Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: A Win for the Christian Right - Rolling Stone
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Betsy DeVos’ Holy War

Her appointment as education secretary marks the crowning achievement of the Christian right’s campaign to infiltrate America’s secular institutions

Betsy DeVos' Holy War as Education SecretaryBetsy DeVos' Holy War as Education Secretary

Betsy Devos at her confirmation hearing for Education Secretary in January 2017.

Brendan Smalowski/AFP/Getty

A few weeks after September 11th, 2001, with the nation reeling from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., about 400 or so of the country’s leading Christian conservative investors convened at the luxury Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. They were there for the 17th annual meeting of the Gathering, a four-day, invitation-only philanthropic and networking event for the Christian donor class, whose members often describe themselves, simply, as “believers.” The perks awaiting them in their off hours included a 27-hole golf course, nine crystalline swimming pools and a luxury spa. At dusk, the ruddy hues of the desert rippled across the stone patios where, warmed by fire pits, some of the most important funders of Christian charity, and the Christian right, sipped cocktails and talked about expanding the Kingdom of God.

Among the evangelical super-rich at the Gathering that weekend were Donald Trump’s recently appointed secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, and her husband, Richard “Dick” DeVos Jr., scion of the multilevel marketing behemoth Amway. The DeVoses are conservative Christian royalty with deep roots in Republican politics, and Betsy, a skilled political operator, had just finished a stint as chair of the Michigan Republican Party. During a talk one evening in the Phoenician’s elegant grand ballroom, DeVos mentioned her latest project: recruiting Christians to run for the state legislature. “It is critically important that we have believers involved in public life,” she said.

Politics was one facet of a much larger effort the DeVoses called the Shfela. This is the biblical name for the fertile crescent of land between Israel’s Judaean Mountains and the coastal plain, where David fought Goliath and other historic battles were waged between the Israelites and the Philistines. During a recent trip to Israel, the DeVoses had been highly impressed by a story about an archeological dig that unearthed a trove of ancient pig bones in layers of soil dating to the eras when the pagan Philistines held sway. But in other layers of the Shfela, the archeologists found no pig remains at all, suggesting that during these times, the Jews, who kept kosher, had come down from the mountain to spread their religious values among the people. For the DeVoses, the Shfela offered an essential metaphor of the challenges facing modern America. As Dick put it: “How do we get the pig bones out of our culture?”

In the 16 years since that meeting, the DeVos family – which includes 91-year-old patriarch and Amway co-founder Richard “Rich” DeVos Sr., his wife, Helen, their four children and their spouses – has been one of the driving forces behind a stealth campaign powered by a small group of Republican billionaires to chip away at America’s secular institutions: the pig bones, so to speak, of our society. According to a recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, the family, whose net worth is estimated at $5.6 billion, gave $10 million to national GOP candidates and committees during the 2016 cycle alone. But this amount pales to the gargantuan sums they have channeled into state and local races, evangelical and free-market think tanks, advocacy groups, foundations, PACs, Super PACs and other dark-money organs that have effectively created a shadow political party within the GOP.

Regular attendees at the Koch brothers’ biannual summits, the DeVoses have been healthy benefactors of several Koch-seeded groups that advance an anti-tax, anti-regulatory agenda, including the charitable arm of Americans for Prosperity and the FreedomWorks Foundation. What distinguishes the DeVoses within the Kochs’ circle of power, however, is their conservative Christian worldview, which over the past four decades has helped fuel what is now a $1.5 billion infrastructure composed of thousands of churches and “parachurch” ministries, as well as Christian TV, radio and Internet channels; Facebook pages and other forms of social media; books; conferences; camps; prayer groups; legal organizations – an entire universe that many Americans may be wholly unaware of. Through these channels has come a single, unified message merging social conservatism, free-market capitalism and American exceptionalism: the belief that the rights and freedoms spelled out in the U.S. Constitution were mandated by God.

Betsy DeVos’ father, Edgar Prince, made his fortune manufacturing auto parts (including perhaps his greatest innovation, the lighted sun visor), and was one of the single largest donors to the Christian right. “No one in the United States gave more money to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, its Michigan Family Forum affiliate or its Washington, D.C., arm, the Family Research Council, than the late Edgar Prince,” notes Russ Bellant, a Michigan author who has written extensively about the religious right. After Prince died in 1995, Betsy’s mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, continued funding religious-right causes, as has Betsy’s brother, Erik Prince, founder of the military contractor Blackwater. Among the causes the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has supported is the Foundation for Traditional Values, which produced multi-media seminars and presentations on “America’s Judeo-Christian heritage,” including the “biblical roots” of government and our education system.

