Teaching Human History

“In this room, our colleagues across history have abolished slavery; granted women the right to vote; established Social Security and Medicare; offered a hand to the weak, care to the sick, education to the young, and hope to the many, doing ‘the People’s work.’”     

 Nancy Pelosi, this week          

The idea that history is written by the victors is—like most cliches’—an inadequate framework for learning about the powerful forces that have shaped our world. I say this as an American baby boomer, born when the future of the United States seemed limitless, and its citizens were justifiably proud of having saved the world from evil. The history I was taught, in the 1950s-60s, was full of stories about our scrappy upstart nation that freed itself from British colonialism, survived a civil war—then made the world safe for democracy.

When I was in my 20s, I spent a summer backpacking in Europe. I stayed in cheap hostels and went where the Eurail pass would take me. At the very end of the trip, the day before flying home out of Munich, I went to the concentration camp in Dachau.

It was a gray and rainy day, and I had the place nearly to myself. Dachau had been open to tourists for 10 years, but—some 30 years after the camp was liberated—there weren’t many exhibits and no docents, then. That’s not to say that the place felt empty. Far from it.

I’ve been in some historic places in my lifetime, but nothing like Dachau.

The first thing people notice is how the village, with its flower boxes and tidy homes and beautiful church, sits next to the main camp. I remember it as an easy walk from the train station, through a lovely old German town, which encompassed tens of thousands of German citizens in the 1930s and 40s, most of whom claimed they had no idea what was going on behind camp walls. Of course, those people assumed they would be the victors, and get to tell the story of their glorious conquest.

The camp—in 1977—was mostly just cleared space, its buildings torn down. There was a bunkhouse or two, and a horrific crematorium to see, some photos on display. But the power of being there was in the voices.

I sat on a bench, under my umbrella, for a long time, listening to and sensing what had happened, around me and under my feet. I can’t explain it any better than that. Whatever evil happened there was not erased, not by a long chalk.

Clint Smith, who wrote the powerful How the Word is Passed: A reckoning with the history of slavery across America, had a wonderful piece in the Atlantic this week, about Holocaust remembrance.  Smith begins by noting that Germany has a global reputation for handling their past with honesty and reparation. I’ve written about this myselfwanting to believe that nations can be redeemed, can be humbled, admitting guilt and teaching their children to do better.

Smith’s piece mentions stumbling stones or solpersteine—small brass plates in the sidewalks of places where Jews once lived or were assembled and sent to their deaths. There are more than 90,000 of these now, in 30 European countries. Schoolchildren raise money to plant more of them.

I was in Germany last month, and our walking tour docents frequently pointed these out. Americans whipped out their phones and took photos. I did not hear voices, but seeing them was sobering. In fact, Smith says that not everyone thinks putting brass plates in places where people can walk on them is the right thing to memorialize the loss of six million people. But, at least, the Germany citizenry is wrestling with the questions around its own guilt. Smith:

In recent years, Americans have seen a shift in our understanding of the country’s history; many now acknowledge the shameful episodes of our past alongside all that there is to be proud of. But reactionary forces today are working with ever-greater fervor to prevent such an honest accounting from taking place. State legislatures across the country are attempting to prevent schools from teaching the very history that explains why our country looks the way it does. School boards are banning books that provide historical perspectives students might not otherwise encounter.

There was, IMHO, way too much celebrating last week over anti-teacher, anti-‘CRT’ school board candidate slates NOT sweeping into power. Data on this, however, is a little murky:  

Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks U.S. politics, has so far counted 237 school board winners who took a stance on hot-button topics, including race and gender. Of those, 55 percent took the conservative side on at least one issue, compared with 43 percent who took liberal stands (the remainder had mixed positions).

Hardly a resounding victory, and the thing about school boards is that they’re the first access point for anyone with a political beef (real or imagined). You don’t even have to have children in that school, or live in the district.

There’s dark money behind school board races and vocal protests these days—and the reprehensible folks and thinking at Hillsdale College haven’t gone away. There’s also the Heritage Foundation and its faux education ‘research.’ The state of Virginia just removed Martin Luther King, Jr. from the elementary social studies standards.  

I’m happy that the nation seems to want to pull back from the political abyss—thrilled, in fact—but there’s a reason why lots of school boards, if not a majority, turned over last week, and the impact is just being felt. These are the people who do not believe we need redemption, to admit guilt and teach our children to do better. These are people who—as my friend and new State Board of Education member Mitch Robinson says—find the made-up problems in education more useful than the solutions.

There is no more important study than our own history. Nancy Pelosi illustrated that beautifully in her graceful step-down speech, as first female Speaker of the House this week. If we can’t learn from our own accomplishments and failures, we’re doomed.

