10.16.2007

Day 3 in DC

Today was amazing. We met with another of my former students, Anna Cielinski from Vanderbilt, this morning. Anna is now Carolyn Maloney's Legislative Assistant, and she was great at getting all the students to talk and offering practical advice and honest answers. It was so good to see her.

We met with a series of elected officials, from David Price to Lindsay Graham, and although we had some angst (some students were appalled at Lindsay Graham's answers to their questions, while others were appalled at the first set being appalled) and some blistered feet (Biffle and my dad are right when they complain about women's shoes--I was one of the few women whose feet weren't covered in blisters after two days of walking, and that's because I was wearing flat, square-toed Sensible Shoes), it was very educational.

And then it came time for us to meet with Hilda Solis, from California. A vote was coming up in the House just as we were scheduled to meet with her, so her aides shuttled us quickly over to the Capitol and up to the gallery to watch. I have no idea how any voting happened, because all I saw were people walking around, cocktail-party style, talking to each other, but apparently that's how it works, and we were all thrilled to be there. Congresswoman Solis kept bringing people over to the floor under where we were sitting to wave at us, which was fun.

After a very short amount of time, the aides whisked us all outside to take a picture on the steps of the Capitol, with the dome gleaming behind us. And this is when we were at the right place at the right time. The vote had happened, so Congresspeople were filtering out of the building, and because it was the end of their workday, they had time to stop and talk.

"Look, it's Dennis Kucinich!" Leigh cried out at one point, and because we were probably among the few people who ever recognize him, he came over and shook our hands.

And then I looked up the steps and saw--"Omigod, it's John Lewis! It's John Lewis!"

John Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders. He grew up a very poor and very shy in segregated Georgia. He went on the Freedom Rides when he was just a kid, the age my students are now. They knew how dangerous it was: he and the other Riders wrote letters to their families, letters that Diane Nash kept back in Nashville to give to the families if the Rider got killed. And in fact, early in the rides, in Rock Hill, SC, John Lewis and a white Rider were brutally beaten when they tried to enter a white bus stop waiting area. And now he's a Congressman.

I got to shake his hand. He talked to the students, told them about the Civil Rights movement and his participation. I rummaged around frantically in the students' bags until I found some cameras, and I took picture after picture. He talked about how, when he was a kid, he'd tried to enter the library in his town and was thrown out because he was black. He didn't go back again until recently, when he was there to sign copies of his book. I cried, and then some of the students started crying--it was really amazing to meet such a hero. A few years ago I also got to meet Diane Nash, and I just feel so humbled by what they did.

While we were there, other members of Congress joined us--Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, who took his oath of office on the Koran; Michael Honda, from California; Gwen Moore, a former welfare recipient who got pissed off and decided to run for office and won; and others whose names I can't remember. We got pictures with all of them, and they all urged the students--as has everyone we've met--to consider running for office. "This is your government, and you need to be at the table."

I don't know if I'm going to run for office, but I really did feel like it's my government.

4 comments:

b said...

Reading this post just put a huge smile on my face, while also experiencing some humility, as well. A perfect start to the day.

I'm so impressed with what all ya'll were able to accomplish, Alison - whoever was responsible for organizing that trip (you and the other prof?) deserve many a handshake and/or hug for giving those kids that opportunity.

Talk about making memories...

- b

CT said...

This sounds like it was such an amazing experience. And you know, these students will never ever forget it. It's one of those shining formative moments in life. Just remains to be seen what forms...!

Enjoy, and three cheers to you and your colleague for giving these young(er) people the chance to see and hear so much.

Heather Bailey said...

a couple of years ago i was at a small conference in nashville and got to hear diane nash speak at Fisk and then got to meet her. it was simply stunning.

hearing the stories is powerful, and watching documentaries where the leaders of the civil rights movement are giving interviews is powerful...but nothing is as magical as meeting those people in person.

i'll always remember that and i bet your students will always remember this experience as well. :)

Cate Bush said...

I'm so glad you're having a great time. I loved reading your post today and hearing about the people you met, especially John Lewis.

Hugs,
C