Neither Betsy DeVos, who is 59, nor any of her children have ever attended a public school; her Cabinet post also marks her first full-time job in the education system. Even before her nomination, she was a controversial figure in education circles, a leading advocate of “school choice” through student vouchers, which give parents public dollars to send their children to private and parochial schools. During her Senate confirmation hearing in January, DeVos struggled to grasp some of the most basic fundamentals of education terminology, student-loan policy and federal provisions mandating public schools provide free and appropriate education to people with disabilities. At one point, Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, who represents the families of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, asked DeVos if she believed schools should be gun-free zones. She responded that in states like Wyoming “there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

Her performance was so inept that two Republican senators, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins, voted against her nomination, leaving DeVos’ longtime ally and fellow conservative Christian, Vice President Mike Pence, to cast an unprecedented tiebreaking vote. Weeks later, she caused an uproar describing historically black colleges and universities as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” But criticisms of the new secretary of education, based on her poor knowledge of and lack of support for public schools, arguably miss the point. “Public education is the biggest opportunity for those who believe they have to save souls,” says Rachel Tabachnick, a researcher of the religious right’s impact on policy. “If you’re looking at the merger of free-market ideology and the religious right, that is the plum to be picked.”

A staple in modern evangelical teachings is the concept of Christian spheres of influence – or what the evangelical business guru Lance Wallnau dubbed the “Seven Mountains” of society: business, media, religion, arts and entertainment, family, government, and education – all of which urge the faithful to engage in secular culture in order to “transform” it. The goal is a sweeping overhaul of society and a merging of church and state: elevating private charity over state-run social services, returning prayer to school and turning the clock back on women’s and LGBTQ rights. It would also be a system without a progressive income tax, collective bargaining, environmental regulation, publicly funded health care, welfare, a minimum wage – a United States guided by a rigorously laissez-faire system of “values” rather than laws.

In the 33 states where Republicans currently hold power, some or all of these goals are being pursued, thanks to both the financial and ideological investment of families like that of Betsy DeVos, whose breadth of influence has now been sanctified in Washington with her appointment to run the Department of Education. This, as she told the Gathering in 2001, is what it means to be in the Shfela. It’s about “changing the way we approach things,” she said, “in ways which will continue to help advance God’s kingdom.”

Nowhere is the holy trinity of wealth, politics and Christian ideology more intertwined than in West Michigan, where the DeVos and Prince families are based. Its major city, Grand Rapids, is the “capital of American Calvinism,” as The Nation recently described it, home to dozens of Reformed and Christian Reformed churches, five Christian publishing houses, a slew of religion-infused radio stations, three seminaries and Calvin College, whose mission, according to its website, is preparing students to live as “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” Central to understanding the DeVos family, and particularly Dick and Betsy’s zeal for education, is the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, a belief that one’s salvation (or damnation) has been preordained by God. According to this view, God’s “elect” must work hard in dedication to the glorification of Jesus Christ. Another of Calvinism’s central teachings is that God is the “absolute sovereign” over everything in the world, and followers must in turn claim “every square inch” of the Earth for Jesus Christ.

Betsy Prince grew up 30 miles southwest of Grand Rapids, in the small city of Holland, where by some estimates her father’s company, the Prince Corp., employed roughly a quarter of the town. Betsy and her three siblings – Eileen, Emilie and Erik – were all educated in Holland’s Christian schools, where Betsy was a champion swimmer. In 1975, she enrolled at Calvin College and won an uncontested race for the student senate her freshman year. She also volunteered to work on Gerald Ford’s 1976 re-election campaign, and that summer attended the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. Not long afterward, she met Dick DeVos, whom she married in 1979, which many saw as the feudal bonding of West Michigan’s two royal families.

No organization more perfectly represented the merging of faith and free-market capitalism than the Amway Corp., which Dick’s father, Rich DeVos, founded with his high school friend Jay Van Andel in 1959 to sell vitamins and cleaning products. Amway – short for “American Way” – now has annual revenues of $8.8 billion and a weblike network of salespeople across the globe who embrace the company’s “Founders’ Fundamentals”: faith, freedom, hope and reward. “Happiness,” notes one of its mottoes, “is best achieved through earned success.”