Church and State

I have been a churchgoer much of my life.

Initially, my parents went to church, so I went with them. Aside from ditching Sunday School with my friend Sue in high school, I never really rebelled against their conservative religious training.

Then I went to college.

I experimented with other faiths—occasionally—on campus, but spent most Sunday mornings sleeping in, procrastinating and regretting my life choices. There followed a long stretch of life where church was not on my to-do list. Then I had kids.

It seemed important to give them some experience with religion. We fumbled around, rejecting churches that embraced the death penalty or excoriated abortion. One church— a campus-based Catholic congregation—refused to baptize our first-born because both of us had been divorced. We settled on a liberal congregation where our kids were part of services and programs. Eventually, I became the music director there.

Since then, I have worked for seven different congregations, my side-hustle of choice. For me, church is not about being saved, whatever that means, or being told what behaviors and beliefs are good or bad.

It’s about finding an inclusive community whose core mission is doing good. And it’s about the music.

There aren’t many places, anymore, where group singing is a regular occurrence. I’m a dedicated, lifelong musician, and much of the world’s musical literature has sacred roots. The central purpose of music is to illustrate powerful ideas, to release emotion, to spark joy. If you’re not getting live, participatory music in church, where can you get it?

I share these personal details, because I am worried about the separation of church and state—and I want to establish myself as a person who is not anti-church or anti-Christian theology (another thing I’ve seen a lot on social media).

I strongly endorse every person’s right to choose and practice any faith tradition or reject the idea of a higher power entirely. Up to you. But please—keep your religion out of government, be that the public school, the statehouse or the county commission. Or the midterm elections.

I’m well aware that mainline Protestant denominations in America are fading. Evangelicals are in decline, too, although not as fast. Roman Catholics aren’t doing much better. Modern first world nations –the places where people have universal health care, free post-secondary education and report the highest levels of happiness—are largely secular. Islam is by far the fastest-growing religion in the world, but the right doesn’t seem to acknowledge that.

So why did the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy—the Bremerton, Washington HS football coach who prayed with his team at midfield—spur another round of educators feeling as if Christian prayer in schools is somehow the answer to our national problems?

I’m also a veteran teacher, one who has wrestled with church v. state issues in my overwhelmingly Christian school district, mostly around Christmas music. I understand the difference between cultural expressions (OK) and proselytizing (not OK).

I used to share my classroom and office with a Catholic congregation that was building a church and paying to use our cafetorium, attached to the band room, for services. Father Dave kept his cassocks and vestments in my office closet, because he often went for a run before mass.

We all got along. But our functions, while in the same physical space, were distinctly different.

What music is OK in schools is a perennial, often heated, topic in social media groups for music teachers. The Kennedy decision isn’t going to help, or clarify. It seems to suggest that Coach Kennedy’s personal beliefs and freedom of religion—expressed by praying ostentatiously on the 50-yard line—did not impact his influence (this is where the proselytizing comes in) on his football players.

Baloney.

I was not a coach, but if I had ever talked to my students in December about a baby born in a manger, sent by God to save the world, I would have to believe that some of them, especially the youngest, would have thought I was telling them something important and real—something that might be On The Test. Unethical, to say the least.

Similarly, I am troubled by Republicans on our County Commission who, in May of 2021, passed a policy on partisan lines, to open Commission meetings with prayer. A flurry of rules, sub-rules and adjustments followed: Only official clergy could pray. From recognized religions. That had real churches. In Leelanau County (meaning that the closest synagogue, across the county line, could not send a representative).  

Eventually, after lots of letters and right-wing media attention, the Commission revisited their vote, and settled on a moment of silence. But it took nine months and diverted attention from their real work.

Which raises the question: Whose idea was inserting formal, clergy-led prayer into prosaic local government meetings?

The biggest church in my district makes subtle suggestions about how folks should vote—I read a column on the church’s website this summer, re: which party reflects this particular church’s values, urging congregants to choose that party in the upcoming primaries. I went back to find the piece and insert a link into this blog, but it was no longer there.

Probably because it’s illegal for churches, as tax-exempt organizations, to tell their members how to vote.

Separation of church and state. It’s a good thing.

Election Denial Blah-blah Goes to Local Schoolteachers

Two years ago, at this time, there was a national conversation speculating about what would happen if Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. Barton Gellman, in a much-discussed piece in Atlantic Magazine, posed several scenarios of what might occur if Trump refused to concede.

Gellman was more than prescient, but it all seemed faintly ridiculous at the time. The article quotes Joe Biden, who suggests that Trump might be briskly escorted from the White House if he was refusing to leave, providing us with a mental picture of two big dudes in dark suits and earpieces, frog-marching Trump out of front portico. Bye-bye.

