Michele Ahouse is the National Director of Citizen Teacher Engagement at Citizen Schools.
Policy was never my thing. When I met my now mother-in-law, one of her first questions was how many times I had voted in elections. I smiled politely and nodded, thinking that in the great state of Massachusetts, my vote wasn’t going to swing anything one way or another. Wasn’t my voice just lumped in with everyone else’s?
Throughout my time as a volunteer Citizen Teacher for Citizen Schools teaching multiple apprenticeship classes, I took a similar approach to action alerts and policy messages that landed in my inbox. Occasionally, I would click the “Send a message to my Congressman” where I would find a nicely written message. All I needed to do was type my zip code in and bam, it was submitted.
Within seconds, an automated “out-of-office” like email would come back from my senator telling me he agreed with my thoughts on “x”-initiative and really appreciated my voice. Sure. Whatever. I believed in the change, but I didn’t think my little voice resonated at all. I was not a phone caller, a picketer or any of those other seemingly attention-grabbing policy wonks.
Fast forward five years to my current position here at Citizen Schools as the National Director of Citizen Teacher Engagement. During my first month, I had a call with our Executive Director of Public Policy and Communications to find out more about our policy initiatives as it related to Citizen Teachers. I was dreading the call, because I knew I would have to fess up about my lack of faith in policy. But I also felt like it could be a real learning tool, because frankly, I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt this way.
Over the course of the hour, she proceeded to take me through a grassroots Policy 101 session - explaining that despite the impersonal nature of the responses, it was actually someone's (and often multiple staffers') job to count and report back to our representatives on responses they received from emails, phone calls, social media and visits.
More importantly, the more responses something got, the more attention a representative gives to the matter because his/her job is to be a representative of the people. And despite whatever concerns we have about the current climate in Washington, when it comes down to it, we elect our representatives and that is our strongest voice.
I had the privilege to take part in our annual Hill Day event on March 21 and actually see this all in action. This day is when Citizen Schools representatives - staff, board members, student alumni and Citizen Teachers - from all eight of our states go to Capitol Hill to meet with our representatives.
We spoke with a range of politicians- Senators, Representatives, aides and even Minority Leaders Pelosi and McConnell. We talked about the impact of Citizen Schools in their districts, the success our students experienced as a result of the program, the important work AmeriCorps members are doing throughout the community, as well as the potential for the future of education. I even saw staff answering phones and actually writing down tallies for support/dissent on policies.
In some meetings, we encountered vigorous head-nodding agreement; in others, it was a learning experience for both sides. For me personally, it was a fantastic experience to be there, having real-time discussions about the impact of sequestration, this abstract but constant buzz word that had surrounded me for the past 2 months. We strategized ways to preserve the funding and support that makes Citizen Schools be able to provide middle school students with the opportunity to realize and achieve their dreams. Most of all, we shared stories and gave a voice to the students who we serve, to the staff and volunteers who help our students achieve success.
I walked away from the day feeling empowered and full of promise. I felt like my voice was heard and we achieved something. We are currently working with schedulers for our representatives to get visits on the books for this spring to see our students and apprenticeships in action. I’m eagerly anticipating these, as I know seeing our students, staff and volunteers in action will bring to reality the importance of education support.
The cherry on top - March 21 was my mother-in-law’s birthday. When I texted her a quick “Happy Birthday” early that morning and told her what I was doing, she promptly responded back, “You’ve come a long way baby.” Have I ever!