By Miles Selib
This is the third of four profiles of the finalists for the 2014 NEA Political Activist of the Year award. The finalists were chosen based on the amount and quality of political activism they’ve undertaken in the past year. Delegates at this year’s NEA Representative Assembly, being held next month in Denver, will choose the Political Activist of the Year. The finalists are the cream of the crop, leading the way in election campaigns and legislative advocacy efforts through actions such as sending letters and emails to elected officials, calling fellow members, and knocking on doors to speak up for their students and public education.
Elementary math specialist Patricia Caldwell-Wilson wants her peers to know that everyone has the ability to make a difference for students and schools. The self-described “soccer mom and grandma” says educators should be willing to get involved, because their work helping students is directly affected by those elected to office.
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Caldwell-Wilson has seen the power of “boots on the ground” activism, and believes that changing things begins when people in a community get together. That’s why she’s a regular attendee at school board meetings and has spoken out on the importance of educators getting involved in electing pro-public education candidates on behalf of students like those at her Title I school. She helped mobilize voters in the last two general elections, and plans to do the same in the upcoming crucial midterm election this fall.
A teacher since 1971—with time out of the classroom to raise her three children—Caldwell-Wilson began her career in Title I schools in her native New Jersey. After relocating to Northern Virginia, she chose to work in one of Loudoun County’s focus schools, Sugarland Elementary, which she says has “one of the hardest working staffs I’ve ever worked with.”
EducationVotes: What issue(s) drive you to be so involved?
Education and immigration are both important to me. Many students have come to Loudoun County from other regions in the world and are learning English as a second language. We need educators to be familiar with these student’s backgrounds and also to be able to teach bilingually. Therefore, I am very concerned about cuts that have been made to our budget. Loudoun School District is consistently expanding, though the budget has not increased. Thus, we have been unable to grow and adapt to meet the needs of our changing district.
Without the budget we can’t do the things we need to grow. We live in one of the wealthiest parts of the country and have a constantly expanding school district, but the way our budget has been cut over the last year, for our school, that doesn’t mean very much. There are a lot of advantages for many kids around here, but there are a lot of kids who still suffer.
EdVotes: Why do you think it’s important for educators to be involved in government and politics?
A lot of educators say that they’re not very political, but I try to explain to them that politicians make decisions about their salary, benefits and budget. It’s very important for them to be active, not just for themselves but certainly for the students. Being involved at every political level, coming out to vote in every election is important; I don’t care if it’s for your county supervisor or your governor or your members of Congress.
EdVotes: How did you get started being politically active?
Even as a child I knew the importance of an education and what it meant to me, especially having seen others in my community who did not have the opportunity to attend school.When I went off to college in the late 1960’s, there was so much going on–from segregation to the politics of war–it was very difficult not to become political and involved. In college I ran several programs, one called the Urban Action Corps, where we students on campus actually went out and did things that were needed in the community.
EdVotes: What particular campaign first got you involved in activism ?
When I first came out of college and I moved up to Newark, New Jersey, there had been a lot of corruption in politics and we made a big move to get a better candidate in. We elected Congressmen Donald Payne and he served educators and students well in Congress for many years.
EdVotes: What advocacy work do you like the most?
All aspects of education activism. Good things start from the grassroots and I believe in boots on the ground. Getting people together in neighborhood meetings is so effective.
EdVotes: How do you make time to be so involved?
I have been married to my husband for nearly 43 years, and through the years we have found ways to balance our personal lives and community involvement. He has always understood the importance of my role as an educator as well as the importance of advocacy at all levels. Everyone in my family realizes that the so called ‘America Dream’ is very much based in education. Without it not much happens in this country.
EdVotes: What are the best ways for members to get involved in activism online?
Social media is an important tool because it allows for one to connect easily and communicate with people from different areas. When people see advocates succeed in different areas they have new motivation to keep working in their own areas. I think a challenge we face today is how to get more young people active, which is how social media fits in. Twitter and Facebook help keep me informed.
EdVotes: What would you say to an NEA member who is not currently politically involved?
I believe in one-on-one discussions, so I would ask why this NEA member why she or he is not currently involved. A lot of members think they do not have time, but political activism is important for the success of both educators and their students.
EdVotes: Why should the delegates choose you for the 2014 NEA Political Activist of the Year award?
I am a lifelong activist for teachers and for students. I know there are people out there who are more active and put in more time, but choosing someone like me will show others that it is possible to remain an activist throughout one’s career as an educator.