Angelolopez’s Weblog

April 9, 2012

An Interview With Poet, Activist and Teacher Diane Wahto


One of the great pleasure of the Everyday Citizen blogsite is reading the blogs of Diane Wahto. A teacher, a pro-choice advocate, an anti-war activist, an award winning poet, and a precinct committeewoman for the Sedgwick County Democratic Central Committee, Diane has worn many hats in her life. A native Kansan, she has a BA degree, cum laude, in English from Western Michigan University, an MA in English from Pittsburg State University, and an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University. Diane raised three sons as a single mother, and now has three wonderful daughters-in-law, and five entertaining grandchildren.

From your bio in the Everyday Citizen site, it sounds like you have a wonderful family. Tell us a little of your family.

I have three sons and five grandchildren. They all live near. My youngest and his family live in Lawrence and the other two and their families live in Shawnee, a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas. All of children, their wives, and two of my grandchildren are KU grads. Rock chalk, Jayhawk!

You’ve been a lifelong Democrat. How did you first get interested in politics? Do you have any heroes that have inspired you along the way?

From the time I could read a newspaper, I was a news junkie. I would get up early with my dad and read the Joplin Globe, including the editorial page. Also, my parents were active in politics. My mom was a Republican precinct committeewoman and my dad was a Republican precinct committeeman in Baxter Springs, Kansas, the small town where I grew up. My dad, a truck driver and a union member, was elected to the city council and served on it for several years after he retired.

The mother of one my friends was a Democratic Party activist. My parents thought she was a little goofy, but I was fascinated with her stories of attending the Democratic state and national conventions. It was John F. Kennedy, however, who persuaded me to register as a Democrat. I was too young to vote for him, but the minute I could register to vote, I registered as a Democrat. The horror I felt when he was assassinated stays with me to this day.

My parents changed their affiliation and became Democrats in later years. Like them, I always vote based on issues. I’ve worked for and voted for Republicans on occasion, depending on the candidates’ stands on issues. I have never blindly voted a straight party line.

As for heroes, my mother inspired me more than anyone. She grew up during the Depression and didn’t have the money to go to college. When we kids got older, she went to business college and became a bookkeeper, a job she was well suited for. She was good at math, was artistic, and was an excellent housekeeper. She taught me to cook, and she also taught me to be independent. She was my best friend.

My dad worked hard as well. His father died from brown lung disease after working in the lead mines. My dad had to mow lawns in exchange for food for his mother and his sister. I was happy when he was able to take early retirement so that he and my mother could take trips and do other enjoyable things before they got too old.

As a young woman, I looked to feminists like Gloria Steinem for inspiration. Ti-Grace Atkinson came to Port Huron, Michigan, to give a speech on the feminist movement when I lived there. After the speech she invited some of us to her motel room for a discussion. She asked each of us what we wanted to be. I said I wanted to be a poet. This was long before I wrote my first poem. She and the other women in attendance took me seriously, which let me know I could do that if I wanted to do it.

Describe the situation for Democrats in Kansas right now. How are the Democrats doing in Sedgwick County? What are some particular hot-button issues in that area?

Kansas, which for years has had moderates, either Republican or Democratic, in the state government, now has been taken over by extremist Tea Party, Koch-driven Republicans. Only the moderate Republicans in the state senate have kept us from the most egregious of extremist legislation. Gov. Sam Brownback killed the Kansas Arts Commission and its funding last year, a move that angered many of those who voted for him. He wants to get rid of the income tax in Kansas, which will lead inevitably to higher property and sales taxes at the local level. He also wants to turn Medicaid over to a privately run company. Disability advocates say this will harm the disabled in this state by diminishing the quality of their care. All of this action seems to fall right in line with the Koch-affiliated ALEC agenda.

Given that, this should be a good time for Democrats to be able to put forth good candidates and get them elected. However, there’s so much anti-Obama feeling in Kansas it’s doubtful that Democrats will have much of a chance except in traditionally Democratic areas. It so happens I live in a Democratically-controlled State House and Senate district. My state senator is an African-American woman and my state representative is a Native American=Hispanic woman. That is a rare situation. Most of the Democrats elected to the state legislature come from the urban areas, Wichita, Kansas City, Kansas, and Lawrence, which is home to Kansas University and is the most liberal city in the state. Wichita is primarily dominated by Republicans. Some of them are moderates, but many of them come from the right wing.

