Using Children to Lobby for D.C. Statehood

In November, D.C. shadow Senator Michael D. Brown traveled to the annual National Council for the Social Studies conference in Atlanta to recruit social studies teachers of nonvoting-age students to help him in his effort to obtain statehood for the District of Columbia. Presenting his mission as ending “taxation without representation,” he and D.C. statehood activist Anise Jenkins urged teachers attending his workshop to use students as political tools. Very receptive teachers, who were earning continuing education or graduate credit by attending his workshop, “Fulfilling Democracy for All Americans,” took Senator Brown’s one-sided lessons back to the classroom. Several teachers asked for copies of the presentation, Brown told me recently. He has offered to march with a Missouri middle school teacher and her students to the state capitol on behalf of D.C. statehood.

With a heavily Democratic district (92% voting for Barack Obama), D.C. statehood has been a cause taken up by Democrats and Greens. A superdelegate who endorsed Obama, according to Barack Obama’s Organizing for America website, Senator Brown also participated in the Green Party forum for D.C. statehood. In fact, I received a “special invitation” postcard in the mail for this workshop, with a quotation from President Obama: “Senator Brown has always been a strong advocate for the rights of D.C. residents.” With the election of another senator -- Scott Brown -- the issue of ensuring Democrat power is sure to gather urgency. As Democrats lose voters, they seek to gain them by changing the rules -- among them granting congressional voting representation for the citizens living in the nation’s capitol.

Senator Michael Brown calls D.C. statehood the “oldest civil rights struggle” and that is how it is presented to schoolchildren. At the workshop, self-described “activist” Anise Jenkins told teachers that her “entrance in the movement came out of anger” and she recommended they visit her blog Free DC, which has some (non-working) links for “teach-ins.” “We’re talking about power,” she told them. Senator Brown’s wife, an employee of the D.C. public school system, showed movies, one with Young Suffragists (as young as eight) at the White House, brought there by Senator Brown. One child explained (absurdly), “We pay taxes but don’t have a senator.” “These kids get these issues,” explained Brown, noting that on Valentine’s Day students sent “Be mine” messages to all senators.

During the recent interview, Brown reiterated the similarity to the civil rights movement, but did not note that back then most of the students were of college age. Because he hopes to achieve statehood through a vote in Congress, he says he is using the schools to reach communities. It is “critical,” he said, to get those too young to vote, but who have “well-defined hypocrisy meters” about fairness, involved to expose what most people, according to polls, don’t know: that D.C. does not have voting representatives in Congress. Students are “fertile ground” in what is a “long-term struggle,” according to Brown. Middle school children can get the “point across” to adults and 15- to 17-year-olds will remember their lessons as they enter voting age. Although they cannot vote, Brown explained, children are the first to be affected by budget cuts, as cuts are applied first to education. This is one way he justifies the use of children in the democratic “participatory process.”