In defense of government

There was a magical moment the other day when my son smiled up at me with bright eyes, complete trust, and unfettered happiness. I’d do anything and everything to defend that smile.

I am one of the many women who ran for local office in 2018. I ran because I am a mother. The best thing I could do for my children, I knew, to ensure their way of life, their happiness, was to show them that running for office was worth doing and that regular people could do it. Then, hopefully, my children would inhale my exhales about participatory democracy, exemplify those ideals, and pass them on like stories.

I believe in government. As a current member of the Lake County Board and throughout my previous work as an aide in the Minnesota State Senate, one thing has held true—government is full of civil servants. Hired, appointed, or elected, it is dominated by people who want to do the work, even when the circus swirls around them.

The circus does exist, of course. But government is far more defined by people who enjoy connecting dots and solving problems. They coordinate traffic signals to decrease congestion, find ice melt that keeps drivers safe while reducing harm to the environment, and research groundbreaking ways to allow a creek to flow around a beaver dam, preventing flooding of farm fields while letting the beaver colony remain part of the ecosystem. They build trails, coordinate services for abused children, and help those in need find food and shelter. They do this largely out of public view, because so few pay attention.

The Reagan mentality that government is the problem has done as much to damage our democracy as anything. Cynicism, as comic Steven Colbert says, only masquerades as wisdom. But cynicism is powerful—as long as people distrust government, government can get away with anything. The more people look away, the worse it gets, reinforcing their false notions, and the cycle of distrust continues until you have an oligarchy in power, a president who encourages the overthrow of an election, and a political party that lets him.

We currently face blinding truths that showcase our country’s imperfections and there are many, many worthwhile reforms to consider. But government itself is not the problem. Not in America. The problem is that too many people don’t know that.

One of the most important things we can do right now is re-ignite a sense of civic pride. Not easy, flag-pin-wearing pride but pride hard won—off the sidelines and into the fray.

We need to:

1.     Provide robust and participatory civics education at all grade levels that includes internships, city council meetings, town halls, and teachers passionate about the subject. Treat civics as importantly as we do S.T.E.M. Encourage discussion of campaigns and elections in grade school classrooms. Stop writing angry emails to teachers who dare try.

2.     Teach all of our history. We cannot feel pride at having overcome obstacles—we cannot overcome them—if we pretend they don’t exist. Calls for unity above all else exemplify a longstanding and pervasive tradition of moving on instead of understanding. To love America, you have to know America. This will make many people, particularly white people, uncomfortable. We can handle it.

3.     Learn how to talk politics. Stop teaching children that “politics” is a dirty word. Embrace intelligent debate. The exchange of ideas, whether on the Senate floor or at the dinner table, is not rude—it’s how great nations are made and kept.

There is no law of the universe that I will always be able to send my children to public school or speak openly to the newspaper or travel to the west side of town to meet friends for coffee. There is no Fairness Doctrine that says I will always be able to contemplate my son’s smile on a January morning.

These freedoms were planned, fought for, and carried out by people over generations who believed in our American ideals. Maintaining our democratic republic is up to us, eyes wide open—regular people doing for our country, whether by running for office, attending a city council meeting, or simply refuting the claim that government is the problem. Having enough hope to continue on, and enough wisdom to know why.

Wisdom with hope. That is who we can be.

Enriching Our Children

When our kids were around six months old, some of my friends (whom I love and adore, especially if they’re reading this) enrolled their children in swimming lessons. At the time, they were new friends, so I politely declined their suggestion that I join them. But what I was thinking was, “Hell no, I’m not going enroll my child in a class in which I have to get in the water with him. If I enroll my child in anything, it will be so I can leave to go sit and stare into space for awhile.”

Understanding the importance of (eventually) learning how to swim (which a 6-month-old cannot), my husband and I decided that instead of paying someone to watch us play with our child in the pool, we’d simply take him ourselves so he’d get used to the water. And, you know, once in a while we’d give him a bath.

I consider this “Hell no” line of thinking healthy. But it’s hard not to get wrapped up in all the options we parents have for enriching our children. (Raise your hand if you vomit in your mouth when you hear that word.) A couple years after saying no to swimming, I discovered I’d become wrapped up in the options myself.

