JNCL-NCLIS Legislative Day and Delegate Assembly, May 19-23, 2010

By Lisa Ritter posted 06-02-2010 23:55


My trip to Washington DC to attend the JNCL-NCLIS Legislative Day and Delegate Assembly echoed the theme of the 2009 ACTFL Convention:   “Speaking Up for Languages...The Power of Many Voices”.  It was filled with many wonderful experiences and opportunities for language advocacy which I’ll share in this blog entry.  You can see photos here from my visits to Capitol Hill & the ACTFL HQ.

Upon arrival in DC, I was met by Marty Abbott, ACTFL’s Director of Education, who took me to the ACTFL headquarters in Alexandria, VA.  Early the next morning Marty and I were joined by Lesley Hoffman, Advocacy Chair of the Foreign Language Association of Missouri (FLAM), and Ann Sunderland, current President of AATF and FLAM member, at the offices of Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond of Missouri.  As our delegation posed for photographs with Senator Bond, he commented on the fact that we need to do more to promote languages and that it is embarrassing for Americans to travel abroad and be so limited by our inability to communicate with others in their language.  We later met with one of his staffers who gave us her full attention by taking notes and asked us several good questions.  Lesley and I felt that our February visit to our state capitol of Jefferson City to meet with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon was a good preparation for this visit.

We then made our way to the opening session of JNCL-NCLIS’ Legislative Day.  JNCL-NCLIS President Dan Davidson and Executive Director J. David Edwards opened the meeting and delegates representing a wide variety of organizations introduced themselves.  Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey spoke next about House Bill 4065, the Foreign Language Education Partnership Program Act that calls for funding for K-12 language programs. When he finished speaking, he took questions from the audience and then posed for photos with constituents Amanda Seewald and Ana Lomba of FLENJ.  I introduced myself as the ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year and had my photo taken with him.  He then asked us if we would like to attend a joint session of Congress to hear an address from Mexican President Felipe Calderón, fresh from a State Dinner at the White House the evening before.  It took us about a nano second to accept this wonderful invitation.  We rode the metro that runs under the congressional office buildings to the Capitol.  Since 9-11, only guests accompanied by members of Congress are allowed to ride it so we felt extra special.  We then boarded a House of Representatives elevator to go up to the House Chamber.  In it we met Representative Maxine Waters of California who told me she had lived in St. Louis, Missouri until her early twenties.  She graciously posed for a photo.  (I have learned not to be shy about asking!)

As we exited the elevator we were excitedly chatting with Congressman Holt and he seemed genuinely engaged with us.  We didn’t pay much attention to the small knot of people that was approaching us until they were just past us.  That’s when Marty spotted the First Lady of Mexico in that small group.  Sure enough, in her left hand she was clutching one of her signature rebozos, a traditional Mexican shawl.  

Congressman Holt waited with us until he was able to insure that all of us could be seated in the House Gallery.  (He only had one pass but there were four of us).  Once inside, it had the feel of being at a State of the Union address with Vice-President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated behind the podium.  President Calderón was introduced and he entered followed by an entourage that included Senators John Kerry and Chris Dodd.  As Calderón hit the high points of his speech, the chamber erupted in applause and several times we stood just like at State of the Union addresses.  He gave his speech in English but the most poignant moment came when he switched to Spanish to specifically address the Latinos in this country.  His words “Los extrañamos” (We miss you) were very touching and all who understood him gave a loud round of applause.  It was a moment that clearly showed the power of languages.

Just across the aisle from us in the gallery was former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.  We felt we were in rarefied air.  And as we came out into the hallway, we were pleasantly surprised to see Congressman Holt waiting for us.  We profusely thanked him for his generosity and attentiveness to us.  I have jokingly said that I would like to move to New Jersey so that he could be my Congressman (he was a rocket scientist before serving in Congress), but I think a better plan would be to clone him and send him out all over the country.  He is a wonderful advocate for world languages.

Our heads were still spinning as we walked out of the Capitol to a delicious lunch at Charlie Parker’s Steak House where we were reunited with the JNCL-NCLIS delegates. Then we were moving again, this time to an appointment with a staffer in Senator Claire McCaskill’s office.  The staffer seemed interested in what we were saying but we felt disappointed in that it appeared we would be unable to meet the Senator.  But we pressed her for an opportunity and Ann Sunderland played a trump card when she said that she had taught French to the Senator’s step-children in the Kansas City area.  The staffer made a note and excused herself.  She returned saying that if we were willing to wait, then we would have a chance to meet the Senator.  Of course we elected to wait and a short while later we got to meet Senator McCaskill.  Although our time together was very brief, this was a significant advance over last year when the Missouri delegation was unable to get any access to her office at all. Here is one more example of the power of languages and personal connections.

Following that visit, we walked to the office of Representative Roy Blunt.  Our visit was also brief but Congressman Blunt personally invited us into his private office for a photo op.  Blunt is running for the open Senate seat that will be available upon Senator Bond’s retirement.  It will be a heavily contested race between Blunt and Robin Carnahan with national political implications.

The following day at the JNCL-NCLIS meeting we heard about the successes of others who also gained entrance into the offices of their Senators and Representatives.  There had been close to 70 of us speaking up for languages on Capitol Hill the previous day.  Andre Lewis, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International and Foreign Language Education, addressed us on Friday afternoon and he mentioned how he was aware of what we had been up to on the Hill.  After he spoke, he took questions from the audience.  I was impressed by several delegates who clearly conveyed to Mr. Lewis their opposition of the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act.  Under the current scenario, FLAP grants have been eliminated in favor of a consolidated pool of funds.  Although the number of dollars available in the pool is significantly higher, the rub is that we must compete with other content areas for those funds.  Such a stance on the part of the Department of Education communicates a lack of commitment to making languages part of a 21st century world class education.  Many states without foreign language coordinators, such as my state of Missouri, are in weak positions to fight for those dollars.  Instead of expanded language programs needed for increased proficiency, we may see their elimination through unnecessary competition.  I’m hopeful that Mr. Lewis came away with a better understanding of our position.

I am indebted to ACTFL for this chance to visit our nation’s capitol and play a small role in the legislative process.  Sometimes only a handful of well timed letters, phone calls, and office visits can sway an opinion.  Congressman Holt urged us to always be armed with statistics and to have our facts straight but to also know the powerful impact that an anecdote can have on decision making.  To find those stats, facts, and anecdotes, visit the JNCL-NCLIS website at and ACTFL’s website at for advocacy information.  There you’ll also find information to sign up for the free weekly ACTFL SmartBrief which I find to be a valuable resource for staying current on advocacy and legislative efforts across the country. 

Advocacy has to be part of our job description.  I encourage all of us to find our voices to speak up for languages. 

Photos from JNCL-NCLIS & ACTFL visits