PERSONAL ACTION IS POLITICAL|
Defy City Hall
In 1979, I was living in rural Kay County, Oklahoma. I’d never done anything remotely political when an accident changed my life. The teenage son of a farmer crashed the family grain truck while hauling the farm’s load of grain to the local co-op. At the time, I worked for an insurance agent and always carried a camera, so I took pictures and talked to the family members. They explained that the boy had never driven a fully loaded truck, so when he had to dodge a huge pothole in the county road, the truck overturned, breaking the axle. The small family farmer had postponed buying auto insurance until he got the proceeds from the harvest. With no insurance, the family lost the truck and shortly thereafter the farm.
I was heartbroken for them. It was then that I started noticing that the roads where smaller farmers lived had more potholes than where bigger, better-off farmers lived. Even though I had been raised in a working-poor family of nine children, I no longer lived “on the poor side of town.” When I started asking questions, people close to me told me not to worry about it, since my roads were in good shape. But I couldn’t forget about it after seeing the defeat and hopelessness in that farmer’s eyes.
My questions eventually led me to my own county commissioner’s office. I was petrified. I had never approached a public official before in my life. I was carrying my young son as I approached his desk. When I tentatively asked him about the bad roads and showed him my pictures, I’m sure my hands and voice were shaking. He leaned back in his chair, slammed his boots on his desk, and told me to take my boy and go back to the kitchen where I belonged. Pointing to the front door, he said, “You’ll be better off if you leave me alone and let me do my job.”
Ironically, if he had tried to reassure or appease me, I might have dropped the issue. Instead, infuriated, I wrote letters to several local newspapers. To my surprise, my letter explaining what had happened and my pictures of the potholes were published. Sometime later, the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation assigned undercover agents to shadow our commissioners, and the agents documented that the money allocated for road repair was instead going into the commissioners’ pockets. By the end of 1981, almost every county commissioner in the state had been arrested and indicted for corruption.
I can’t take credit for the investigation or the outcome, but I’m proud that I didn’t just walk away, allowing that poor excuse for a public servant to silence me. I didn’t know that the commissioners were swindling hardworking Oklahoma citizens, but his not listening (in fact, insulting me) was a sign that something was very wrong. This was not the America I had learned to be proud of. This was not self-government in action. When I saw that he was neglecting those ideals, I didn’t give up on them—I became more determined to make him, my government official, live up to them.
Reinforced with a renewed belief in what citizens can and must do to hold onto their democratic way of life, I later competed for and won a national women’s fellowship to work on Capitol Hill. After that, I became a lobbyist and grassroots organizer.
My journey began in a tiny town because a county commissioner refused to listen to me. I got from there to here solely because I never lost faith in the American ideals of liberty and justice for all, and especially because I never surrendered my steadfast conviction in the word “all.”
|Jerilyn Fay Kelle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Mary Baldwin College.|