Raising Lifelong Voters

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 29 │Raising Lifelong Voters

Wednesday, October 7, 2020



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Show Notes

Jahana Hayes

With the presidential election less than a month away, how are you talking to your kids about civic engagement? We spoke to U.S. Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, who offers wisdom from her experience in the classroom and on the Hill. She shares how families can help kids become active citizens and lifelong voters by encouraging them to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways.


  • For more resources to teach your kids about the election, check out these tools from iCivics

  • Read through the Congresswoman’s tips for families that she shared with National PTA as the 2016 National Teacher of the Year

  • Follow Congresswoman Hayes on Twitter and Instagram at @RepJahanaHayes

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Helen: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack at PTA podcast, I'm Helen Westmoreland.

LaWanda: And, I'm LaWanda Toney and we're your cohosts.

Helen: Today, we're going to talk about civic engagement. November, 2020 is a big election month and many kids have questions. We know this can be a charged topic, but it's crucial we teach kids the importance of voting and provide opportunities for them to practice being engaged citizens in their communities and in our nation.

LaWanda: Helen, I can't think of a better guest for today's topic, given her extensive experience as a teacher and her role as a government official. We are so honored to welcome Congresswoman Jahana Hayes to the show today. Congresswoman Hayes, is the US Representative for the Fifth Congressional District of Connecticut. When the Congresswoman was elected in 2018, she became the first African American woman to represent Connecticut in Congress. Congresswoman Hayes is dedicated to creating equitable access to quality education, and committed to working in a bipartisan way to bring positive changes to her community.

Prior to serving in the house, she spent 13 years in the classroom teaching high school history, social studies and civics. In 2016, she was named the National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. She's also the mother of four children.

Congresswoman Hayes, thank you so much for joining us and welcome to the show.

Jahana Hayes: Hello, thank you so much for having me today.

LaWanda: So, let's jump right on in and tell us about yourself. How did you get here and what led you to a life of service?

Jahana Hayes: I'm not really sure I know how to answer the question, how I got here. But, I think my life has always been a life of service. I don't think it was something that I was led to. I always wanted to be a teacher and I've spoken very candidly about my path, my journey to education. I was a teenage mom and a high school dropout, but just had this unquenchable thirst for education. Always wanted to go to school. And, I talk often about the investment that members of my community made in me. And, it really just taught me, that it takes a village to educate our children, that we all have to make investments in our community and in the people who make up our community. And, that really is the fabric that was woven into me.

When I became a teacher, the cornerstone of my career, I was a high school history teacher. I taught Civic Education, US history, World History, Comparative Government Geography, and African American history. I kept adding onto the list, but all of those were rooted in this idea of service. Where I taught my students, even if you have been on the receiving end of aid, your entire life, every one of us has the capacity to give. And, that really just became the starting point for 15 years in the classroom. Everything I taught was rooted in service to community in improving the lives of other people in reconnecting our communal morality. And my students thrived.

So it seemed like a natural progression for me, when I went from National Teacher of the Year, having spent a year out of the classroom as an Ambassador for Public Education, I traveled all over the country. I traveled around the world, promoting public education, meeting with various stakeholders at very different groups. And, really just realized that we have to engage at every level and what I was doing in the classroom while I was affecting thousands of young people, I could actually become a part of the policymaking part of education and affect millions of people.

So, I'm not really sure how I got here. You know, I asked myself that every day and I don't, I don't even know if this is the last stop for me. So I mean, the message hasn't changed and the core of it hasn't changed. And that really is, we all have a responsibility to other people in our community.

Helen: Hmm. Congresswoman Hayes, I wanna jump in cause I think as you've just shared, you have really such a unique and important vantage point having been both in the classroom and now in our government. Could you speak a little with sort of both of those lenses, what do you think some of the most important things for kids and teenagers are to know about our government?

Jahana Hayes: Well, I definitely can tell you that everything that I learned in the classroom, everything I learned as a mom, a single mom, and you know, a married two parent professional mom have really informed my decision making. And, I really believe that government as elected official, we have a responsibility to speak for the least of us, you know, to speak up for young people. When you're a teacher in the classroom, you really learn to love other people's children. I had a different level of investment in my students. I wanted to make sure that they were successful, that they had access to every available opportunity that if they wanted to go to college, it was there. That, if they wanted to learn a trade, it was there. And, I don't see my role in government as much different at all.

I think the thing that does need to change and that our young people do need to know is that, I think people conflate government with politics. We live in a country, in a society where we have a system of government that really makes policy that appropriate funds that really is involved in so many aspects of our life, and it only works if we participate. I used to tell my students, democracy is a verb. It's not one of those things that we tap in and tap out of passively. We have to be active and work and I think the beautiful thing about our government is, that we have the ability to change it at any level.

