A Letter to Oklahoma

It’s mid-April, 2018, and while the rest of the country falls apart, I can’t keep my eyes off my home state of Oklahoma, where some of it’s poorest residents are fighting their hearts out for it’s most vulnerable, and it’s a fight that none of us can afford to lose.

I grew up in Oklahoma. It's always been a weird state, as far back as I can remember, and Oklahoma pride is something that's always been a mix of genuine love for the prairies and the people that live in them, and a kind of ironic detachment from just how far behind the rest of the country Oklahoma has always been. It's the original hipster state; self-aware of it's enormous shortcomings, and proud of itself, nonetheless. It's as Arkansas as it is New York, as Alabama as it is Los Angeles, and as Dallas as it is Austin. I've loved and hated Oklahoma as much as I've loved and hated myself for my entire life, but I've rarely lived anywhere as richly diverse as Oklahoma is, and always has been. I wouldn't trade my upbringing in Oklahoma for anything in the world, because as far removed from the world as it can feel when you're growing up there, it prepared me for the world better than any of the more - and often less -  cosmopolitan cities that I've lived in or visited since I left it permanently, over a decade ago.  

Right now, at this moment, Oklahoma is the battleground for a proxy fight that the entire country is facing. What are our teachers worth? What is education worth? What is the future worth? West Virginian teachers threw the first punch in this fight, but Oklahoma teachers are going to be the ones who finish it. West Virginian teachers at least have a population that has a history of supporting strikers. Oklahoma does not, and, it's depressingly representative of the rest of the country, in that regard, but Oklahoma's teachers have already demonstrated tremendous bravery and resilience, in the face of a well-funded, organized, and determined opposition. Oklahoma is going to the battleground that defines this fight for the rest of the country. Teachers should not have to be this brave, but, as the best of them always do, they lead by example. 

To be clear - it's not that Oklahoma doesn't have a history of solidarity. Oklahoma had unions before Oklahoma even existed as a state. Tribal groups allied with trade unions in Oklahoma's major cities well before statehood in 1907, and Oklahoma has a long, long history of tradespersons driving the economy. Oklahoma has a working-class backbone that runs from one corner of the state to the other, and as deep as the oil wells that dot the landscape. Coal miners called Oklahoma home, as did the original Rednecks, as did the ranchers and cowboys and cowgirls and farmhands and waiters and waitresses that served them. Oklahoma's never been at the forefront of the movement - in 1939, Oklahoma ranked 22nd in population but 31st in Union membership - but it wasn't the backwater that it's always been portrayed as. It's also never been a progressive state; historically, it's been moderately conservative, but it's a state that alternated political parties in the Governor's office through the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's. I grew up with a solidly Democratic Governor who was respected by both Republicans and Democrats alike, and he followed a Republican Governor who commanded the same kind of respect. Partisans from both the left and the right will tell you that it's always been one way or the other, but genuine Oklahomans ought to, and usually do, know better. 

Oklahoma finds itself, now, at the vanguard of a national crossing point, and one that I'm sure it'd rather not be featured in the limelight. As of today, April 11th, teachers have won the demands for a meager increase in pay. They demand more, but not for themselves. They demand an increase in school funding, which has been considerably more controversial in the Oklahoma state legislature than meager pay increases that bring Oklahoma teachers to the top of the bottom 20% of teachers in the country. They demand that they not be the token beneficiaries of a public relations capitulation, but a force for change in how Oklahoma treats it's own students and children. Because Oklahoma's teachers cannot legally strike, official demands cannot be made, but OEA (Oklahoma's teacher union) has offered up a compromise proposal demanding $50M in funding over and above what Oklahoma's legislature has already agreed to, which is considerably less than the $97M that more radical factions initially demanded. 

But there’s no denying that the energy industry has profited from Oklahoma, greatly. A hotel tax of $5/night to supplement educational funding was vetoed by the state’s governor, Mary Fallin.

