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Interview with student organizer from the Sunrise Movement, which protested outside of Betsy DeVos’s home

August 24, 2020

On Thursday, members of the Sunrise Movement organized a demonstration outside of the multi-million dollar mansion of Dick & Betsy DeVos. About 40 people with the Sunrise Movement took part in the action.

The action was part of Sunrise’s Wide Awake direct action program, a homage to the mid-nineteenth century abolitionist movement that disturbed the sleep of government officials who resisted abolition. The same method of nonviolent direct action is necessary today, Sunrise says, because While they profit, we lose sleep, our teachers and students have to choose between an education and their health. While the stock market booms, public schools all over the country are losing funding if they don’t open and teachers are tasked with the impossibility of teaching a full curriculum while supporting students in a pandemic”.

According to the group’s Media Release:

The rise in Covid-19 case numbers across the United States, the global leader in infections and deaths from the virus, have many students and educators concerned about plans to return to in-person education in the fall. There are fears that such a return to in-person

instruction would inevitably lead to more cases, placing further strain on an inadequate healthcare system and ultimately resulting in more death. Many have raised the concern that those most affected by a return to school will be those from impoverished, disadvantaged, and marginalized backgrounds where parents don’t have the flexibility to keep their children home in a hybridized model.

The issue was addressed by one of the speakers, Siena Ramirez, a high school student and Sunrise organizer from the Grand Rapids area, “Betsy and our institution of education have built their foundations on giving away BIPOC bodies that aren’t theirs to give away”. The bucket banging, cheers, and applause that followed her statement suggested that the pain she felt was shared.

We had the opportunity to interview Siena once GRIID had heard about the action at the DeVos mansion in Holland.

GRIID – What was the primary motivation for your protest outside of the DeVos home in Holland?

Siena – Our motivation is definitely rooted in the reality that time and time again billionaires, such as the DeVos family, profit at the expense of all of our lives. While this is the reality, our movement is dedicated to creating a new day and in turn a new reality where we no longer suffer at the hands of billionaires. A lot of us are also students and teachers that understand in-person schooling directly endangers us, our families and the public and we believe Betsy needs a wake up call.

GRIID – What are the main issues you have with DeVos as Secretary of Education?

Siena – I think a really big issue with Betsy is that she is forcing us back into schools with extremely unsafe conditions where the most vulnerable folx will be affected (low-income, BIPOC and marginalized districts and students), we’ve also seen her threaten to take funding away from schools with already stretched budgets, if they choose not to return to in-person instruction. Betsy has essentially engineered this crisis, falling asleep at the wheel, at the cost of thousands of students’ and teachers’ lives. Even before her call to return to in-person schooling, we’ve seen her efforts to funnel public funding into charter schools, taking money away from districts that need that funding the most. Betsy hasn’t listened to us, the students and teachers on the front lines, we are the folx she is supposed to serve yet all she has done is deepen and design this crisis.

GRIID – What connection, if any, do you see between the DeVos push to re-open schools and the capitalist class push to re-open the economy in the midst of a pandemic?

Siena – I think DeVos has been advised that without reopening schools completely, the economy will be devastated by the loss of parents who need to stay home to care for their young students. We are also heading into another recession, that could be exponentially worsened by the loss of so many workers, Betsy would rather see profits than protect us from being exposed to COVID-19 in our schools nationwide. This is also connected to the capitalist class exploiting workers by exposing them to COVID-19 in their rush to reopen the economy, so I believe there’s a heavy connection.

GRIID – Did you get any kind of response from DeVos or her handlers for the protest? Did the police show up? and what did think about the article that MLive ran

Siena – As far as I know, nobody associated with DeVos have commented. The police were definitely around, no sirens or arrests but quite a few cop cars were paying attention to us. I think the article did a good job of articulating why we’re angry but I also think it left out a major part, that being we see how this crisis, Betsy’s support of privatization of education and essentially the whole reason she’s even the Secretary of Education is directly tied to capitalism in this country.

For additional analysis of the policies that Betsy DeVos has initiated in her position as Secretary of Education, go to our Betsy DeVos Watch section. 


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