Amway was one of the first companies to harness the multilevel-marketing concept – using positive thinking and other motivational tools to recruit “independent business owners.” The principles of Amway salesmanship, which a 1979 federal investigation determined do not amount to a pyramid scheme, were simple: Leverage your personal and professional contacts, or “circles,” into both customers and a sales force, which in turn will create more sales forces. Rather than a corporate hierarchy, success relied on shared goals – and shared values, in what one former Amway distributor, Stephen Butterfield, referred to in a 1985 exposé as a “cult of free enterprise.” Amway doesn’t just sell products, Butterfield writes. “It sells a marketing and motivational system, a cause, a way of life, in a fervid, emotional atmosphere of rallies and political revivalism.”

Amway also sold conservatism, whose values were baked into its corporate culture. According to Butterfield, to be a “winner,” in the company parlance, salespeople were encouraged to read only Amway-approved books, use only Amway products and vote the Amway way. Religious leaders like James Dobson and Robert Schuller used Amway rallies to proselytize to the company’s million-strong sales force. In 1980, Butterfield writes, Amway leaders used tax-deductible business functions to drum up support for Ronald Reagan. Before long, Amway had turned its ever-growing distributor network into the foot soldiers of modern conservatism, as Butterfield writes, “extolling the virtues of possibility-thinking, positive attitude, prayer and wealth.” (A representative for Amway refutes Butterfield’s characterization of the company.)

Amway’s vast sales network had both economic and political applications. At the end of 1992, Rich DeVos passed the reins to Dick, who began the company’s expansion into Asia and parts of the developing world. Betsy, in the meantime, began moving up the ladder of Republican politics, serving first as the county GOP chair, then as one of Michigan’s delegates to the Republican National Convention, and in 1997, serving her first of four terms as state GOP chair. “If anybody had asked me a few years ago if I had ever wanted to be a state party chairman of a partisan party, I would have said no,” Betsy said in 2001. “God put me in those places.”

David Koch with Amway founder Rich DeVos, 2013.

By the 1990s, a number of Amway salespeople, including former House Whip Tom DeLay, had leveraged their networks all the way to Congress. Amway itself had become the single largest donor of soft money to the Republican National Committee, as Betsy noted in a 1997 op-ed in Roll Call about how she no longer took offense at suggestions she and her family were buying influence. “They are right,” she wrote. “We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”

But the DeVoses, as well as the Princes, were also trying to change the culture in more covert ways. One of the organizations the Prince and DeVos clans have supported is the Council for National Policy, a secretive and little-known group of several hundred of the country’s most powerful religious and social conservatives. Founded in 1981 by evangelical leader Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and co-author of the Left Behind apocalyptic series of books, the CNP has been described as a conservative answer to the Council on Foreign Relations. Its members were advised not to discuss the group or mention its name, even to one another. “The media should not know when or where we meet or who takes part in our programs, before [or] after a meeting,” read another rule, reported in 2004 by The New York Times.

Members’ names did, eventually, begin to leak out, among them, Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt; financier Foster Friess; religious leaders Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Tony Perkins; right-wing operatives like Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff; Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation; the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre; Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese; and Republican members of Congress like Tom DeLay and Jesse Helms. More recent members now occupy roles in the White House, notably Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, and Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. Rich DeVos, who described the group as a nexus of “the doers and the donors,” served two stints as CNP’s president.

“It was a clique [of] religious wackos who kept it all behind closed doors because they were afraid that people would see how nuts they were,” says Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist who attended several CNP events in the 1990s. “I was there because I was interested in tax policy and economics. I also had to get the support of the religious kooks, who didn’t give a rat’s ass about economics. And they realized that they had to get our support. It’s about creating the big tent. ‘Maybe you want theocracy – we don’t give a shit as long as we have our tax cuts.’ It’s kind of frightening.”

What became clear as the 2000s progressed was just how much these two agendas had fused. Under the direction of Charles and David Koch, and with increasing influence from the likes of the DeVos family, the Republican big tent shifted, from the Grand Old Party to what one longtime strategist who’s spent years mapping these networks refers to as the “Grand New Alliance” of libertarianism, populism and religious conservatism. (In the last election cycle, the DeVoses pledged $1.5 million to Freedom Partners Action Fund, which has been called the Koch network’s “secret bank.”) This new perspective, sometimes called the “biblical worldview,” was being sold at special “pastor policy briefings” across the country, in the hopes of politicizing the evangelical leaders who would then, in turn, rally their troops. At one I attended in Orlando, in 2012, David Barton, a former vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and a leading Christian nationalist, patiently explained to a room of Florida pastors why a radically reduced federal government was part of God’s plan. Jesus, for example, was opposed to the capital-gains tax, Barton said, citing passages in the books of Romans and Matthew.