Oklahoma has a long and sordid history with the energy industry, and there are few states who have been as captive to the industry's rise and fall as Oklahoma has. It is, and has been, for as long as I remember, an oil and gas state. My father's own career rose and fell with the industry's own turbulence, and, as a family, we rose and fell with it. The 1970s and 1980s brought hard times to Oklahoma; fracking and the 2000s brought prosperity to some pretty desolate corners of it. But there's no denying that the energy industry has profited from Oklahoma, greatly.

A hotel tax of $5/night (which any business traveler would tell you is effectively nothing) to supplement educational funding was vetoed by the state's governor, Mary Fallin. As the strike continues, the Oklahoma legislature is, increasingly, assured that they will win this fight in the long run, and increasingly - and vocally - hostile towards the very teachers who are responsible for the education of their own sons and daughters, the sons and daughters of the state of Oklahoma. The men and women responsible for providing this education, and the boys and girls (and in-betweens) who receive it are, collectively, Oklahoma's future and most important natural resource, and Oklahoma's elected representatives want to haggle over the price and, more importantly, the value, of that resource. 

All of this is beyond the scope of what a single blog post, written by a far-off, former Oklahoman can correct. I can't convince the Oklahoma legislature to recognize that it's children are the state's future; I don't live in Oklahoma anymore. I can't contact a Representative, because I don't have one in the state anymore, and I haven't for some time. I'm not sure I ever will again. 

But I care about Oklahoma. I care about my niece’s education.

But I care about Oklahoma. I care about my niece's education. She's a wonderfully bright and precocious child, being raised by a strong and independent mother who didn't ask to do this on her own, but, as is too common in Oklahoma, is demanded of her. It's a responsibility she doesn't flinch in the face of. It's not a perfect support system, but her Union does their best by my lioness of a sister, and I think she'd lay down in traffic for them before she would for her shiftless, drifting brother - or at least, I hope she would.  She's supports the teachers on the line, and she'll continue to support them for as long as it takes, because she believes in them, she believes in solidarity, and she believes in Oklahoma. I care about my father's wellbeing, as he eventually transitions into a state of life that requires more empathy and concern than his state wants to show.

I care about my friends; some of them, like me, are childless, and mostly immune to these problems, at least superficially. Some have children who should be in school right now, and aren't, because of a legislature's stubborn insistence that their education should be cheap, or that it doesn't matter when compared to a tax or a tax cut. I care about the mostly working-class residents of Oklahoma, who can easily be convinced to support politicians who would fly first-class into Washington from Tulsa International, rather than sitting next to the residents of his own state. I understand that when you're making $7.25/hr, a first-class plane ticket is just as foreign to you as private school education for your child is... but I don't forgive the man who represents Oklahoma and buys that ticket, and neither should you. Scott Pruitt currently represents Oklahoma on the national stage, and there is no better embodiment of an "all for me and none for thee" entitlement than he represents in Washington, at least this month, which is a damned shame, since there are a number of prominent Oklahomans who are a damned sight better. 

Beyond that, I care about you, Oklahoman. It's you that I worry about. These crooks and frauds didn't get there without you, and they won't be removed without you. No one is coming to save you from them. I've lived all over this country, and I've traveled all over the world, and no one's ever asked me why I don't move back to Oklahoma. For a time, that was unfair, until it then became accurate, and until it then became obvious. But it hasn't been that way forever; it hasn't even been that way for my entire life, and I'm under 40. I don't think it has to be that way forever, either. I want a reason to come home to you. 

There's a lot to love about Oklahoma; indeed, many of you that I know are some of the most fiercely state-proud people I've ever met. Don't let these people win this fight. Support your teachers. Walk out, if you can. Volunteer, if you can't. Raise money, and support, and collect and distribute all of the funds you can muster for the fight, because you are outgunned when it comes to money, but not support. Babysit the children of striking teachers. Keep an open door for the students who have to wait this out, and an open heart for the teachers who are on the front lines of this fight. Listen to the people that need your help, and help them. Do whatever you can to prove, to them, and to the world, that this is your state, and that you care about it's future. The prodigal sons and daughters of Oklahoma, spread all over the world, believe in you, and we support you.  




Oklahoma Education Association: http://okea.org/


Twitter: #oklaed: https://twitter.com/hashtag/oklaed?src=hash&lang=en


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andrew disney