The reality, of course, has become so, so much worse. And it’s still with us. Growing, even.

A majority of Republican nominees on the ballot this November for the House, Senate and key statewide offices — 291 in all — have denied or questionedthe outcome of the last presidential election, according to a Washington Post analysis. Although some are running in heavily Democratic areas and are expected to lose, most of the election deniers nominated are likely to win: Of the nearly 300 on the ballot, 171 are running for safely Republican seats. Another 48 will appear on the ballot in tightly contested races.

There’s been a steady drumbeat of concern—the collapse of our faith in free and fair elections means the collapse of American democracy. This election could go horribly wrong.

But—like Gellman’s and others’ warnings in 2020, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that one party would blithely destroy 250 years of confidence in voting as the democratic means to access political power.

Republican candidates are talking about overturning an election held nearly two years ago that every audit has concluded was fair, transparent and free of systemic fraud. These conclusions include a Michigan Senate Republican report and an analysis by conservative Republican legal experts.

As a Democratic candidate for local office—the County Commission—it’s disconcerting to see that election denial has filtered down to local politics. Several statewide and congressional candidates are deniers or skeptics, but suggesting that local elections were deliberately corrupted is a new wrinkle.

For the past few months, the County Commission has been hearing from local election deniers during public commentary. It’s a lot of the same people, showing up again and again, repeating stuff they found ‘doing their own research.’ And now, they’re organizing—meeting with the sheriff, calling themselves ‘Patriots.’

Even worse—one of their ringleaders emailed 251 County employees and 336 educators with the following message:

Hi to 336 Leelanau County Educators:

 I’m forwarding this message to you that I sent to the Leelanau County Commissioners on October 4, 2022.  I got all of your email addresses as directed from the Leelanau County Government website. I have been attending all the Leelanau County Board Meetings since March, and have given the Commissioners [plus all other listed government leaders (262 total)] 13 Flyers showing the massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, which you can read on my [ ] website.  I know that you all are very concerned about protecting children.  With that in mind, Founding Father Thomas Paine said: “To take away (voting) is to reduce a man to slavery.”  I’m also concerned about adults marketing the false foundation ‘LGBTQIA+’ to children.

There was lots more, including crazypants attachments, but you get the picture: Election denier (and gay-basher) gets access to all public employees to spew baloney.

It’s one thing for the County Commission to patiently listen to yet another election denier direct them to a random website or to consider the Sheriff’s role in secure elections. It’s another for a local crank to disrupt the work of teaching children about civic values and their personal worth.

Really—teaching is hard enough without having to be harassed by election deniers.

Deniers locally seem to be fixated on Dominion machines, and the need for hand counting paper ballots. The county already uses paper ballots, which are always available for hand counting. Our voting jurisdictions are small—a couple thousand voters, at most. Any race can be (and often is) re-counted by hand. As a candidate who won by a single vote in the primary, I’m all for ‘trust but verify’ in local elections.

And plaudits to Dominion for fighting back:

Dominion’s $1.3 billion lawsuit against Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, who was a leading figure in pushing the lies that the voting machines were rigged, is also moving forward, although in March she asked a federal judge to dismiss the case against her, saying that “no reasonable person would conclude that [her] statements were truly statements of fact.” On September 28, a federal judge dismissed her countersuit, in which Powell claimed Dominion was suing her “to punish and make an example of her.”

You can’t vandalize fairly run, democratic elections without damaging communities.

A significant majority of Americans see Trump and the MAGA movement as a threat to democracy. Those folks need to act in November.

Vote.

What Parents Really Want from Schools

Remember Peter Meijer (pronounced MY-er, national news jockeys)?
He was the freshman Congressman from Western Michigan with the golden name and the conscience—the one who voted to impeach Trump, post-January 6, as a freshman in the House of Representatives. I say he was a congressman, because he was primaried in August.

The guy who’s running on the Republican ticket in Meijer’s former western Michigan district, John Gibbs, recently said this:

Folks, did you ever think that one day in America, we’d have to worry about schools putting obscene books in their libraries? This is simply insane–we must stop the madness. Voters overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in public school libraries.

Well—folks. I’m not worried about obscene or sexually explicit books in public school libraries. Because there is no madness, no insanity, no pornography in school libraries.

Teachers and school leaders also overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in school libraries. The word we use is ‘inappropriate’—materials are selected by trained school media specialists, who know inappropriate when they see it.

The entire slate of MI Republicans running for statewide or national office, not just Gibbs, is hell-bent on insisting that schools have become (in the past two years) hotbeds of sexual orientation and gender identity transformation, not to mention racial tension and guilt-inducement. They are led in this effort by the Republican candidate for Governor, Tudor Dixon.  