It's not this fixed set of rules and ideas that is inflexible and cannot change. Actually, it's just the opposite. It's meant to change and it can change if people participate and the majority want it to change. We have an opportunity every year with our elections. I mean the most basic way to change government is to vote, to participate in elections. And I think the problem is that people see that as almost a partisan political activity when it really is not, that part of it is just civic engagement. That's something where in my campaign, what I would say to people was, we want to make sure that we provide access and opportunity for every eligible voter to vote.

And then, it's up to the candidates to try to get them to vote, like to get you to vote for me, or to get you to vote for someone else separate and apart from just the exercise of voting. So, I really think that young people need to approach it from that lens. Just they first need to engage and then, and then it's up to the candidates or the different offices or the different issues to try to help them to make a decision on who they're going to vote for or what they're going to support.

But the first step, that very basic idea of engaging in a civic way and voting. I think it's just their responsibility and they should look at that first step as something that everyone should be doing.

LaWanda: Congresswoman, how do you think families can make sure that, that we raise lifelong voters? Like how, how can we help outside of school?

 Jahana Hayes: I think talking about the issues, talking me about the impact that leaders have. I think so many people, and I think this was one of the biggest challenges that I saw as a teacher. So many of my colleagues in the profession said, well, we don't get involved in politics. We teach everyone who comes in our classroom. And I said, yeah, we should teach everyone who comes in our classroom and talking about the issues and talking about our elected officials and leaders is not engaging in politics. But, we all need to understand that these are the people who make decisions that impact our everyday lives. And, not only should we be paying attention, but we should be holding them accountable.

So, I think families even with very young children should be talking about the roles and responsibilities of elected officials. I remember in second grade doing a weekly reader election and really thinking hard about it, who I was going to vote for. I'll never forget this election, my guy lost and I was devastated. But, this idea too many people talk about politics and very taboo terms. And, young people are turned off before they even engage. I probably got more myself in trouble, a few times in class as a high school teacher, encouraging my students, go to the board of education or write a letter to the superintendent and let them know how you feel about dress code or, you know, your athletic program.

Just, really empowering them to know that you don't have to maintain a certain status before you have input or have value in this conversation. And I, you know, I had probably without ever using the word activism, I probably had the most activist group of young people.  I started a club with another teacher at my school. We called it the HOPE club, which stood for Helping Out People Everywhere. And, that club was really born out of this idea that students would come in and complain about things in our community.

They would compare our school to other districts. They would just all kinds of problems. And, my response was always then do something about it. So, through activism started this really intense community service club, but it was just based off of the idea of, you don't get to complain. If you see a problem, then I can help you be a part of the solution or I have to dismiss this conversation. And, my students really became a part of the solution through service. And I think, that's really the way we should approach government when families are talking about things, instead of just dismissing it and say all the things they don't like, they should encourage their young people, if you had the opportunity, what would you do different or, you know, I've had children call my office, write me letters, engage to me, I want you to know this and you represent me. And even though I don't vote, these are things that I need for you to know. And, I think young people at any age should feel empowered to do that, because if they don't have that seed planted, then it'll never grow and they'll go out into the world with no sense of agency over all of these institutions that govern their everyday activities.

Helen: That's really powerful. I appreciate that because I think so many times it's easy to get locked in this, like I wish things were different and not necessarily knowing where to go, to feel like you can change things. So one of the things families can do, and I hear you saying teachers too, is help navigate that frustration into something productive, something that can make a difference. I really appreciate that sentiment.

Jahana Hayes: Just on that same note, before you move on, when we talk about helping to navigate it, that also has to be on the terms of the young people or the people that you're talking to. I think that's another area where we get into trouble, I've seen over the last couple months, just with everything that's been going on, where communities are having rallies or they're having protests or letter writing campaigns or petitions. I think we have to acknowledge and be respectful of the fact that people engage differently. Not everyone is going to want to attend a rally or sign a petition. Or be this active out front vocal participant. Some people, and especially young people, they have such creative minds and creative spirits.

I saw young people at the beginning of this COVID pandemic, where they were writing cards for kids in the hospital or painting rainbows in their driveway and in their mind that was their contribution to this greater conversation. So, we really have to be careful about telling people how to engage or the best way, or only way to engage. What we need to be doing is saying, you know, what are you good at? Or how would you like to add to this conversation and then fostering that development or that idea, because I can tell you a hundred percent what I know for sure about young people, if you try to force them to speak in a language that they don't want to speak in, they're not going to do it.