A local soccer club offered lessons for three-year-olds. Our son was three, he seemed to like to run and kick things, so we enrolled him. He enjoyed it for the most part, so we continued with the program. Our son had just turned four, which meant he was now part of the 4-5 year-old class, which meant they had Saturday games in addition to practice.

I was excited, moved by memories of my own childhood games (never mind that I was 8 or 9 in these memories). But within the first five minutes of the first game, I knew we’d made a mistake. Why? Two things. First, the constant barrage of “encouragements” yelled out across the field by parents made me want to slip away. Since my son is like me, I knew this was going to be no fun for him. Too many adults were taking this way too seriously. While they weren’t negative, who wants to have people constantly—constantly—telling them to “Kick it! Good job! Grab it! There you go! There you go! Alright, now! Great – yes! Get it, get it, get it!!!”

No pressure, kids. Really. It’s all just fun.

Second, within the first five minutes my son discovered that the other team could, and should, steal the ball from him. This was not covered in practice and it did not align with his current values. So he decided to just walk back and forth alongside the action.

The second game he left the field halfway through. The third game, he sat down smack in the center of the soccer field and stayed there.

Why, you ask, did we have him participate in three games when I knew in the first five minutes that it was a mistake? Because I was wrapped up! Wrapped up in all the options! Organized sports provides exercise, lessons in teamwork, confidence. Didn’t you know? Plus, we had to encourage him to stick things out! (Forgetting that he hadn’t asked to participate.)

But my son unwrapped me. He reminded me, sitting out there patiently by himself in the middle of the field, what I already knew: he will do what he wants when he’s ready. He crawled when he was ready. He walked when he was ready. He sat on Santa’s lap when he was ready. He enjoys soccer practice; he will play a game when he’s ready.

And, anyway, did you also know that, “Although there are sports programs designed for preschoolers, it’s not until about age 6 or 7 that most kids develop the appropriate physical skills or the attention span needed to listen to directions and grasp the rules of the game”? (

Just because something good is offered—whether it’s 0% interest or a second donut or a soccer game—does not mean we have to take it.


The inspiration for this post

The inspiration for this post



Stephen is a 16-year-old boy from Nairobi, Kenya. I’ve known him through letters since he was about 12, when my in-laws sponsored his education as a Christmas gift to me and my husband. Both his parents died of AIDS sometime before 2009–he is one of 1,200,000 AIDS orphans in Kenya alone.

Stephen grew up in a slum of Nairobi called Dagoretti. He still lives there when he is not at boarding school. I wanted to find out more about where Stephen is from, so Karen Bohn, a volunteer with Friends of Ngong Road, the organization through which Stephen is sponsored, emailed me a photo:


She wrote:

“Stephen lives in Kawangware, one of the villages in Dagoretti, with his 54-year-old aunt and three cousins.  It sounds as though everyone in the household is healthy, and that Stephen eats three meals a day when he is home, though not always the most balanced diet. The house is neatly arranged but it is noisy because it is near the main road. They buy and use borehole water (an open well), and use a pit latrine, which is available to all the people who live in their compound (small neighborhood within the ‘village’).

“The slum has dirt roads, which you probably saw from the photo turn into muck when it rains. There are better and worse areas of the slum, but as is typical in any slum in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is characterized by no access to water, sanitation, or electricity. That is starting to change, as I have seen more electricity each time I’ve been in Dagoretti, though it is hardly prevalent. There are many small businesses along the main roads, including food vendors, tailors, small ‘manufacturers’, used clothing stores, little convenience stores (and I mean little), etc.  In some places, you’ll detect a noticeable stench. There are animals wandering around everywhere — goats, chickens, dogs — and I can’t imagine how they keep straight whose goat or chicken is whose. In Dagoretti, there are very few vehicles, though many of the roads would accommodate a vehicle — if you could avoid the potholes. I swear some of the potholes could swallow an entire car!”

Dagoretti is where Stephen lives. But it’s not all of him. As Karen says, “His aunt says that Stephen helps out at home and does well at school, and is a hard worker.”

I’ll let him introduce himself. Here’s one of his letters, from this past spring:

Dear Jessica,

            How are you? I hope you are fine. I am very excited because you wrote a letter to me and I received it.

            I did my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education and I attained three-hundred and seventy-five from Jagiet Academy. With those marks, I went to a very good and interesting school called by the name Chinga Boys High School. [Go, Stephen!]

