This week on “Problematic Women,” we interview the woman that inspired the new feature film “Miss Virginia,” Virginia Walden Ford. We talk to her about everything from her childhood years integrating the Little Rock, Arkansas, school system to working with President George W. Bush creating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to the star-studded cast of her new movie. Read the interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
We also break down:
—Actress Alyssa Milano and Sen. Ted Cruz are taking their gun debate from Twitter to a meeting on Capitol Hill.
—Faculty at the University of Kansas are upset that the Chick-fil-A on campus was moved to a more prominent location, calling the fast food chain “a bastion of bigotry.”
—Kim Kardashian West chooses former convict-turned-criminal justice reform advocate Alice Johnson as the face of her new shapewear line.
Kelsey Bolar: In 2004, the first students began participating in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is a private school choice program serving low-income families in Washington, D.C. The program enables families whose incomes fall below a certain level to receive scholarship money to send their children to a private school of their choice.
This year marks the program’s 15th anniversary in the nation’s capital with more than 1,650 children currently using it. But despite it sounding like a program that both liberals and conservatives could get behind, the D.C. scholarship program has faced an uphill battle from opponents, many of them on the left arguing it takes much-needed funding away from already struggling public schools.
Virginia Walden Ford is a mother who for 15 years has been at the center of this heated debate. A single mother living in Washington, D.C., Virginia found herself feeling hopeless and helpless about her children’s educational future back in 2004. Instead of accepting the status quo, however, she decided to do something about it.
Virginia, welcome to the show.
Virginia Walden Ford: Thank you for having me.
Bolar: You have such an interesting story that actually starts many years before 2004, back when you were a child in Little Rock, Arkansas, as the daughter of two public school educators. Let’s start there.
Ford: I was the daughter of two public school educators. My father was actually the assistant superintendent of the Little Rock School District, the first black [assistant superintendent], and my mother was a fourth-grade teacher, one of four black teachers to integrate schools in Little Rock. So, even then I was part of a advocacy family.
… I had gone to segregated schools up until [high school] with all my friends and I knew my teachers and everybody was my buddy. And then all of a sudden I began the process of going into high school and we were told that we had to go to Central High School, which, 10 years prior, [was] the location of the Little Rock Nine. The president had to call in federal troops and all of that, and they were gonna send me there.
I was like, “Oh no, I’m not going and I want to go to the all-black high school.” And my dad told me, “You have to go because you have to set the tone for your younger sisters. If you don’t go and you don’t do well, your younger sisters are the ones that will suffer. So you have to go, you have a responsibility.” And that has stayed with me all my life.
I went to Central [High School], I did well. So, my advocacy even started then. I talked to other students about why they had to go using my dad’s words. Once I got grown and I started having children myself, … I guess I was an active mother but never did I think that I would have to fight for anybody but my own babies.
My first two kids did well in school. They were driven academically with programs and mentors. They were doing all right. But my third child, William, was a child that everybody thought was destined for failure and they said that all the time. He was the reason that I did this. He was the reason that I felt like I had to advocate on his behalf.
We’ve learned as low-income parents or as single mothers or as working-class parents … that the advocates for our children are us and that if we don’t fight for our kids, others may not think they’re worth fighting for or they won’t think that we are willing to fight for them.
That’s how I got to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, organizing parents and getting parents out because of those kinds of things, but it was daddy’s words, “You have a responsibility.” I can’t tell you how that rings in my ears all the time.
Bolar: There’s this interesting thread that weaves throughout your entire life where when you were a child, the government was telling you what school you had to attend. In that case, it was a segregated school and your parents took it upon themselves to say, “No, we are going to choose to go to a different school.”
Bolar: And then when you grew up and were a parent yourself, you did the same thing for your children. I want to take a step back from this conversation because not everybody knows what we’re talking about when we say school choice or scholarship programs, so could you provide some perspective on that?
Ford: In 2000, the District of Columbia traditional public schools were not fairing well. Kids were failing. I think there was a 46% failure rate. Members of Congress looked at that and said, “We need to do something to help D.C. kids.” …
This was a 10-year process. … Scholarship help for low-income children in the District of Columbia was proposed then several times and failed. Then in 2003, we went through another process of getting some legislation passed and we organized parents to come speak for themselves on Capitol Hill and talk about what despair their children were in. And many members of Congress supported us and decided that this was certainly worth fighting for.
After a yearlong fight, it actually passed the three-sector initiative, the D.C. three-sector initiative for school choice. It passed in November of 2003 and President George W. Bush, who was a big supporter of the parent group, signed it into law the 10th day 15 years ago years ago on Jan. 23 and it was really exciting. The program actually started the next month in March of 2004.
Bolar: Certainly this program serves all types of students, specifically in Washington, D.C. A lot of the low-income students happen to be minorities. Given the history of this program and given the fact that those on the left so often stand for choice, “My body, my choice,” those types of phrases that you hear her quite often, if you don’t know this issue, well, you’d be surprised to hear that it is actually liberals who are the biggest opponents of school choice programs. Why?
Ford: Absolutely. There’s a part of me that thinks the reason they don’t support us is because they didn’t think of it first, but that’s just me, but I don’t know.
Some of it stems back to when Brown vs. Board of Education passed and a few years later schools were trying to be desegregated and in ’57, when the Little Rock Nine went in, some of the Southern schools closed after for a year. They closed for a year and white students were going to private schools that were started just because they didn’t have a school to go to. Black kids either didn’t get educated or were sent away or something like that because it was Southern States.
