lot of people are in for the first time now.

[Laughs.] There are a lot of websites that have popped up since November… I’ll [be asked for advice] and read about various bills that are popping up nationally. I’ll ask, do you know when the vote is? They’ll say, “No.” I’ll say, do you know what committee it’s in? “No.”

I said to my husband, “Do you remember back in the day when in Alaska they’d put in a bill – say, ‘We’re going to have universal pre-K’?” I’d call my husband and be so excited, and he’d say, “Honey, that bill isn’t gonna go past one committee. This is all a game.” So I was exactly where those guys are now.

Surratt’s Facebook message to her Senators. (Courtesy of Alyse Surratt Galvin)

Right. A lot of us need a serious refresher on how the legislative process works before we can be effective.

There’s that, and there’s the piece of, how do you organize people who have lives? How can you organize super-busy parents in a way that’s fun? It’s like a big puzzle to me.

We have made probably every mistake, and we laugh about it every day. A student today said, “What should I say? I want to be professional about this.” We all started laughing. We told the student, “Say, ‘I have no idea, because I’ve never planned something like this before.’” We have gotten used to saying this. This is grassroots. You are not going to see something polished. You are going to see what it is: just authentic.

The students who are involved in your movement – what do they say most concerns them about DeVos?

These students are really well connected with what it’s like in rural Alaska. They know there’s only one school there; the whole talk about choice is a joke. They know that it’s going to mean fewer resources. They have seen that cuts make a difference. They know what it’s like to be in big classrooms where not every student gets a desk.

Your organization includes people from across political lines, right?

We never, ever talk about party. We talk about issues… Alaska is mostly undeclared: Republican-voting, but undeclared, so there are a lot of independent thinkers. And education is a unique issue. We’re trying to help Senator Sullivan understand this… We’ve had people call in and say, “I’m a Republican, I voted for you, and I can’t believe you’re doing this.”

Aside from learning about legislative procedures, what other advice do you have for people just getting their feet wet now?

Listen to the staffers. This was a key moment for me: one legislative staffer [during a budget struggle] said to me, “You want a piece of that pie, you need to make sure you understand others are going for that piece of the pie.” He was being a real brat, but I was listening intently.

[I went back to our meeting] and said: “OK, let’s figure out exactly what piece of the pie we want.” We did the numbers and realized we needed one-tenth of one percent of the entire budget not to get cut, or something ridiculous like that. Now I’m thinking, how am I going to make this a fun message? I said, “I know some Juneau moms. Let’s bake some pies.”

We call these parents and the next day we have 30 pies, and we invited everybody in town to come by and serve their legislators a piece of pie. We put a tiny note underneath each one, explaining what we wanted, and we sent people upstairs with a slice of pie. About 70% of the people serving pie had never been inside of the building. And we got $16 million back that year, something like that.

It’s not just you that has never done this. It’s also all the people you need to engage. Think about how to make it fun for people who have never done this before. None of this would work unless there was this sea of people behind us. If you come up with something that’s meaningful, with a goal, they’ll do it.

A legislator texted me one night and said, “How about a homework sit-in where parents are kids are sitting on the benches where lobbyists normally sit?” Now all of a sudden, there’s no place for them to sit: it’s all quiet little families sitting there doing homework. Nobody said anything. I’m telling you, that was so popular. The lobbyists were pissed – they said, “Give ‘em whatever they want.” Nobody ever speaks up for kids. There are no lobbyists for kids. Maybe there are in DC, but they’re few and far between.

That was a good lesson: be open to whatever creativity might pop out. Keep it fresh. A little element of surprise, and a lot of fun.

From The Nation.

That’s so important now. If we’re horribly depressed all the time, we’re not going to be effective.

I think that’s why everyone is hanging on until the next “Saturday Night Live” or the next “Samantha Bee.” They’re going to be more popular than ever, because people need that kind of relief, but it concerns me because it kind of excuses them from doing something. We have to keep it enjoyable.

Make the work pleasant so we don’t just watch a comedy show and forget about it.

Exactly. There is that temptation to sit back and watch somebody who agrees with me instead of stepping in and doing something fun. That’s something that could happen if we don’t keep fun in mind.

Read last week’s interview with immigration lawyer Allegra Love here.

Visit Great Alaska Schools here or contact Alyse at greatakschoolsanc@gmail.com. And here’s your Shadow Cabinet Moment of Zen: a Great Alaska Schools student-made, Star Wars-inspired school advocacy video. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Are you passionate about public education? What are you thinking, reading, discussing, doing, donating? Or do you have a nominee for this series? Please share your suggestions or comments below contact me. I’ll share in a future post some comments on putting Alyse’s advice (and yours) into action.

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