I never cared about pol­i­tics un­til Betsy DeVos came along.

El­iz­a­beth Wade didn’t vote in midterm elec­tions or mayor’s races. Now she’s an ac­tivist.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­post.com

Like a lot of Amer­i­cans, I’ve never been par­tic­u­larly po­lit­i­cal. I’ve never voted in a midterm elec­tion. I’ve never voted in a lo­cal race, never voted for mayor. I don’t re­call vot­ing ever, ex­cept in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. I’d read po­lit­i­cal ar­ti­cles and keep up with the news, but I didn’t do much re­search be­fore head­ing to the polls ev­ery four years. My Face­book feed was mostly cat pho­tos.

But then Pres­i­dent Trump was elected, and he nom­i­nated Betsy DeVos to be sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion.

Be­fore DeVos, I hadn’t fol­lowed a sin­gle Cabi­net nom­i­na­tion, which is prob­a­bly true of most peo­ple. (Sur­veys reg­u­larly show that we aren’t par­tic­u­larly in­formed about our gov­ern­ment.) At happy hour with my five girl­friends, we prob­a­bly could have named two mem­bers of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s Cabi­net, and the sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion was not one of them. I feel bad say­ing it, but it’s the truth: I sim­ply didn’t think I needed to know. Why? Be­cause I al­ways had a sense that things would be okay, re­gard­less of who was in charge; if Mitt Rom­ney had won in­stead of Obama, things would have been fine.

This was the first time I felt like things could not be okay. And I have found a po­lit­i­cal voice I didn’t know that I had — or that I even wanted to have.

I can’t pin­point the mo­ment things changed for me, but it started with Face­book. Like mil­lions of peo­ple, I had never heard of DeVos, but she be­gan pop­ping up in my feed, with friends from all over the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum post­ing about her. I clicked on a few news sto­ries and read some ba­sic facts about her. I’m not naive — I know pol­i­tics can be cor­rupt, and there’s a lot go­ing on be­hind the scenes. I knew there was con­tro­versy over some of the other Cabi­net po­si­tions, that some of the nom­i­nees didn’t nec­es­sar­ily have pub­lic-sec­tor ex­pe­ri­ence, that some had links to peo­ple or events that didn’t look so good. But some­thing about DeVos stuck out to me. The more I read about her, the more baf­fled I be­came.

I learned she is a bil­lion­aire who con­trib­utes a lot of money to the Repub­li­can Party. I learned she has never been in pub­lic schools, not as a stu­dent, a par­ent, an ed­u­ca­tor or an ad­min­is­tra­tor. There was noth­ing in her bi­og­ra­phy that sug­gested to me she had any­thing to con­trib­ute to the mil­lions of pub­lic school chil­dren and teach­ers who would be un­der her lead­er­ship. I couldn’t even say, “Well, at least her kids went to a pub­lic mid­dle school.” She was as qual­i­fied to run the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion as I was to run NASA. I don’t say this to in­sult her in­tel­li­gence or her pas­sion. She sim­ply doesn’t have any ex­pe­ri­ence. I didn’t know that some­one so un­qual­i­fied could even serve in a Cabi­net po­si­tion.

Of course ma­jor po­lit­i­cal donors en­joy ac­cess and in­flu­ence in our gov­ern­ment. But I fig­ured that money could buy you an in­vite to a White House din­ner, not a Cabi­net job. Sure, have your time with the pres­i­dent. But you should not have the pub­lic school sys­tem, which ed­u­cates 90 per­cent of the chil­dren in our coun­try, de­pend­ing on you.

I don’t have kids, and I at­tended both pri­vate and pub­lic schools grow­ing up. I’m hardly an ex­pert on ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy. But I’ve al­ways fol­lowed the news about my lo­cal school sys­tem, whether it was a new su­per­in­ten­dent or bud­get cuts. I know how much pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion mat­ters, and so do my friends who are teach­ers or have chil­dren in school. A preg­nant friend of mine told me she woke up cry­ing in the mid­dle of the night out of anx­i­ety about what pub­lic school might look like for her child.

So I started to act. Yes, there are still cat pho­tos on my Face­book feed, but it has mostly be­come a plat­form for shar­ing in­for­ma­tion and po­lit­i­cal ar­ti­cles, mostly about DeVos. I’ve sent things to peo­ple I said I would never talk to again, to friends I haven’t spo­ken to in years.

I also be­gan call­ing and email­ing my elected of­fi­cials, some­thing I’ve never done in my life. I picked up the phone and di­aled Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). In a voice mail, I said my name and where I lived. I said I was call­ing about DeVos and stated my ob­jec­tion. I wasn’t at all ner­vous, partly be­cause I knew that so many other peo­ple were call­ing. Know­ing that I was part of a huge wave of peo­ple giv­ing their opin­ions made me con­fi­dent.

I’ve seen it not only on so­cial me­dia but in real life: My fam­ily and friends never pre­vi­ously talked pol­i­tics. Now we do all the time. Most of my girl­friends have trans­formed along with me. Nor­mally we’d be talk­ing about stupid videos or what Kris­ten Ste­wart did on “Satur­day Night Live” or their kids or my cats or who knows. Now half of our texts or phone calls are about Trump and DeVos.

Of course I still have friends who don’t have much of an opin­ion and friends who are Trump sup­port­ers. If I can tell that a friend re­ally doesn’t want to hear about DeVos, I don’t push it. I’ve had friends com­plain on so­cial me­dia about “all the neg­a­tiv­ity” and how they “don’t want to see this stuff” on Face­book. I un­der­stand — a few years ago, I also rolled my eyes at po­lit­i­cal posts. But now, hear­ing those com­plaints only makes me want to do it more. They can un­friend me if they want.

DeVos’s con­fir­ma­tion came as a huge blow. Part of me thought just one more per­son would step up to op­pose her nom­i­na­tion. But the dis­ap­point­ment will only fuel my next steps. I know now that each per­son counts, and I will keep try­ing. This will not be the last time dur­ing this ad­min­is­tra­tion that I make a call to my sen­a­tors. I plan on ex­pand­ing my ac­tivism to other is­sues and be­com­ing more en­gaged with lo­cal pol­i­tics.

At first when Trump was elected, I wanted to dis­en­gage. My at­ti­tude was: “I don’t want to know.” I didn’t want to watch CNN. I didn’t want to think it would be as bad as it is. Now I’m glued to all of it. I will be vot­ing in ev­ery elec­tion go­ing for­ward. I will ed­u­cate my­self as much as pos­si­ble on the is­sues. This has been a huge wake-up call to me and to a lot of po­lit­i­cally dor­mant peo­ple. We can’t just sit idly by and hope the gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to func­tion fine just be­cause it has in the past. I might not be af­fected that much per­son­ally by what hap­pens in Wash­ing­ton. But my neigh­bor, who helps me out and whom I care about, might be.

Yes, the news can be over­whelm­ing and neg­a­tive, and it takes work to read it all. But it hasn’t made me want to crawl into a hole. It has made me want to come out of the hole. El­iz­a­beth Wade lives in Rich­mond and works in the in­sur­ance field.


The nom­i­na­tion of Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos caused a back­lash among many Amer­i­cans who thought she was un­qual­i­fied for the job. Some of her op­po­nents be­came po­lit­i­cally ac­tive for the first time.

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