What Tudor wants to accomplish is very simple and common sense. She wants to get radical sex and gender theory out of our schools, remove classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity for grades K-3, make sure gender specific sports remain gender specific given biological differences in boys vs. girls and post all curriculum online for parents to see and be involved in their child’s education. Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it.

So let’s break this down.

Radical sex and gender theory? (Not a part of the curriculum in any school I’ve been in.)

Classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for the littles? (Likewise—nope, nope.)

Gender specific sports? (The Michigan High School Athletic Association has a policy adopted in 2012 that determines post-season tournament eligibility for transgender athletes on a case-by-case basis. The group received and approved 10 applications in the past five years—so this is hardly a burning statewide issue.)

Post all curriculum online? (Sure. Most districts post their standards framework—what gets taught, when– and public high schools in Michigan have adapted the Michigan Merit Curriculum.)

Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it. (Right out of the Glenn Youngkin playbook, a statement like this, which is mostly true, really resonates.)

But here’s the truth (from 32 years of classroom experience): What bubbles up in classroom discussions and playgrounds is what’s on the minds of the kids in that classroom. This starts early, in Tudor Dixon’s forbidden zone, grades K-3—like this story about the boy who chose a ‘Frozen’ backpack.

Kids are curious and they’re paying attention to what their parents and their screens (and their friends, and their older siblings) are telling them. I taught music and math, two subjects you’d think were pretty straightforward and controversy-free, but can testify that anytime you get a cluster of kids together, provocative issues emerge.

When politicians say ‘post curriculum online’ and ‘parents should be in charge’ they’re missing the reality of classroom instruction: It’s universally messy and unpredictable, even when it’s highly effective and led by expert teachers. You just don’t know what ideas kids will bring to the classroom.

I think what Dixon wants is to catch teachers talking about Forbidden Subjects raised by students, encouraging parents to be alarmed and dissatisfied. Her campaign is unable to flesh out her policies, however—this article is well worth the read, for examples.

Parents absolutely have the right to have input into their child’s public education—but not the education of all children in that school. As a music teacher, parent control over curriculum is particularly challenging during the December holidays. But all teachers, school leaders and school board members have dealt with decision-making around curriculum, instruction and assessment. It’s our job.

To suggest that parents are shut out, or have no say, is just not true. To construct legislation designed to thwart ‘forbidden’ subjects and practices is 100% political, and often funded by outsider groups. Because the reality, in poll after poll after poll, is that public school parents are generally satisfied with their children’s schools.

Personally, I have observed parents protest any number of school policies at local school board meetings. Perennially dicey topics? Sex education. ‘New’ math (defined, roughly, as a math program that parents find different from the math program they had in school). Pay-to-play sports (anything about sports will draw a crowd, actually). Your district may vary.

So what do parents really want? Here’s my unscientific, no-data-just-observation take: 

  • A basic education—reading, writing, math, science, civics—that pushes children to learn essential skills for living and working in a democracy.
  • Teachers and school employees who understand and care about their child.
  • Childcare—a nurturing place for their kids to be while parents have other responsibilities.
  • A decrease in the emphasis on data and competition engendered by annual standardized testing.
  • Safety—healthy practices, secure premises.
  • A measure of happiness—all parents want their kids to be happy, and all of them have to learn that happiness cannot be mandated or arranged by schools, although classroom practices can help.
  • Programming that addresses their child’s unique needs—take your pick: Art, physical education, a library, music, learning about technology, extra-curriculars like sports, drama, leadership opportunities, and so on.
  • Friends.

Peter Meijer (whose name is universally known across Michigan) used a different spelling of his name while in high school to protect his identity.  I am guessing his parents, who could afford any kind of education, wanted the same things for him—a good education, a measure of happiness, programming that helped him realize his goals and dreams. Friends.

Watch out for craven candidates who want to trash public education. They’re not ‘concerned’ or ‘for Liberty’—they’re vandals.

Leelanau Needs to Get Out Ahead of Change

We all love Leelanau’s rural beauty—this is absolutely a ‘common ground’ issue for everyone, Republican or Democrat, who lives here. It’s nice to think that Leelanau could forever be pristine—sparkling lakes, rolling orchards, charming villages. We live in a very desirable place.

But change is coming—as it comes to every community. The trick is anticipating and preparing for that change. When one segment of the County Commission (including my opponent in the District Seven race) decides not to set goals for the upcoming year, they are abdicating the Commission’s responsibility to its constituents.

The Commission’s job is anticipating—or recognizing—challenges and addressing them.

Is this process always smooth and effective? Of course not. But it’s why you’re elected: to identify and serve the needs of your district, and your county.