In your blog, it mentions that you became a pacifist at the age of 17. What happened at that age that made you become a pacifist? What was it like marching against the Vietnam War in Western Michigan University?

I was a serious kid. My family was Southern Baptist and I took the teachings of Jesus to heart. Jesus, as I learned about him in my Sunday school class, brought the message of love and peace to the world. When I got older, I read about Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, and the Ban the Bomb movement in Europe. Then I read John Hershey’s Hiroshima when I was 17. Kids of my generation grew up with the bomb, so I was already terrified of a nuclear attack. When I read that book, which described in awful detail what the A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima did to that city and the people who lived there, I knew we couldn’t afford war any longer. Nothing I’ve seen since has convinced me otherwise.

When I went back to college at Western Michigan University in 1967, I had already completed my freshman year. I was a wife and a mom and an older student among all the young people. I didn’t know at the time that the SDS had been formed in Port Huron, a city we later moved to, but I did know the anti-war movement was strong on the WMU campus. When I heard about an anti-war march taking place on campus, I asked a friend if she would like to join me. So she rode with me from Decatur, Michigan, where we lived, thirty-five miles to Kalamazoo and we marched the five miles from the campus to downtown Kalamazoo, where we signed an anti-war petition that was to go to Pres. Lyndon Johnson. My friend and I both wore our best dresses and high heels. Fortunately, mine were wedge heels, or I never would have made the ten-mile walk. That was when I realized how much the world had changed—we were the only people in dressy clothes on that march.

Because my three children were still young, I didn’t do much else in the anti-war movement then. Between keeping up with my school work and taking care of my family, I had my hands full. I never lost my zeal for peace, though. When I moved to Winfield, Kansas, for my first full-time teaching job, I met a woman named Mary Harren, who like me was a mother, and who had become active in the peace movement during the Vietnam War. Her Catholic faith provided the impetus for her activism. Somehow we connected and she got me into the peace movement in Wichita and the area. She’s now in her 80s and still an activist. She’s still an inspiration to me.

As the current board chair of the Peace and Social Justice Center in Wichita, Kansas, your organization has sponsored anti-recruitment Opt-Out programs. How did that come into being?

I’m no longer affiliated with the Peace and Social Justice Center, having served on the board for ten years or so, but while I was there we were involved in some constructive projects. The Opt-Out program is one of the best of those projects. Wichita, with McConnell Air Force Base, Boeing, and the other aircraft companies, is a highly militarized city. Military recruiters are allowed free access to high school students. The school district also has a junior ROTC program that’s run by the military. So a few years ago, some of our members decided to ask the school board to provide a form for parents to complete so their students could opt out of recruiter contact. This form would be included in the packet that was sent to parents just before school started every year. Every year the program grew, with more and more parents opting their children out of recruiter contact. Then the school board moved all that information online and the opt-out numbers began to drop. One of the Peace Center members has written a yearly letter to the Wichita Eagle to inform parents to look for the Opt-Out form online.

We also tried to get the program into area schools with varying degrees of success. Another project related to that was that we created a brochure that detailed the true picture of military service and pointed out that recruiters would often shade the truth to get people to sign up. Those brochures, with permission from district administrators, were available in high school counseling offices on the same table as the recruiting brochures. Local recruiters called our director complaining about the brochures and also called me. One of them was pretty steamed. I could tell he was doing all he could not to go off on me on the phone. I just kept my cool and let him sputter. Another lied and said he was a high school student. It didn’t take long for me to realize he was a recruiter. He admitted to that when I confronted him with my suspicions.

Ultimately, our goal was to make peace with the recruiters. To that end, we tried to set up a meeting with them. The Peace Center vice chair at the time was a young man who had served in the Marines, and he was in charge of that project. The meeting never took place while I was there because of scheduling conflicts.

Mary Harren was the person who got me involved in the Peace Center and it was a rewarding time for me. It’s good to be involved with peace activists.

You’ve been a long-time advocate of reproductive rights for women. For young people who didn’t live at that time, tell us why the social movements fighting for a woman’s right to choose was so important? What was it like volunteering at Dr. George Stiller’s clinics in the Kansas area?
You organized a rally to fight the presence of Operation Rescue in Wichita, Kansas, in 2001. Describe the events that happened at that time. Tell us about the recent efforts by Governor Brownback to roll back many women’s reproductive rights?