“Without the libertarians and Tea Party brand, the Christian right would still be somewhat on the fringe of American politics,” the strategist, who asked for anonymity, explains. “But with the economic message, now we’ve got something that is more powerful and more dangerous from a progressive point of view.”

The result has been sweeping electoral power: According to figures published in The Washington Post, in states where the Koch network is most active, including the DeVoses’ home state of Michigan, Republicans control 100 percent of the state legislative majorities, 80 percent of governors, 77 percent of senators and 73 percent of U.S. House members. In 2016, evangelicals and born-again Christians constituted 43 percent of Trump’s total vote. Conservative Christians have been tapped to occupy the top Cabinet posts in the departments of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice; they are also set to serve as the president’s director of National Intelligence and head of the CIA. The vision is simple, as the political strategist puts it: “What they want is for churches and nonprofits and business to run the country.”

During his 2001 talk to the Gathering, Dick DeVos lamented that “the church, which ought to be, in our view, far more central to the life of the community, has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity.” Public schools, like unions, are key incubators of democracy; disempowering them also strips locales of their ability to organize around secular values. “We just can think of no better way,” Dick said, “to rebuild our families and our communities than to have that circle of church and school and family much more tightly focused and being built on a consistent worldview.”

The previous year, Betsy had spearheaded an aggressive $5.7 million campaign to convince Michigan voters to amend the state constitution to allow for school vouchers, something critics said would divert millions in state and local funds to private and parochial schools at the expense of the public-school system. Though the initiative ultimately failed, Dick DeVos told the Gathering he hoped “more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.”

The DeVoses quickly devised new ways to push that agenda. Rather than focus on ballot initiatives, they decided on a far more ambitious plan, funding nonprofits and political action committees to promote “school choice.” This was a national strategy, Dick said in a 2002 speech to the Heritage Foundation; to succeed, though, it had to appear local, “on a state-by-state basis, in order to be able to offer political consequence for opposition and political reward for support of education-reform issues.”

“We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities,” he noted. “Many of the activities and the political work that needs to go on will go on at the grass roots. It will go on quietly and it will go on in the form that often politics is done – one person at a time, speaking to another person in privacy.”

An untold amount of money was spent by conservatives on the pro-privatization effort. This included working from studies by Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has received funding from both the Koch and DeVos networks, that rebranded public schools as overbearing “government” education. Even more important was to somehow obscure the racist history of school vouchers – the idea was originally concocted in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education to channel white students, and their tax dollars, out of public schools – and appeal to blacks and Latinos. “Properly communicated,” Dick told the Heritage Foundation, school choice “can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic or otherwise.”

Betsy DeVos became the chairwoman of several nonprofits that were consolidated to become the national powerhouse behind the movement: the American Federation for Children. Along with its tax affiliate, the Alliance for School Choice, the organization published glossy brochures featuring pictures of smiling children of every race, with endorsements from African-American and Democratic politicians, including Sen. Cory Booker, then an upstart city councilman from Newark, New Jersey, who joined the board of Alliance for School Choice in 2002.

But the movement’s real agenda was less about helping black families than creating a nationwide push for school choice. Leading the charge was the Great Lakes Education Project, or GLEP, a Michigan-based group created by the DeVoses to strong-arm state legislators. The result was a complete overhaul of the Michigan legislature. “In education policy, there would be times where they didn’t have votes – maybe 10 or 15 Republicans who didn’t want to vote for totally expanding the charter-school cap,” says Brandon Dillon, who served in the Michigan Statehouse before becoming the state Democratic chair. “And they would slowly, through the speaker of the house, bring them in, one by one, and basically threaten them with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent against them in the primary.” Though the voucher fight had been lost, charter schools, which receive government funding but operate independently of the public-school system (and are seen by conservative policy groups as a gateway drug to privatization) sprang up across the state.