Because those immediate needs—and the ones we can foresee on the horizon—are very real: Climate change and its impact on agriculture. An array of proposed recreation sites on our lakes, as legacy property owners sell to developers. Eurasian watermilfoil in our largest lake (and the county’s economic engine). A severe shortage of affordable housing (owned and rented), while 40% of the available housing is unoccupied, year-round. A potential uptick in tourism as cruise ships dock in West Bay—and perhaps rail-based tourism as well. The list is long.

And–not all change can be predicted. The pandemic, for example, which served as a divisive and politicized point of contention for countless local government officials, precisely at the time when we were called upon to act in community.

In 2020, a Leelanau County Road Commissioner made national headlines by spewing racist language and thoughts in a public meeting. It was another opportunity to act in community, addressing latent racism in a county where most of the land was deeded, in 1855, to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa, and strongly repudiating the Road Commissioner’s thoughts.  Some commissioners wanted to sweep the national embarrassment under the rug, however.

When we first moved to Leelanau County in 2010, my husband and I were both running businesses from home—he had a law practice, and I had a small business providing professional development webinars for teachers. And what we considered adequate internet capacity—we had cable internet prior to moving here—was unavailable. I was curious about why—Leelanau County is rural and rolling, and I understand that poses challenges to providers, but the county is also relatively well-off. Why weren’t providers eager to tap into this market?

Tracking the County Commission’s actions on securing broadband is how I got interested in Leelanau County politics. I heard commissioners describe broadband as a luxury, and the extension of internet services as spoiling our rural character. The Grand Traverse Band has been a willing partner in broadband development for years, but the Commission did not seem interested in working with them.

It took a pandemic and an infusion of federal money to get the Commission off square one, but they have now achieved a momentous first step of mapping internet availability across the entire county, uncovering the fact that 22% of the county had zero access to broadband. Think about how that impacted student learning during the pandemic—and how many clean, small businesses that could support a local tax base were turned away by lack of what is now considered a necessary utility.

There is no better local example of getting out ahead of change than what happened when Dollar General purchased property and applied to build a store in downtown Maple City, declaring that Maple City was a food desert, and the opportunity to buy cheap imported junk and off-brand canned goods would benefit its citizens.

Those citizens got wind of the plan and showed up in huge numbers at township meetings to protest. Dollar General withdrew the request—and there are presently two partially completed duplex homes (something we DO need) on the site. 

The irony is that Maple City is decidedly rural—there are fruit stands and community-supported agricultural (CSA) businesses everywhere in the area. Could the town use a small, pick-up grocery? Perhaps. But Maple City and hundreds of other modest small towns are now vulnerable to big corporations, with their eyes on the bottom line, rural character be damned.

The changes coming—inexorably—to northwestern Michigan are even larger than the ones we’ve been dealing with, like getting a septic ordinance in place, or resisting unnecessary gravel pits.  Climate migration is a real thing, and a beautiful, lightly developed area with ample water and a four-seasons climate is like a magnet for wealthy national and international investors.

Again—the County Commission is elected to identify and serve the needs of Leelanau.

Change is coming. Best to get out ahead of it.

This week’s take from the CSA box.

Leelanau Needs Cooperation and Transparency in Government

Every governmental jurisdiction needs cooperation and transparency in the way elected officials and appointed workers run the show. Calling for elected officials to get along, keep their mission uppermost in mind, and not engage in power struggles is hardly novel.

Cooperation and transparency have not always been the core principles guiding the work of the Leelanau County Commission—although the Board has very recently made great strides. They have involved the county in the work of identifying and developing attainable housing, building partnerships with non-profits whose goals align with the Board of Commissioners’. Their research and work are bringing fiber optic cable and towers to underserved areas of the county.

The current Commission just passed—after 30 years of wrangling—a septic ordinance to protect the watershed. They have improved relationships with staff at the Government Center—the folks who give you your marriage license, finalize your adoption and ensure that our local elections are well-run. They have expanded recycling programs and established public comment at the beginning and end of every one of their meetings.

All good.

But ten years of observing the County Commission at work proves that these accomplishments were hard fought, a long time in coming, and by no means guaranteed to remain in the next term.

In the last cycle, the Commission squabbled over wearing masks to meetings early in the pandemic, and tried to roll back spending on Early Childhood programming that was funded by a referendum, claiming that voters made a mistake, and it was their job to override the public’s wishes. They established mandated prayer at their meetings (but only by Christian clergy from this county). In what appears to be a personal vendetta, Republicans on the BOC attempted to wrest control of county finances and human resources away from the Clerk who has competently handled them for decades.

If I could set goals for a strong and productive Leelanau County Commission, the first one would be: Stay in your lane. 

