Members step up to activism now in critical election year

In her 10-year teaching career in Livonia, MEA member Sara Williams has never been involved in politics. But Williams says she is stepping up now because “It feels like education is going in the right direction finally. We have educators on the education committee fighting for us.”

A photo of Senator Dayna Polehanki
Sen. Dayna Polehanki poses with a painting from Livonia art teacher Heidi Posh, who helped organize a recent fundraiser on her behalf.

Williams and other volunteers on the local union’s Political Action Committee (PAC) recently kicked off this major election year with a very successful fundraiser with Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), a former high school English teacher who is chair of the Senate Education Committee.

“We felt helpless for so long, like there was nothing we could do because Lansing was Lansing,” Williams said. “Now we finally have our voices heard, and it’s exciting – the things that are starting to happen. We’re seeing the results of what voting can do for us.”

The event’s great turnout and response is spurring her onward, said Williams, who followed in her mother’s footsteps teaching elementary school in Livonia and says “Being an educator and wanting to make a difference is in my blood.”

About 70 people showed up to meet Polehanki and Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) – also a former teacher who chairs the House Education Committee – and $4,500 was raised to help elect and re-elect others who share a similar pro-education vision.

A picture of a room full of participants.
An overflow crowd of educators from Livonia and surrounding areas showed up to give money to and hear from Polehanki and Rep. Matt Koleszar.

Just as encouraging to Williams was the range of people who attended, mostly from Livonia but some from neighboring communities: student teachers to retirees, paraeducators and custodians.

“I feel a sense of hope and a sense that good change is coming in these next few years, and I want to be part of it,” Williams said. “This was the first event I took part in, and I was very much inspired after.”

MEA members across the state are joining the effort, starting now, to elect officials in November—from school boards to the White House—who support public schools and the vital work of educators.

In the same week as Livonia educators turned out, retirees in Genesee County showed up for a phone bank with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The call for volunteers brought out a very senior retired Flint educator, said Michelle Gushen, president of the Genesee Lifelong Education Association-Retired who also retired from teaching in Flint in 2017.

A photo of Governor Whitmer smiling with Lorene Wilson.
Gov. Whitmer poses with MEA-Retired member Lorene Wilson, a 95-year-old retired teacher from Flint who showed up to phone bank.

Gushen acknowledged that everyone is tired in the wake of several challenging years, but “if a 95-year-old former Flint teacher can show up to a phone bank, then the rest of us can push past the fatigue and do our part,” she said.

A building rep and vice president of her local during her active years, Gushen said she continues to take on volunteer roles because she wants all children to receive a great education – no matter where they live. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to my grandkids and to all of these kids.”

Most who came to phone bank at the MEA office in Flint had no experience making calls to voters and were nervous at the outset. But meeting Whitmer and watching her demonstrate several calls eased fears, and positive responses to their outreach energized the group of a few dozen volunteers.

A picture of participants smiling for the camera.
Retired educators from the Genesee Lifelong Education Association-Retired powered the phone bank reminding voters of next week’s primary.

The callers reminded likely voters that Michigan’s presidential primary is Feb. 27 this year – next Tuesday – and asked if they would be supporting President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

“It’s really important that we support Gov. Whitmer and President Biden, so I was really pleased with the turnout and the success these new volunteers experienced,” Gushen said. “Retirees need to be heard. We have the time; we have the voices. We need to use them.”

Seeing such a wide range of members get involved in Livonia also is feeding the spirit of MEA member Heidi Posh, a Livonia art teacher for 28 years who has been a union building rep since her first year and also serves on the MEA Board of Directors.

Posh volunteers for the local PAC and helped to organize the event with Polehanki and Koleszar alongside Williams and another younger MEA member, Alex Hutko, an elementary special education teacher in her first year at Livonia after three years working elsewhere.

“To do this work with younger people who are passionate and excited and such great gals has been a lot of fun and very exciting for me,” Posh said. “I think about how many years I have left, and how I can help the next generation take over, so honestly Sara and Alex and I became a bit of a dream team.”

A picture of smiling participants sitting at a table.
Livonia educators Alex Hutko (left) and Heidi Posh – along with Sara Williams – organized the fundraiser and boosted their own excitement about doing more.

Like Williams, Hutko said this was her first time getting involved in politics, and she was struck by the personal feeling of attending an in-person event to meet lawmakers, hear what they’re doing, and share feedback from the classroom.

“I thought this would be a good way to get involved and learn what’s happening in Lansing,” Hutko said. “For me, being at a small event like this made it more of a conversation. It humanized them and made me realize they’re politicians, but they’re really just people, and they were once doing what we are doing now.”

The lawmakers spoke about many education-related bills signed into law last year and now taking effect. They took questions and mingled with the crowd, the organizers said.

Williams added the excitement began building as the planning crew worked to ensure people turned out for the event. Much of that effort involved one-on-one conversations, and amid those talks she realized how many people don’t know all that’s been accomplished in the Legislature.

The list includes among others: increased education funding overall and additional targeted spending for educator pay, at-risk and special education students, student mental health, and rural transportation; teacher evaluation reform; eliminating the third-grade retention mandate; and return of collective bargaining rights for educators.

When the legislative leaders began sharing accomplishments, the crowd clapped and cheered, Williams said: “Dayna and Matt were like – ‘But wait, there’s more!’”

The experience has her revved for the next one, she added. “It was energizing to feel like we did the right thing and made the two of them feel appreciated for all their hard work. It felt very much like a ‘We’re in it together’ vibe—they’re fighting for us, and we’re fighting for them.

“The way they spoke about education and what they believe in, I felt impassioned. We joked about it afterward, because we all felt like ‘Now what? What’s next? What else can we do to help?’”

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