At the national level, Dick and Betsy DeVos founded a group called All Children Matter, which funded PACs to repeat the process in multiple states. In 2003, its first year, ACM spent $7.6 million “directly impacting statewide and state legislative elections in 10 targeted states,” according to its media materials, winning 121 out of 181 races, “phenomenally successful for a political organization.” Thirty states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of school-choice legislation on the books. Some of the most expansive are in Louisiana, Arizona and Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels, backed by ACM, launched a private-school vouchers program in 2011. Two years later, then-Gov. Mike Pence greatly expanded the program, creating what Mother Jones described as “a $135 million annual bonanza almost exclusively benefiting private religious schools.”

The downside of this, as became clear in public-school systems across the country, is charter schools and voucher programs entice parents with the promise of more “options,” while weeding out the children that neither charters nor private schools have the capacity to educate. Many parents have opted for “choice,” only to be turned away. This is particularly acute with regard to kids with behavioral issues like attention-deficit disorder. “The words are ‘Your child may be better served elsewhere,’ ” says one Michigan legislator.

As a result, public schools become dumping grounds for the most challenging cases. “Public schools have to educate them,” says Charles Hekman, a teacher in the Grand Rapids school system. “So we’re left with schools that have just so many needy children.” He tells me of entire classrooms full of kids struggling with various issues, one of the most significant being poverty, which is where “partnering” with churches comes in. “One church bought every child at my school a winter coat, a hat and gloves,” he says. “Now, I am an atheist. I don’t think the churches belong in the schools.” At the same time, he admits, “We can’t educate kids that are starving or don’t have clothes.”

As a candidate, Trump suggested diverting $20 billion in federal money toward private-school vouchers. School choice, he said, was the “civil rights issue of our time.” But mass privatization is about more than improving test scores, as was made clear in a report the Council for National Policy submitted to the Trump administration. Though CNP’s membership is closely held, the Southern Poverty Law Center recently obtained a copy of its 2014 roster. Betsy DeVos’ name didn’t appear on it, but her mother was on CNP’s board of governors and listed among its “Gold Circle Members.” The CNP’s view on education, as outlined in the report, is based on the definition in the 1828 version of Webster’s Dictionary: “To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, it is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable.”

The rest of the five-page document outlines a radical vision for the Department of Education, the first step of which would be to eliminate it, transferring responsibility for public-school education to the states. In its place, the CNP suggests creating a “President’s Advisory Council on Public Education Reform,” a sub-Cabinet-level department that would serve as a “consulting service” to state education departments. Among the other recommendations: Restore Ten Commandments posters at all public schools, encourage schools to “recognize traditional holidays (e.g., Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas) as celebrations of our Judeo-Christian heritage,” and implement Bible classes. The authors advocate a “gradual, voluntary” approach to promoting “free-market private schools, church schools and home schools as the normative American practice.” But, they add elsewhere, “It is not unreasonable to believe that many state officials will be emboldened for change along those lines when the Trump administration is fully in place.”

Trump has called school choice the "civil rights issue of our time," and nominated DeVos as a champion of charter schools and voucher programs.

One overcast January morning, I visit the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a Grand Rapids-based think tank that Bellant, among others, sees as the “perfect synthesis of free enterprise and religion.” In the lobby of its $7 million headquarters, a glass plaque lists its core donors: the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation and the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. Acton’s president, Rev. Robert Sirico, feels that Betsy – who wasn’t a Trump supporter, he reminds me (“She supported Rubio”) – has been misunderstood. “She is not the stereotype that people have painted of her,” he says. Her approach is much more “loving.” The DeVoses have gay friends, for example, and Betsy was reportedly against the Trump administration’s rollback of transgender rights. “They’re going to have their beliefs on sexual morality and all the rest,” Sirico says of the DeVos family, “but these people are not personally looking to persecute somebody.”

The same is true, Sirico says, of the DeVoses’ vision for the role of government. Ideally, the state would hardly exist other than to promote “tolerance” between people with varying viewpoints, something he calls a “generous orthodoxy.” This is not the same as promoting pluralism. “If I tolerate something you’re doing, it’s that I don’t particularly like what you’re doing,” he says, “but I don’t stop you from doing it.” Private interests, ideally those engaged in what Sirico calls a “virtuous cycle of philanthropy,” would take over the role of modeling good behavior. “But not in a kind of disdainful or noblesse oblige . . .” He pauses. “Well, that’s not a bad concept.”