The point of have a bi-partisan County Commission is representing all the citizens—the strong progressives as well as the dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. If democracy works the way it’s supposed to, the folks who have lived and farmed in Leelanau for generations will have their views represented, as will those who moved to paradise more recently, and are excited by its beauty and opportunity.

Leelanau County is home to a National Park as well as the Grand Traverse Band Indian Reservation. It’s a mix of rural, agricultural land and high-end resort towns. All of these varied interests and needs must be acknowledged and addressed by the Board of Commissioners. The BOC does not have time for pursuing individual beefs and enthusiasms.

Recently, the BOC has been forced into defending our competently and fairly run elections. The County Sheriff (who calls himself a ‘Constitutional Sheriff’) organized a group of election skeptics, ironically meeting in the County Building while the Clerk attended a conference on how to run clean elections.

These factors—‘constitutional’ officials, and election deniers trying to gum up civic processes—are popping up everywhere, even after a drama-free primary season. The Leelanau County Commission isn’t the only civic body trying to stay the course during political upheaval.

But stay the course they must.

There is hope. In Centerville Township, a greatly expanded lakeside campground has been proposed—one that would create an RV village larger than any town in the county, with a water park and three pools (not to mention traffic, septic and lake health concerns). Over 200 people showed up for the first explanation of the proposal, crowding into a vintage building with no air conditioning or restrooms.

They were residents from all over the county, demonstrating that people are paying attention. Speakers were well-prepared and polite. There was bipartisan cooperation and transparency.

It can be done.

Leelanau Needs to Address ‘Poverty in Paradise’

On a cold Sunday in January, a few years ago, Trinity Church in Northport hosted a Sunday afternoon panel discussion on ‘Poverty in Paradise’—hoping to start an ongoing conversation on how Christians could serve their neighbors who weren’t thriving. We set up chairs for 25, but more than 100 people came, standing against the wall, listening to the social workers, educators, local politicians and Tribal leaders talk about the hidden poverty in a county that presents as a natural paradise. 

It was one of the more heartening public meetings I’ve attended—great questions, viable proposals for helping Leelanau residents of all ages, connecting citizens who see it as their duty to help. One man, who owns a successful local business, said he could double his workforce—they had the orders and facilities, he paid well and offered a solid benefit package–if only these new workers didn’t have to drive from Buckley or Kalkaska, where they could afford to live.

Over and over, we heard the refrain: We don’t want Leelanau County to be a necklace of upscale resort towns, spaced along M-22 (the scenic drive that hugs the Lake Michigan and West Bay shoreline). We don’t want the most beautiful natural sites and farmland to be scooped up by international and out-of-state buyers, who see our natural resources as their cash cow.

We want people living here year-round, investing in the county, its residents and businesses. Putting down roots. Sharing in the benefits, building new opportunities. Paying taxes. We want folks with a moderate income: Teachers. Nurses and medical techs. First responders. Construction workers.

At this meeting, there was no dissent around the idea that addressing poverty would be good for everyone—from the million-dollar homeowner to the single mom supporting three kids while working at a nursing home. Businesses need workers (and need to pay them fairly). Schools need students and families. A vibrant service industry is essential, as is a new generation of farmers. When everyone is comfortable and secure, we all benefit.

There are genuinely poor residents here—families and individuals who live below the poverty line. Only about six percent of County residents meet that standard. But 37 percent of county residents are ALICE: asset-limited, income-constrained, employed:

Developed by United Way, ALICE is “a new way of defining and understanding the struggles of households that earn above the federal poverty level, but not enough to afford a bare-bones household budget.” ALICE metrics take into account where families live on a state, county, and township level — and more crucially, what the cost of living is in those areas.

Looking at ALICE numbers tells a different story about Leelanau County…a staggering 43 percent of Leelanau County households cannot afford any unexpected expenses (such as car repairs, health deductibles) or increases in basic expenses (such as food, transportation, childcare, a basic phone plan).

The county government can create or influence policy to provide or incentivize the things that foster equity: Affordable housing. Early childhood programs, healthy public schools and dependable childcare. Reliable public transportation, like convenient BATA buses. Expansion of affordable broadband to every household.

Private and non-profit projects that address housing and food insecurity must be welcomed and nurtured. The Poor Farm Garden, in Kasson Township, raises and distributes hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables, partnering with Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan and 5Loaves2Fish to donate healthy vegetables to food insecure households in northwestern Michigan, on the same soil as the original County Farm, purchased in 1901 by Leelanau County, to provide for the poor.

Here’s a quote from the Leelanau County Historic Preservation Society: Empathy and compassion is baked into this soil and has survived through this partnership. It also reminds us that after all this time we still have people in need…”

At a recent Township Board meeting, after a discussion about a small-scale affordable housing issue, a man in the audience stood up and said “I’m sick of giving people handouts. If they want to live here, they should come up with the money.”