Brownback’s efforts are bearing fruit for the anti-choice crowd. Kansas has always had a good contingent of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature, but in 2010, voters followed the Tea Party lead and voted for the most right-wing people they could find. Brownback, of course, has always been anti-choice. Several years ago, I challenged him during a speech he gave at Butler Community College. Here’s the URL for the account of that speech: http://cjonline.com/stories/041299/kan_brownback.shtml. In it he blamed women for the shortfall in Social Security. I was the “older woman” who challenged him. When my son read this news story in the Lawrence Journal World, he said he knew that older woman was me.

Just today, I read that the Kansas House member have added an amendment to a budget bill that says no taxes shall go to support abortion. This means that Planned Parenthood and the Kansas University School of Medicine will find their funding in jeopardy. Planned Parenthood already has lawsuits ongoing against the state from when the legislature cut funding in 2011. Of course, the taxpayers are footing the bill for these lawsuits, but no one seems to care about that. As of now the State of Kansas has spent close to $600,000 to defend itself against these lawsuits. As a Kansas taxpayer, I’m incensed by this.

It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the anti-choice laws that are in play right now. How moderate Republicans didn’t know what they were doing when they voted these people into office is beyond me. Now the moderates are upset, but it’s too late. The damage has been done.

I used to go to Topeka to lobby against such bills, as well as for bills related to education, but I’m at the point in my life at which I can’t do that kind of thing any longer. We do have a strong contingent of young people who are doing that work. I would like to see a Wisconsin-style taking to the streets, not just by abortion-rights advocates, but also by public employees, people with disabilities, and all the other groups who have been shafted by this governor and the right-wingers in the state legislature.

As for the 2001 rally I helped organize, we were able to get Emily Lyons here. Lyons, if you remember, was the nurse who was severely wounded when Eric Rudolph bombed the clinic where she worked. I had a chance to meet with her in Dr. George Tiller’s office when she came to town. That woman is a great hero. In her speech, she talked about the war that was being waged on women. Even though that was in 2001, what she said then is even truer today. We were happy that the OR demonstration pretty much fizzled this time around.

You’ve been a teacher for most of your life. You were a president and negotiator of the Kansas-National Education Association. What are your thoughts on the recent efforts at education reform, like Bush’s No Child Left Behind? What do you think of documentaries like “Waiting For Superman”? Are there any documentaries that you’d recommend for people who’d like to learn more about this issue?

No Child Left Behind is a disaster. Unfortunately, Pres. Obama’s education policies haven’t been much better. Arne Duncan’s idea seems to be aimed at punishing teachers and students in poverty-stricken areas. I’m a lifetime NEA member and active in KNEA-Retired, so I’m still fighting the fight for public education. I live in Wichita, where the Kochs run things, and one of their main projects is to destroy the public education system and replace it with charter schools and private schools.

As is the case with privatizing anything, prisons, medicine, welfare, the people who run private education facilities are interested in making a profit, not in giving students the best education possible. For awhile the USD 259 school district had an Edison charter school. It was closed only a few years after it opened because the guy who ran it couldn’t make any money off of it. The only way a private company can make money from running a school system is to cut corners. That certainly is no way to help students. The president of the Koch-run Kansas Policy Institute is Dave Trabert. Trabert has an MBA in business, but in his letters to the editor and OpEds, he says he knows what good education is. One of his claims is that small classrooms aren’t necessary for learning. Any teacher knows otherwise.

As for Waiting for Superman, Diana Ravitch wrote a book in which she used facts to show the flaws in that movie. A review of the book can be found here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/. Ravitch was instrumental in the Bush administration’s implementation of NCLB, a policy she later disavowed. The fact is, it costs money to educate people. Teachers are professionals who know better than people with MBAs what it takes to make schools work. Public schools take all students and educate everybody, including the mentally and physically disabled. Private schools and charter schools take only the best students. Public schools take them all and educate them all.

You’ve occasionally published poetry in the Everyday Citizen site, and your poetry has been published in several distinguished journals. What inspired you to write poetry? Do you have any favorite poets or poetry books?

