What Getting School-Lunched in 1995 Can Teach Us Now

I admit it. Last week’s election has thrown me into a total funk. An all-out, I-don’t-know-what-the-heck-to-do kinda funk. Some pundit said something about us being in mourning, and that describes how I’m feeling. I’ve been wracking my brain for answers. What do I do next?

One of the answers came to me as I was waiting for my flight home at the airport today. On the television screen at my gate, I saw former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s face pop up and it reminded me of another situation where I experienced a similar kind of panic: The 1994 mid-term elections.

Remember? This was the election where Republicans took over the House and the Senate as well as a majority of governorships in the states. Progressive governors in big states such as New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Texas Governor Ann Richards were not re-elected. I was running the Washington Office for one of the remaining eleven Democratic governors, then Governor Thomas R. Carper of my home state of Delaware.

Then Congressman Newt Gingrich had proposed a ‘Contract with America’ shortly before the election, which I distinctly remember throwing into the trash, and then trying to find a copy of it the day after the election. It was the platform that Gingrich and House Republicans would push the Congress to pass. Among other things, it would have completely shredded the social safety net by block granting Medicaid, Food Stamps, Housing, Child Welfare programs, and the AFDC program. Some of it did get enacted, namely the welfare reform bill. However, for the most part, the Contract went largely unenacted.

Why? Because we fought back.

What did we do? We pulled the Contract out of the trash, and re-read it (or for folks like me, read it for the first time). We caucused. Few came at first, but our numbers grew. Our meetings soon became can’t-miss gatherings. We strategized. We pulled out policy proposals that could be made an example of just how draconian the Contract was, such as citing the cuts to the School Lunch program. The School Lunch Program became the symbol of everything wrong with the Contract and stalled movement on Contract through Congress. We used the media. We engaged in virtual hand to hand combat with our opponents. We found strength and solace in each other. It was difficult and I remember feeling stressed out and emotional all the time. I think that’s when I got my first gray hair. But we relied on each other and supported each other personally and professionally so that we could keep up the fight.

We didn’t roll over and in the end, we stopped Speaker Gingrich, the Congress and ultimately the Contract. It took about two years and within that time, the Contract nearly fell apart. By the next election, it had been largely forgotten. Now that’s where the analogy ends, and there’s more that could be written. However, what’s important to note is what we learned from that fight.

Here are my top ten take aways:

1.Don’t Give Up.

Approach this with the attitude that we can have an impact. Know that it is actually harder to push through a change in policy than it is to stop one. We can win if we have the will and enough of us band together.

2.Stay Vigilant.

We need to stay on top of this. We’ve got to monitor developments in Washington. We’ve got to watch the news, and not just progressive media outlets that we agree with. We’ve got to read articles, and not just pieces in liberal magazines. We can’t personally keep track of it all, so we’ve got to divvy up the monitoring and be prepared to alert each other when a development catches fire.

3.Circle Up.

I heard this term used today in another context and it seems appropriate here. We have got to band together, share ideas, and collectively strategize. More heads are better than going it alone and this also means listening, listening to people who are most impacted by what is happening. Black, Brown, Immigrant, Muslim, LGBTQ, and Women’s voices must be heard.

4.Organize, Organize, Organize.

Let me say it again: Organize. This is the heart of our strategy. Organize. Become an organizer. If you don’t know how, go to an organizing training. Donate to organizers. Help organizers raise money. Support organizers in any way that you can.

5.Push the President.

President Obama still has 66 more days in office. He can take actions before he leaves, and there are plenty of things that he can and should do that have gone undone. Yes, that makes whatever is pushed a target for undoing when the new Administration comes in. But remember that it’s harder to undo something that has already been done.

6.Turn Up the Heat.

Elected officials — of all political persuasions — need to hear from us. We have to turn up the heat. They need to feel what we’re feeling, i.e. a sense of urgency with no choice but to fight what appears to be a draconian agenda. They need to feel accountable to us and they won’t unless we put them on the hot seat too.

7.Work Across Movements.

Our movement in youth justice is part of a larger racial justice movement. Yet, we don’t always join the tables where related issues are discussed, and we almost never show up for our allies who advocate on issues outside the justice realm. That needs to change. It will mean stretching ourselves and our resources. It will mean more meetings. It will mean more demonstrations. But it will make all our movements stronger, bigger, and more effective.

8.Be Creative.

At a time when we might feel scattered, stretched and stressed out, we’re going to need to stop, think and be creative. That creativity will help us get our messages across more effectively, and figure out how to engage more people in advocating for youth justice.

9.Take Care of Ourselves.

This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. It will take many of us to stop what may be coming, and if we want to keep up the momentum, we will have to stay strong. That means taking breaks and nourishing our bodies and souls. I say this to remind myself as this one is the most challenging for me personally and that’s why #10 below is important.

10.Support Each Other.

We will need to support each other more than ever before.

Since that fight in the mid-1990’s, the safety net programs, including the School Lunch Program have remained largely intact. More recently though, I understand that Medicaid, the School Lunch program, and other safety net programs have come under attack. And that comes on top of all the other issues raised during this election. We can draw from these and other battles to help us figure out the path forward.