The problem is—our property values (including that gentleman’s property) are rising precipitously. People have been priced out of their own homes, and are unable to fill jobs, raise families and build lives here. And we need those year-round, employed families.

Investment in programming and services is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Leelanau Needs to Protect and Cherish Our Beautiful, Fragile Home

If there were ever a local issue that should be 100% non-partisan, it would be protecting our stunningly beautiful peninsula, its rural and small-town character, and our abundance of natural resources.

Surrounded by Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan, Leelanau County has 100 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, 33 inland lakes and incorporates five islands.  We have the second-highest proportion of water area of any county in the United States, behind only Keweenaw County, Michigan.  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located on the west side of the county, was voted “The Most Beautiful Place in America” by Good Morning America, in 2011.

Water, water everywhere.  Which means keeping our lakes, shorelines and watershed clean and healthy should be Priority One.

Leelanau County is thoroughly rural and agricultural, with a half-dozen charming and unique resort towns running along the outer coastline. Inland lakes and streams are lined with villages, homes, businesses and cottages, many of which were built decades ago and have independent septic systems. It is estimated that 20-40% of those systems are either failing or need attention.

After rejecting a septic inspection ordinance for 30 years, the County Commission recently passed a point-of-sale/transfer septic ordinance—when you’re selling or transferring a property, a septic inspection (and correction, if needed) is now mandated.

My opponent says this is the ‘big arm of government’ coming down on property owners. My take is that such an inspection will not only protect our most precious resource, and economic engine—water—but will protect new buyers from having an unpleasant surprise when their inadequate holding tank or drainage field fails. It’s common sense and a simple first step to protect the watershed.

Recycling is another important factor in keeping Leelanau clean and green. When we moved here in 2010, we were delighted to learn that free recycling bins were available in Cedar, and other locations around the county, funded by a vote made by our fellow citizens. Recycling keeps waste out of the ground and out of the water.

I do understand that recycling centers have sometimes been misused— but recycling (and monitoring recycling centers, or making them more attractive) is something citizens can do, and government can support. It’s a mix of individual responsibility, and good policymaking. It’s one component in protecting the ecosystem we all share.

Another example of individual initiative and policy support is boat-washing, to keep destructive and invasive species out of our lakes. The Lake Leelanau Association and the Grand Traverse Band partnered on this project, to protect lake health and fishing. Plaudits to them—we need more boat washes. County Commissioners should be behind all such plans. That’s what good government is for.

Protecting the natural environment is not a township-by-township or private association issue. Every major change to the landscape impacts interconnected systems: Traffic. The health of our lakes. Farming. Access to recreation, open and wooded spaces. Controlling growth and retaining rural character, while also providing essential housing and services for our citizens and visitors.

When it comes to protecting our land, air and water—we’re all in this together.

Leelanau Needs to Attract and Support Young Families

Shortly after we moved to Leelanau County, results from the 2010 Census were released. On the front page of the local weekly, The Leelanau Enterprise, we learned just how OLD the residents of Leelanau were. Some townships—studded with expensive lakeside homes—had an average age over 60.  We were a county of retirees. And the situation hadn’t improved with 2020 Census data:

In some U.S. counties, the median age is far higher than the national median. According to data from the Census Bureau, in Leelanau County, Michigan, the median age is 54.6 – about 16 years higher than the national median. A reported 30.9% of local residents are 65 and older, while only 16.9% are 18 and under. For context, 15.9% of the U.S. population are 65 or older and 24.1% are 18 and under.

Residents of Leelanau County also appear to be less likely than a typical American to be starting or raising a family. The share of area households that are home to children under the age of 18 is just 19.7%, well below the 30.7% comparable nationwide share.

There are more than 3100 counties in the United States. Six of the top 50 ‘old’ counties in the nation are here in northern Michigan.

This is not healthy, and must be addressed, for a number of reasons:

  • There are four public school districts in Leelanau County, and a great deal of loyalty for the custom-tailored (and free) education they provide. But if there aren’t enough students to guarantee right-sized classes over time, operations are not efficient. Student numbers need to increase or remain stable for families to enjoy the benefits of neighborhood schools—qualified staffing, desirable programming and the building of school communities.
  • The local workforce needs workers who live reasonably near their place of employment. Without a thriving local economy and enough on-site workers, restaurants, small businesses and medical facilities are forced to cut hours and services. Agricultural businesses—utilizing Leelanau County’s unique landscape features—depend on both seasonal and year-round employees as well. The workforce cannot be priced out of decent homes in Leelanau County.

We need young families! And we need to support them (and in doing so, support the older citizens who are drawn to Leelanau County). How do we do this?

