Yashmay David (L) and Maya Cubarle (R) (Image by Julie Schweitert Collazo)
Twelve-year old Henry and his eight-year old sister, Nadia, have taken the train into Manhattan to show up outside the offices of Senators Gillibrand and Schumer for a rally of Brooklyn parents and kids who oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Neither senator is expected to support DeVos—Gillibrand has opposed all Cabinet nominees (though she did vote in favor of Nikki Haley for the position of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) and Schumer reiterated earlier in the day that in addition to voting “No” to DeVos’s appointment, he would also oppose seven other Trump picks—but these kids aren’t taking anything for granted. They, along with parents and teachers, want to convey to the senators that public education matters, and the Secretary of Education pick must be someone who champions education for all.
“What would you say to Betsy DeVos if you could talk with her one-on-one?” I ask Henry. He looks at me with that critical kid’s “Can I trust this adult?” gaze and says, “I’m not sure if I can say this…”—he turns to look at his dad, who’s standing behind him—“but I’d tell her: Fuck you.”
Henry (Image by Julie Schweitert Collazo)
Henry, a student at MS 51 in Park Slope, isn’t some rebellious pre-teen just saying the f-word to provoke adults. He’s pretty clear about the reasons why DeVos shouldn’t be confirmed as Education Secretary, and he names the most important ones before returning to the chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Betsy DeVos has got to go!”: “Betsy DeVos is a billionaire who doesn’t care about public schools.”
While Henry and Nadia and a hundred or so protesters continue chanting and waving signs (including one, “Chuck, Give a Fuck,” held by a college student), other Brooklyn students are going up to the senators’s offices in small groups to deliver “We oppose DeVos” letters to Gillibrand’s and Schumer’s aides. Organizers lost count of the total number of letters the kids are delivering, but they’re sure they have at least 4,000, collected from 26 Brooklyn schools over just a couple weeks.
Jessica Blatt, mom of a 7- and 11-year-old and one of the organizers, explains that the rally and letter delivery project are grassroots efforts, the manifestations of which are surprising even to her. “A few Brooklyn parents came up with the idea of doing a letter drive against DeVos. Within a week we had collected about 1,500 letters from five schools, which we delivered in person to Schumer’s and Gillibrand’s offices.” After DeVos’s hearing was delayed, the letter-writing parents reached out to friends at other schools, and just like that, the reach of their campaign expanded five-fold. “Since then, middle schoolers have also been collecting letters,” Blatt says, “to thank the senators for taking a position against DeVos, and to urge them to make blocking her nomination a priority.” Penny Lewis, another organizer and mom of two, says she is “amazed how quickly people are mobilizing, how fast action is having an impact.” And while she knows that progressives have a “long struggle ahead,” and that blocking DeVos is “a long shot, since no Republicans have come out against her yet,” she is inspired by ordinary citizens—kids, especially—coming out in droves to “tell our representatives we have to be represented.”
Image via Instagram
That’s the message that middle schoolers Yashamay David and Maya Cubarle, both students at Arts & Letters in Clinton Hill, want to convey to Gillibrand and Schumer, too. The girls, who have already been engaged in activist efforts, including a walk-out on Inauguration Day, have made their own signs for this rally, and they’ve studied up on DeVos’s record and her position. They’re not happy with their findings. David and Cubarle are concerned that the most vulnerable among their peers will be left behind with DeVos leading the Department of Education. “We’re here today because all kids should have a right to education,” David says. “DeVos doesn’t have a plan for special needs kids.” Cubarle adds, “She doesn’t stand up for LGBT kids and undocumented kids. That’s important to us.” David and Cubarle both went up to the senators’s offices to deliver the letters and talk with aides, and said the experience motivated them to keep raising their voices.
“It’s up to people to lead now,” says Sonya Posmentier, another organizer. “Politicians have to know people are watching.” And if the parents and kids of Brooklyn are any indication, they won’t watch quietly—nor mince words in getting their message across.