I don’t know what inspired me to start writing poetry. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I didn’t spend a lot of time writing poetry until I was middle-aged. I had taught high school journalism for years. When my kids all left home to go to college, I decided I needed a break. I applied to KU for a teaching assistanceship to get a PhD, but I didn’t get it in time to sell my house and move to Lawrence. In the meantime, I had applied to Wichita State’s MFA program. I was admitted and received an assistanceship. I had to submit some poetry to be admitted to the program and it’s a wonder to me I got accepted. I did, though, and as time went by, I began to discover my voice.

I almost dropped out after attending a couple of classes, however. Here I was, a middle-aged former high school teacher, mother of three among a bunch of young people. Some of those people, mainly the men, treated me like a nonentity at first. One evening, when I was so discouraged I decided to drop out of the program, my professor, Robert Dana, kept me after class and told me to stay in the program. He said I had a good background and I would eventually learn to write poetry. I stayed and he was right. I soon began winning awards and getting published. I became acquainted with the local writing community and one of them, James Meachem, began sending my poetry to Lynne Savitt, who edited a journal in New York City. She always liked my feminist poems.

I never quit writing, but when I started teaching at Butler Community College, I didn’t have time to write much. Then when I finally retired for good I went back to writing and I’ve had some success. My book manuscript is in the hands of an editor and I’m waiting for word from him. If he doesn’t want it, I’ll find somewhere else to send it. One thing I know. If a writer is going to be successful, he or she must persevere. Right now, writing poetry is the thing I do that I love the most. Well, outside of my husband, my kids, and my dogs.

Last year you were part of the 150 Kansas Poems Reading Tour, where you traveled with many Kansas poets on a 22 city reading tour. What was that experience like?

That was a great experience. I met Kansas poets from around the state. Best of all, I met a man named Roy Beckemeyer, a Wichita poet, and he and I worked together to organize the two readings we held here. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, the poet-laureate of Kansas, edited the book and coordinated the readings and she did a fantastic job. Our reading tour isn’t over. In the next month or so, readings will take place in other Kansas locations. I’ll be going to a couple of those. It’s a good feeling to be around other writers.

I also “met” a woman through Kansas Free Press, Margy Stewart. She’s the director of the Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge near Junction City, Kansas. When I responded to one of her blog posts, telling her I’d written a poem about road kill, she took my poem and put it up on a bush in the Refuge. She has several poems mounted there and one of these days, I plan to drive up there and see the display.

What projects are you doing today?

Today? I’ve written a Renga, which is a particular poetic form that Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg asked us to do as an outgrowth of the 150 Kansas Poems project. My Renga, a ten-line poem dealing with Kansas, was due on April 6th. The theme is “Ad astra per aspera” (Through the stars through difficulty), which is the motto of Kansas. I wrote about actual stars and borrowed a couple of astronomy magazines from one of my sons so I figure what stars are in the Kansas sky in spring. The poem will be posted in May.

As a native Kansan, what would you recommend to a tourist visiting Kansas for the first time?

Despite its reputation, Kansas isn’t flat everywhere. It’s pretty flat out west, but when I’ve traveled out that way, I’ve seen some beautiful sights. I saw an antelope out in a field once when I was driving to Colorado.

However, the northeastern side of the state, especially in the Flint Hills area, is the most beautiful. The drive from Wichita to Lawrence is often breathtaking. You can see for miles across the hills and if you get off the turnpike, you get into some beautiful countryside. One of my friends has a cottage in that area and he goes there to recuperate from city life. The side of the state I come from is called The Little Balkans area because of its isolation and its similarity to the Balkans. It’s in the foothills of the Ozarks, and while you won’t see mountains there, you will rolling hills. The landscape is wild and beautiful between Wichita and Baxter Springs.

I like Wichita. It’s an interesting old town with lots and lots of ethnic restaurants. For some reason, a lot of Middle Easterners settled here and opened the best restaurants in the world. We also have a large Hispanic population—more good restaurants. Then there are the Asian restaurants, including several great sushi places.

Of all the towns in Kansas, Lawrence would be my choice of a place to live if I could afford it. My youngest son and his family live there and I visit every chance I get.

If only our political landscape were as wonderful as our natural landscape.

A youtube video of Diane Wahto reading her poems to the Keyhole Conversations Poetry Series

Here are more interviews that I’ve done for Everyday Citizen

An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen

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