I think some of it is that emotional thing where they started schools and their kids went to school and ours didn’t. So we’re not going to ever support this. I think it is emotional. They’re not thinking straight because usually if you sit down and you talk to liberals about what this really means, you can actually change minds. I’ve done it a million times, it’s hard to own a larger bracket when we try to get a bigger program passed in the state or city or federal to get everybody on that pace.
That’s my kind of idealistic reason, but people have been asking me that for years and I promise you, I don’t know. I don’t get it. Who would not want a child to be in a better environment? I just never have understanding.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is the representative for D.C., has been an opponent of this program from Day One. She won’t talk about it, she won’t think about it. We tried to meet with her. She told us we were not being treated fairly, which I didn’t get. I don’t understand it.
I think it’s very sad because we have watched children do incredibly well in schools that their parents chose for them. And another myth to that is low-income parents can’t choose schools, cause that’s not true. They do a better job than some people I know that are more educated. They came to me with lists of things they wanted for their children. It was beautiful and amazing. So, I wish I knew. I wish there was something I could say that would change the minds of those that oppose these kinds of programs.
Bolar: I know as a conservative it can be hard enough standing up for school choice programs, but I am white and I imagine as an African American woman it can be that much harder because certain people have certain ideas about how you’re supposed to think and vote. So, how does race play into this conversation about school choice?
Ford: To be perfectly honest, it’s hard for me to talk to some of my family members and friends about how I feel about these particular kinds of issues …
But if people would think about it, a long time ago, Arkansas was a Republican state. My parents were Republicans and it changed. They changed later around. But my point is they believed in the values of the Republican Party. They believed in conservative values. I do too. So, it’s hard. I often say I’m a threefer. I’m African American, a woman, and a Republican. So it is hard. It’s really hard. But I fight for kids and they can’t deny me that.
Bolar: Speaking of race, I feel that as a millennial who grew up in an era that didn’t have systematic forms of racism in the law, on the books, I constantly have to remind myself that there are still living people like yourself who dealt with systematic forms of racism. And this conversation is so difficult to have these days.
What is your advice, specifically for millennials? We have a lot of young millennial females who listen to this podcast. What’s your advice for them for bridging these conversations and being able to have a productive conversation about issues of race in today’s world?
Ford: Talk to women my age who are conservative. You’ll find there are a lot more people that are conservative. They’re just not saying it. You can seek out people. There are a number of people that I used to go to for advice when I was younger and going through it. I know it’s gotta be hard, but opening up the doors to a real conversation where people are really being honest about how they feel is important.
As you noticed, I love and am loved by people at [The Heritage Foundation] because I’ve always been honest, or at least I think I been always honest about my feelings about all kinds of things. I learned that from women older than me who had already been through it. Because when you make choices that are not popular to everybody then or to everybody in your little space, then you have to learn how to bring others into that space. …
It is hard, even for myself talking to people, but I’m open to you and say I’m open. If somebody says something I don’t get bent out of shape or angry or upset. I try to focus on what that person is saying and how the person needs to be helped to understand because I always assume when a person has a question, they want an answer, not a fight.
Bolar: I’m going to switch gears a little bit. You’re going to be featured in an upcoming movie, given this pretty crazy life you live. Tell us about that.
Ford: Eight years ago I was approached by a film company to do a movie about the D.C. experience, which can’t be told, according to them, if they don’t tell about me.
Bolar: I’ll second that.
Ford: It was pretty nerve-wracking. I am not a person that craves to be on the front. Actually, when I was working with parents here for the legislative fight, I made sure that parents learned how to be in the front. That’s the role I like playing. I like teaching people how to take the lead. So it’s interesting.
Anyway, they wrote a script, they wrote a number of scripts, and then they finally wrote a script that I really thought was a positive script for our story. Our story is that parents of D.C. stood shoulder-to-shoulder and fought for their children. But there’s always gotta be a leader that brings something to that. But everybody came together, so it’s pretty amazing what they’ve done.
It’s a full-feature film. Uzo Aduba, who was Crazy Eyes on “Orange is the New Black” is playing me and she’s really good and that’s pretty fascinating. Matthew Modine is playing the senator or the member of the House, I believe.
Bolar: Do you know the name yet or where it will be released?
Ford: I’ve tried to change it. The name of the movie is “Miss Virginia.”
Bolar: That’s incredible. That gives our listeners an idea of the woman we currently have the privilege of speaking with.
Well, this is a podcast called “Problematic Women.” Our goal is to reach younger women, specifically, women on the right and I always like to end with the question of, “Do you identify as a feminist?” Because when I interview women who lean right, we always get different and interesting answers.
Ford: I did when I was younger. I’m an accountant by check. That’s what I did as a living, I’m an accountant. I was usually the only woman in a group of men, so I felt very strongly about letting them know that I couldn’t be somebody to be toyed with.
I think I really did identify [as a feminist]. … Now, I just identify as a strong woman and I think it gives so much more comfort to women who don’t even understand what a feminist is. I like being a strong woman and I like encouraging other women to be strong in whatever they do and making sure that young women know that there’s strength in many things that you do—in parenting and working, in many things that you do.
So, I don’t know if I would consider myself [a feminist]. I’m older, I’m calmer. I’m think I’m sweeter. So, I don’t know if I do now, but I admired the women that came before me, and I admired those women that stood up … I think as a person, I’m formed by all of those women, all of them. I have strong emotional feelings about feminists and feminism and that whole movement that I’m proud of.
Bolar: I love that you identify as a strong woman, which you certainly are. Well, Miss Virginia, thank you so much for joining us today. I look forward to seeing this movie. We appreciate you taking the time.
Ford: You’re very welcome. I love coming here and you all are my other family here, so thank you.
Bolar: Thank you.