The good news is that we have lots of civic-minded problem-solvers in Leelanau County. With the support of the County Commission and local government, and adequate resources, we can make Leelanau County a welcoming place for young families. 

The Politics of the Polka Fest Parade

I live in a wonderful small town in the ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten. Cedar sits squarely in the center of the Leelanau peninsula, settled a century and a half ago by Polish farmers, whose names are sprinkled across the landscape on businesses, farms and roads. Holy Rosary Catholic Church, established in 1883, is the conservative spiritual home to many of the residents.

In many ways, Leelanau County—a spectacularly beautiful place, surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and marked by blooming orchards, massive sand dunes and rolling, wooded terrain—is a microcosm of American politics. A half-dozen charming resort towns, multi-million dollar lakeside homes, and more modest interior villages where family roots go deep. All of it built on land that was mostly ceded to the Tribes, in 1855, then promptly platted up and sold to white immigrants anyway.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians are still based here, and we’re home to a National Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes, dubbed The Most Beautiful Place in America.It’s a fantastic place to live—good schools, clean air and water, friendly people. Lots of snow.

But things are changing.

The population is growing older and richer and whiter, around the edges of the county, as wealthy folks from around the globe, looking to escape the ravages of climate change, snap up properties. We need another 600 affordable homes, both rented and owned, to support a plethora of service workers and young families who would like to share the beauty and opportunity. Internet services have been decades behind the rest of the world (although the current County Commission has recently made great strides). And keeping our lakes and shorelines clean should be Job #1—they are the lifeblood of the local economy.

If this is starting to sound like a political ad, that may be because I just got through a primary election, running for County Commissioner in my (mostly rural, heart-of-the-peninsula) district. I love it here, and think we could do a much better job of protecting our assets, bringing in young families, and building community.

I have loved living in Cedar since the first summer we moved here, and learned that the Big Deal Event in Cedar was the annual Polka Festival. We went our first Polkafest parade in 2011—and found it heartwarming. Vintage farm trucks, a dancing pierogi, accordion players on flatbeds and a group of friendly folks in the 60-ish demographic, carrying Vote Blue! signs.

Aha, I thought. Those are my people.

And it turned out that they were. I have been in the parade multiple times since, in election years, marching with Democratic candidates and stalwarts. Singin’ songs and carryin’ signs. The other side was there, too—we’d wave, and they’d wave back. It’s a friendly local parade, and we’re all neighbors.

There was no Polka Festival in 2020—postponed into oblivion, like so many things– and we missed it. There’s round-the-clock dancing in a big white tent, authentic Polish food in Styrofoam containers and a mass in Polish, at Holy Rosary. Not so much fun with a dangerous virus circulating.

Last year, with the Polkafest on again, the local Dems applied to send a marching unit, and were told that the Polkafest Parade was now apolitical—no campaigning, no partisanship. Just a community event.

The previous presidential election and the Big Lie made it a year like no other, of course, and the new rules made sense to me. With so many community traditions, 2021 was supposed to be a return to normal. A chance to have fun together. Let’s leave politics out of it. I was OK with that.

Except that the current County Commissioner (who’s held the seat almost 26 years, and will be my opponent, come November 8) was in the 2021 parade, riding an old red farm tractor with signs wired to its sides, suggesting we re-elect her. She was throwing out candy, too.

The Dems called the parade organizers, afterward, and asked what happened to the apolitical parade. We were told that the rules now stated that elected politicians were allowed, but by invitation only.

The day after last week’s Primary, I applied to field a polka band for the 2022 parade. I play in a number of local musical groups, including a community band, and knew I could assemble a handful of good musicians and Roll Out the Barrel.

I’d put an “Elect Nancy Flanagan” sign on the side of the truck. It wasn’t an original idea—I was in a small, truck-bed band in the nearby Leland Fourth of July parade, with political signs for a different candidate, and it was really fun.

The rejection came back immediately. No political units, except for (and the organizer made this sentence outsized and bold) “seated official representatives elected by the people, by invitation only”.

There was some back and forth—Did she want a list of seated, duly elected Democrats to invite? No—but in the end the polka band folks I’d recruited, after tossing around the idea of calling ourselves the ‘Step to the Left Polka Band,’ decided to opt out rather than go incognito or risk a public kerfuffle.

Yup. I realize it’s a pretty small slight, an early lesson in politics. Organizers can invite the side they want to be at their event, and turn the other folks away. Those with power win, those without lose. It’s how the game is played. Especially in 2022.

Yet I imagine newcomers to Leelanau County watching the parade, seeing 26-year County Commissioner riding on her tractor, thinking: Why didn’t the Democrats choose to be in this parade? Where is that woman who’s running against her?  

Or maybe they’ll be too busy looking for the dancing pierogi.