Beyond reading, writing and arithmetic: Lessons in media advocacy from a first-grader

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A few weeks ago, my daughter came home upset about the "vote" that was needed to secure her much-awaited snowshoeing trip into Grand Teton National Park (GTNP), which is just a mile north of where we live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

When I was confused about which vote she meant — hadn't the teachers already confirmed the trip? — she told me that her first-grade teacher had explained the sobering reality to her class: Like all national parks and other government agencies, GTNP might be closed if Congress didn't vote to fund the federal budget.

Since the vote was scheduled for the night before the field trip, her teacher also had the class write letters to Congress about what the snowshoeing trip meant to them.

I was thrilled that my daughter's teacher took this important opportunity to teach a lesson about government and civic participation and ways to use media advocacy as a vehicle for policy change. And I was glad to talk with my daughter about how decisions in Washington affect our lives every day.

But, I wanted to say more.

I wanted to tell her that it wasn't the field trip that would be so disappointing for some of her classmates, but instead the dinner they wouldn't be getting because the Women, Infants and Children's nutrition program wasn't funded. That some of her friends' parents wouldn't have a job to go to the next day, which might mean they couldn't pay their rent at the end of the month. That some kids' grandparents wouldn't get to refill their medication because their health insurance was in the balance. Or, a palpable, daily fear in our community, that some children's parents could be deported at a moment's notice.

And yet, I didn't say any of this.

Because I'm white, educated and was born in the U.S. to parents (and grandparents) also born in the U.S., I could choose what I wanted to share with my sensitive 6-year-old and what difficult topics to avoid.

Unlike many families, mine is fortunate enough to have private health insurance, secure jobs and enough resources to pay for our basic needs, despite — at least so far — what happens at the federal level.

Not all parents were so lucky that night to put off difficult conversations, to allow children just to be children, and to worry only about fieldtrips instead of job security, access to medical care or even their family's ability to stay in this country.

Adults — all of us — can and should have these conversations with their children. In hindsight, I know I missed an important opportunity to connect my many roles — as a parent, advocate and media advocacy trainer — with my belief that the most important conversations about class and racial equity start at home and extend into the public sphere.

From now on, I will say more. Even if it's hard (or, perhaps, precisely because it is). Clearly one of the most important lessons from this experience isn't for my daughter, but for me and other adults who are similarly privileged: If we are going to effect change, our kids need parents and caregivers to have conversations that plant the seeds for personal growth and social progress.

I know — from history and the systems designed for white supremacy and other forms of oppression — that my kids will almost certainly grow up to enjoy the same privileges that I do. But, if I do my job well, they will also learn how important it is for families like ours to use civic engagement to advance racial and economic equity. They'll learn that we — those of us with such privilege — must speak out to demand better, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors and classmates and friends, and even for people we don't even know. They'll also learn that outrage is not best applied to cancelled field trips, but to real issues, like injustice and discrimination.

In her own way, my daughter is already just as outraged as I am that the people in charge of taking care of this country aren't doing their job. And I'm happy to see her channeling that outrage in a productive way. Her class has already received a response to their letters. Sen. Michael Enzi wrote to my daughter's teacher earlier this month, noting that he understood the students' concern about National Parks availability and that he voted on Jan. 19 to keep the government open and again on Jan. 22 to re-open the government.

"We need to ensure Wyoming's National Parks remain safe, accessible, and open," he wrote. "I too grew up spending time enjoying our public lands and treasured those experiences. I try to visit Grand Teton every year. I maintain contact with both park superintendents and share my experiences with them as [well] as the experiences my constituents share with me, so thank you for your note and letters. I hope you were able to go snowshoeing."

Even with an unprecedented number of people contacting Congress over the past year, letter-writing it is still an effective way to reach our elected officials. And thanks to an early lesson in media advocacy, I know that this is only the first of many letters that my daughter will write.

A first-grader's letter to Congress

Have resources to share on any of the above themes? Please send them our way at

Interested in learning more? Here are just a few fantastic ideas to get you — and your kids — talking.

Raising Race-Conscious Children

Showing Up for Racial Justice — Organizing Families

Why White Parents Need to Talk to Their Children About Racism

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