So instead of saying, you know, you have to go listen to your elected officials or go to a meeting. Some kids might say, I don't want to go to a meeting, but this is what I want to do. And, we really have to figure out a way to turn key, that energy into whatever form of activism they're comfortable with. But, it is to all of our peril to try to force them down one avenue or another. That was something that I had to be intentional about and really a muscle that I had to develop in the classroom., the beauty of it was I had kids in ninth grade and then I had them again in 12th grade.

And, when they were ninth graders, you heard them repeating a lot of the things they heard in their own homes, regurgitating their parents' ideas and telling me where they stood politically. And, by the time they were 12th graders and we were just discussing issues and why this was important to you and inviting their voice, sometimes I would have to remind them of the things they said four years ago. And they would, I absolutely did not say that. So, I started to have them write a letter to their 12th grade selves. And they just saw how much they had evolved and what different things became important to them. So we really have to be careful because young people are inclined to at first soak up all of our ideas and repeat them.

We really have to provide a space and an opportunity for them to develop and evolve into their own ideas, grow into their own young adults. And, that's going to look very different, sometimes in the same household I had parents who said they live in the same house. I feed them the same thing. I don't understand who these kids are. That's okay. That's okay, too.

Helen: I really appreciate, giving them choice and a variety of ways they can engage. I was going to ask you Congresswoman, you talked a little bit about not being afraid of the issues and talking about the issues. I'm wondering if you could share with us a little bit of your perspective on what some of the big issues are in public education, right now. And, what are the things parents should be thinking about and maybe even talking to their kids about when it comes to the state of public education, either in our country or in their own community?

Jahana Hayes: I think the big issue for everyone right now is reopening schools safely that has just sucked all the oxygen out of the room and it's something, it doesn't matter what district you're in, what community, what level you're at that people are thinking about. And even young kids, there's a tremendous amount of anxiety around what this looks like. And, I remind people that the school building is just geography. Learning is going to look different. Even if kids return, it's going to be a different setting if they have plexiglass between them, if they can't have the same social interaction, the same type of engagement. I was a high school teacher and kids would come in every day and hug me or sit next to me at my desk or I never sat I was always walking around.

So, I imagine if I were in the classroom, even after a decade of having almost perfected the skill, I would be forced to relearn how to teach in the setting. So, I think that is something that everyone has to just be honest about. That it's going to look different. It's going to feel different until we get back to some semblance of normalcy. But I think even in a post COVID world, normal will not be what we remember from March of 2020. I think that too many gaps have been revealed in education. We’re hearing a lot of conversation about the digital divide and broadband connectivity. I don't think that anyone will be okay with going back to where we were, knowing that we have so many kids and so many families who don't have digital access.

I think that is going to be a conversation that every school district is going to have to address. And I think as a country, we're going to have to make those investments. Another thing that stands out for me is that in March, when we were initially having discussions about closing schools, the biggest challenge was how will children eat if they are not in school? And, the fact that we couldn't close schools for safety reasons without first putting in place a plan to feed kids who we knew were getting their only hot meal a day while they were at school, just reveals to me a whole lot of other problems. So, I think as we move forward, I think our immediate challenge is to reopen school safely and to make sure that kids feel safe, while they're in school and teachers feel some sense of security, and, are able to with fidelity, tell children that they're going to be safe.

But, just when we take it step back, in a much broader sense we really need to shore up our community programs and invest in trauma-informed care. We have kids who are coming back after probably the most traumatic experience in their lives. How are we meeting them when they return? Like I said, closing the digital divide, food security, just making sure that everyone in this country, no one is worried about food insecurity or running out of food or not having healthy meals as they get farther, you know, towards the end of the month.

And I think it spills over into all these other areas, making sure that parents are supported. So many parents are at home with their children and don't have the ability or the capacity to support them in their academic journey. However, they have medically compromised people at home, so they don't want to send them back to school. I feel like I always talk myself right back to my starting point. It really is going to take a village, you know, and I think that's why I'm so invested in that idea because I have benefited from community services and programs and people in my community who were not a part of my family who saw something in me and helped me to grow and thrive.

And I think, that's exactly where we are now, where every person, every organization in our community is going to have to really ask the question, what is my part of this larger puzzle and how do I contribute? We really have to start thinking about childcare and early childhood education, in this very fragile economy, so many of our essential workers cannot return to work if schools don't open. Or, if they don't have affordable childcare. So, all of these things are problems that we knew existed, and we have been acutely aware of for a very long time. I don't think that we truly appreciated how incredibly fragile our economy and our country was when any part of any one of these things collapses.

So, I think we've been given a charge. We have a responsibility now to when we do a postmortem on this holster situation to say, okay, now what do we need to do to be better? And that's why, when we talk about this crazy journey that I'm on, I don't think it's an accident that right now, I am serving in Congress on the committee of education and labor in what is potentially the most trying and difficult time in our country in education, in what I see as a seismic shift to the way we deliver education.

