As many counter-recruitment groups do, Washington Truth in Recruiting (WaTiR) has participated in dozens of tabling events. Usually these are local, and we are invited because of contacts we have made within the schools or peace communities. School career fairs, state PTA meetings, local school counselor meetings, National Lawyers Guild meetings, LBGT meetings, church meetings, Democratic State conventions, antiwar meetings -- we table and present anywhere we can, sometimes through the invitation of allies.
We eventually thought it would be interesting to table at places where we weren’t invited, at some of the state or national conventions of “educational influencers.” So in lieu of gaining entrance through invitations, we spent money to become exhibitors at meetings and conventions. We targeted education-related, in-state conventions to minimize travel expenses, and we found conventions with exhibitors by web searches or by asking teachers and counselors what meetings they thought were worthwhile.
Still, we sometimes couldn’t get a table at a convention because someone on a committee thought we were too anti-military. More often, the calm and formidable Marion Ward (shown in picture) would work to persuade the booking committees that we would add to the convention by offering help in navigating the legal commitments for the No Child Left Behind Act. Marion was so effective that she sometimes got a discount better than the non-profit rate offered.
And it was a good thing she did. Donations were more frequent during the overt Iraq war, and conventions are expensive -- the price for a table at a state convention runs around $1000, with more for a corner location. Typically, that money buys a 6-foot table, two chairs, and a backdrop behind you.
These conventions always had a military flavor, and we were certainly not preaching to any choirs. Generals gave inspirational leadership talks, and workshops dealt with helping military families. Military recruiters or ASVAB test reps were almost always tabling in the convention halls, often with multiple tables and expensive corner locations. Though we asked, we were never placed next to military tables, but we would go over for conversations during breaks.
At first we wanted to pass as mainstream and took care to have a professional display. We had a name banner made and a stand-up display. We tailored our materials to the particular conference attendees: model school policies for principals and board members, local booklets we had made for jobs, and information about the counselor’s role for school counselors. A basket of candy and pens with our logo always brought people over, just as they do for high school students. If we were out of town, we sometimes contacted local peace groups to ask them to help staff the table.
Typically, attendees would visit the exhibition hall only during the half-hour breaks between conference sessions: during the sessions, we would have just a couple of stray visitors, and we would visit other tables. But during the session breaks, most of the convention goers would come in and we might talk to 5 to 20 folks at that time.
A tailored questionnaire was part of our repertoire. One of us would stay at the table and one or more others would stand in the aisle near the booth and ask, “Would you take a five-question survey? I can write the answers for you, if you are in a hurry.” In this way we were usually able to have interesting conversations and find those few people who were worried about the military recruiters at their schools. We connected most often with teachers and counselors who felt isolated and were relieved to get materials they could use at schools.
It was quite shocking to realize how little school board members knew. One of our regular gigs was the Washington State School Board Directors Convention, where it was not uncommon to find school board members who had never even heard of No Child Left Behind. Still, some were intrigued by the information we presented and debated us with interest.
But when, because of decreased donations, we had to reevaluate what we would gain from conferences, we decided to stop doing the big conventions. We spent years building our social capital (we thought) but found no way to spend it. If we do a big convention again, I think we should spend our capital and speak out. WaTiR member Todd Boyle suggested, for example, that we stand on a milk crate and give one-minute speeches. I agree. Until we can use our mainstream reputations to change policy, we should use them to speak loudly.
For now, local conferences of allies give more bang for the buck in effectiveness. Washington Truth in Recruiting and the Veterans for Peace tabled together at the October 2015 Northwest Teachers for Social Justice conference in Seattle, and that brought information, connections, and suggestions. At such meetings there is a chance of finding people to work with in connecting militarism in schools with racism, economic deprivation, education funding, and war.
Kathy Barker is a counter-recruitment activist in Seattle, Washington. For more information, visit www.watir.org
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/).