          The school compound is very nice. It is surrounded with flowers all over, including the classes and the office. The food there is well-cooked and it is healthier. Not only that, I also participate in games such as football and athletics. The teachers are teaching well, such that one can understand clearly and easily.

Yours faithful,


Stephen is always very formal, I’m sure because English is his second (or third?) language and he’s naturally polite. (He also might be thinking, What do I say to a woman in Arlington Heights, Illinois?) Now that he’s in high school, my last letter to him had a lot of the questions I’d initially asked him when he was 12. I wanted to know if anything had changed. The remaining constant is football, which he usually mentions at least once. Here’s his latest:

Dear Jessica,

            I hope you are fine. I would like to answer the questions that were in your letter.

            My favorite sport is football. I play it at school when I am free. I like football because it exercises my body and makes my bones strong. My best friend is called Dender.

            My hobby is drawing and taking care of animals. Where I live, I love the environment that surrounds us, also our country since I am proud to be a Kenyan. I live with my aunt, who is caring and hard-working. Her job is selling cosmetics.

            My favorite subject is Physics and Biology. [At Chinga Boys School, a boarding school] we wake up at 5 in the morning and go to class where we have the preps until 6:30. We eat rice and beans and sometimes ugali, which will make us strong.

            When I grow up I would like to be an engineer. I would like to travel outside my country to see what I have never seen.

Yours faithful,


Very least of all, without my in-laws’ generosity and the people of Ngong Road, I would not have the experience of corresponding with a boy a world away. Most of all, without those people, Stephen would not have the opportunities he now does–to learn and, eventually, to see the world.

Should Schools Sugarcoat the Truth?

My neighbors’ son came home from school last week and happily recited the hero-worship of Christopher Columbus he’d been taught that day. They were less than thrilled because they know what most adults know: Columbus committed murder, torture, and rape, and enslaved adults and children. He also apparently combined some of those pursuits into a sex-slave trade. In 1500, he wrote: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.”

Of course, my neighbors also know we can’t teach that to young children. But do we need to teach the opposite? Weren’t the Vikings here before Columbus, anyway? Do we have to be such suckers for the victor’s version of history?

Their story reminded me of an incident that occurred when I worked at the Minnesota Legislature. A very conservative woman had been appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty to head the state’s education department and decide what students should and should not be taught. One contentious issue was her opposition to the notion that the annihilation of Native Americans and their culture in the 19th century was genocide.

On public radio, she said: “I don’t think the accidental infection of some blankets with smallpox could be termed genocide.”

Let’s put aside her total ignorance of facts–okay, let’s not: population decimation, forced assimilation of Native American children taken from their parents and dropped into American schools, reservations, the slaughter of the buffalo… Not to mention the U.S. Army’s purposeful infection of blankets with smallpox—known today as biological terrorism. You don’t need gas chambers and ovens to commit genocide and someone supposedly smart enough to lead an education department should know that. (Perhaps she was the victim of her own sugar-coated education–we tend to tell the truth when others commit atrocities, but not when we do.)

However, she made another point: Even if in some crazy, alternate universe we had committed genocide, she said, children should not be taught that in school.

But we did commit genocide. So the question becomes, do we teach our children the truth or do we lie? Do we rely on fact or do we include fiction?

This dichotomy of American thinking, the ability to acknowledge and accept conflicting ideas, is as old as the country itself: We were founded on groundbreaking principles of personal liberty—plus slavery.

Democracy, plus lack of women’s suffrage.

A nation of just laws, plus Jim Crow.

Go West, Young Man! plus the genocide of the Native Americans.

It’s no wonder our schools teach cognitive dissonance. I felt betrayed when I learned, in college, the truth about so many of our histories. What had my public education been for, simply to memorize euphemisms and half-truths? Isn’t that sort of like brainwashing?

I understand that we need to instill pride in this country, otherwise the country is lost. And America is great. It’s just not perfect.

I believe if we teach children the truth, at age-appropriate levels, then we will raise learners who question. We will nurture critical thinkers who can problem solve to save the world. I believe we can hold and accept two conflicting ideas, as long as it’s acknowledged that they are conflicting. As long as they’re real.

If we teach the bad with the good, we will show children what this nation has overcome and can overcome, which is what truly makes us great.

What do you think? Fact or fiction? Or isn’t it that simple?