We really haven't revisited our education systems. We operate in a post-industrial education system, which really has not been modernized in a hundred years. So we are going to be forced to move. And I think that young people, children, their families will all benefit from that. So, I just try to really pinpoint all of the opportunities that have arisen out of this challenging year, because we are positioned to have some really honest dialogue and come up with some real solutions that will benefit all kids from all communities. We always talk about your zip code shouldn't determine how you're educated, but we know every single one of us knows that it does. So, we have some real opportunities to close those gaps.

LaWanda: Yeah, you've really exposed a lot of the challenges that, like you said, we've known about...

Jahana Hayes: I'm sorry, this is kinda my thing.

LaWanda: We're glad that it's your thing.

Jahana Hayes: This is my life's work, not just my adult life, but my entire life, because I just, I believe in education. And, I know that for so many kids, the only people that are talking about school are the people at school. And, we just have a responsibility to make sure that those conversations continue.

Jahana Hayes: You may need a series.

LaWanda: We'll definitely have you back.

[30 second advertisement]

LaWanda: I want to shift gears just a little bit. We mentioned in your bio that you are the first African American woman to represent the state of Connecticut. And so, what type of advice do you have for black girls or other kids from marginalized groups who want to grow up to have a career like yours?

Jahana Hayes: Well, the first thing about that is people are always surprised because they say, you know, but it's Connecticut and my response is always, but it's Connecticut. We get so comfortable in doing what we've always done. So, I was a little taken aback to hear that because I had never thought about it. And now whenever I meet young girls or moms or teachers or people who have never been in public service, who are saying, I'm thinking about it. My response is to just do it.

And, the reason for that is if you're waiting to have seen it done before, that may not happen. And a lot of what I did in my campaign was different. I got a lot of advice and I kept thinking, yeah, but that never worked for me or that never spoke to me, or that's not what we're talking about at my church or in my friend circle. So I was looking to engage new people and invite people in and let them know, no you belong in this conversation as well. I think people are responsive to the things that are personal for them.

So, many of the conversations and the groups that I was engaging were groups that my predecessor, that other members had never even reached out to or thought about, but for no other reason than they had never reached out to them or thought about them, that wasn't a part of their primal circle. And I tell people, just do it. The thing that I love about the house of representatives, there's something incredibly beautiful about it. They call it the people's house for a reason. The only way to be in the house of representatives is to be elected by the people. You cannot be appointed, the governor, can't fill a seat, the president can't assign someone.

[00:26:16] If a seat becomes vacant, there's a special election and immediately the people vote again. So it really is the only legislative body where you have to be elected by the people. And I think because of that, every person in this country should be able to find someone in this house that they identify with. So, whether you are Christian or Muslim or Black or white or Jewish, or if you're LGBTQ, if you are Hispanic, if you are a Native American, every person should be able to say, I know that my voice is a part of this conversation because there is a member just like me in Congress, and that's going to take some work because there are a lot of groups who are still not represented.

I think we need single moms, we have a Congress now that has nurses and teachers and single moms and all of these other voices who were not there before. And, you know, and I know that those are the voices in our communities. So, if they're in our communities, then the body that is making policy that affects those communities should include them voices.

So just like I would tell my students, I still tell young people now, there is a perspective that is missing and I think that only you have that perspective.

Helen: Great, Congresswoman Hayes we want to thank you.

We have so enjoyed this discussion and appreciate you sharing all of your insights with us. We want to give you a last opportunity to give a takeaway to all of our listeners. So, out of everything we've talked about, what is one thing you'd really like families to walk away with from today's episode?

Jahana Hayes: Just that we're all in this together that schools need to work with parents, need to work with communities and support each other, because we all play a very critical role in this and are our children are the ones who benefit from our collaboration, from our coordination, from our involvement. And we really need to just work together because they're scared right now. And, they're relying on the adults in their lives to give them, to give them some consistency, to assure them that things are going to be okay, because this is hard and it's tricky and it's scary. And, if we are feeling all of this anxiety, imagine how children are feeling.

So, it's really going to depend on us just protecting them right now, more than ever.

LaWanda: Right.

Helen: Thank you. And thank you so much for joining us.

Jahana Hayes: Thank you. Thanks for having me, you guys have a wonderful day and I'm sure we'll see each other soon.

LaWanda: Yes, we hope so.

Helen: Congresswoman Hayes, thank you so much for joining us today. We have really enjoyed this discussion and so appreciate you sharing all of your insights with our listeners.

And to our audience listening, thank you for joining us for more resources related to today's episode. Check out notesfromthebackpack.com and we want to say a very special thank you to the Carnegie Corporation of New York for supporting this season of Notes from the Backpack. Thanks for listening!


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.