Virginia educator activist reaches out to students and colleagues on election


by Colleen Flaherty

Sonia Smith is a high school literature teacher in Chesterfield County, Va. She has been spending hour after hour the past several weeks getting out the vote and educating people about this year’s election, something that is just “part of her fiber.”

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“Politics has always been interesting to me,” said Smith. “My great-grandmother, who stood all of 4’8”, helped get black folks registered to vote right in the heart of Dixie when it was dangerous. She was a powerful woman.”

This year, when the NAACP and the National Education Association partnered to provide voter rights training in Washington, D.C., she signed up.

“When I got an e-mail and the call about this training, I thought holy cannoli, this is my calling. It’s almost like I felt [my great-grandmother] with me.”

Since the start of this school year, her biggest effort to educate and encourage voters has happened in her high school.

“I’m finding the education of my colleagues has been my biggest focus coming back from training. Sometimes they’re so wrapped up in the four walls of our classrooms that they don’t always know what’s going on.”

With help from her local chapter of the Virginia Education Association, she has been passing out nonpartisan literature and discussing the national and local elections affecting her state. Recently, she coordinated a meet and greet with her state representatives to talk about the issues surrounding public education.

“Regardless of what side of the aisle they’re on, I’ve been trying to educate my colleagues in the building if they’re willing to listen.”

Her efforts go beyond her coworkers. Smith teaches seniors, many who are voting for the first time this election.

“What I have found the most rewarding is bringing everything I learned from the training into my classroom.”

Educating her students on voting has been especially crucial in Virginia, where earlier this year the state legislature passed a restrictive voter ID law. “Since the start of the school year, I’ve been letting the students know what their rights are and to help them not feel intimidated when they go to vote.”

She has also had to clear any misconceptions they may have about voting. “I’ve started to hear things from students, like that you can vote by phone or online. Well, that’s just not true. I don’t know where these rumors are coming from, but I find I’m dispelling a lot of myths.”

She emphasizes the importance of participation and education to her students. “You don’t have to think how I think, but know that if there are issues that concern you about your rights as a young adult, then you need to make sure that you study all the facts.”

As the election cycle draws to a close, Smith is happy about her efforts thus far.

“I’m excited. I find that the closer we get to Election Day, I have butterflies in my stomach as though I were a larger part of the process. I know that my vote and the votes of my colleagues matter, and that counts for something.”


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