Grand Rapids, where the DeVoses have invested heavily in infrastructure and also, crucially, in the construction firm that managed many of the largest projects, offers a microcosmic example of what this might look like. Virtually every public park or event space is named for one of the city’s prominent Christian families. So are its university buildings, hotels and parking lots. There is the DeVos Place convention center, the DeVos Performance Hall and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. The student center at Grand Valley State University is named for Richard M. DeVos. At Calvin College, there is the DeVos Communication Center. I stayed at the Amway Grand Hotel, where portraits of Rich DeVos Sr. and his business partner, Jay Van Andel, hang on the wood-paneled walls.

Recently, the DeVoses disclosed a lifetime giving tally of more than $1 billion, spread across five family foundations. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation alone has given out $139 million in charitable donations, many of them to fund Michigan-based projects. With all that money comes complicity, or simply silence. Most of the people I spoke to in Grand Rapids refused to go on the record about the DeVoses. A lot of others wouldn’t return my phone calls. “The problem is that everyone is so linked together here when it comes to real-estate development or nonprofits or a spouse’s job,” explains Elizabeth Welch, a Grand Rapids attorney and member of the area’s philanthropic community. As a Democrat and school-board member, Welch publicly questioned DeVos’ qualifications for education secretary. “I know about 10 people who thanked me for doing that because they wanted to say something and couldn’t,” she says.

Western Michigan is heavily Republican, though Grand Rapids, ironically, has been a Democratic stronghold since the Clinton era, notes Dillon, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. But the center of power in Grand Rapids is not, fundamentally, in its politics but in the relationships forged between the wealthy benefactors and those they support. “ ’Ideology doesn’t matter at the local level’ is something folks say around here,” says Tami VandenBerg, a human-rights activist who runs a nonprofit that secures housing for the homeless. VandenBerg decided a few years ago to not seek support from the DeVoses or other families whose politics she disagrees with, but many others haven’t been able to make that leap. “I talk to directors of nonprofits all the time who worry if they get involved with certain topics or candidates they won’t receive the funding they need to run their projects,” she says. “If you want to run for office, you have to think about that. If you’re a nonprofit, you have to think about that. You constantly have to think about how that might affect your daily life.”

One afternoon I paid a visit to a community development organization called LINC UP, which is located in the heart of Grand Rapids’ black community, a ZIP code that LINC’s director, Darel Ross, told me had the highest number of children with lead poisoning in the state in 2013. According to one financial news service, Grand Rapids, where some 20 percent of the 195,000 residents are black, is the fifth-worst city for African-Americans in the United States; some 38 percent of black residents in and around the urban center live in poverty. Since its founding, LINC UP has received millions of dollars from Dick’s younger brother, Doug DeVos, and his wife, Maria, who have invested in a number of projects in the city’s minority communities, some faith-based and others, like LINC UP, more secular. Ross, who had recently accepted a new job at an organization run by Betsy and Dick’s 35-year-old son, Rick, was careful to credit the local plutocracy for making the city more vibrant. “If there’s a kid on the corner without a coat, the city will rally behind him and there’ll be hundreds of coats donated,” Ross says. “But very rarely does anybody take the time to ask, ‘Why doesn’t he have a coat?’ ”

Demonstrators at a D.C. public school blocked DeVos from entering the building in February.

These are the systemic issues that Grand Rapids’ culture of charity fails to address. “We have a saying in West Michigan,” Jeff Smith, a community organizer, jokes: “Grand Rapids does charity really well, we just don’t do justice for shit.” Smith runs the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, a watchdog organization for people whose interests have largely been suppressed, he believes, by the local Dutch power brokers. “The philanthropic community here has their tentacles in so many places,” says Smith. “They’ll offer some form of safety net, but they do it primarily through mechanisms that are faith-based, so it’s an opportunity to evangelize.”

Many of these projects target Grand Rapids’ communities of color. Gatherings of Hope, a religious nonprofit funded by Doug and Maria DeVos, provides leadership training for black and Latino pastors, which one progressive ally of Doug and Maria’s concedes might be seen as paternalistic. But the counterargument, she says, is that given the traditional role of churches in minority communities, working with their leaders is simply more culturally sensitive. “It’s meeting people where they’re at rather than imposing a structure on them,” she says. “They don’t need white social workers coming in to tell them how to run their lives.”

“Whitey, stay out unless you partner,” in fact, is a direct quote from research commissioned by the DeVos family in 1995 to fine-tune ways to infiltrate minority communities – the Shfela of our culture. The family enlisted Christian management consultants to conduct interviews with ministry leaders across the country and held focus groups in cities including Phoenix, Orlando, Boston and Grand Rapids. Conclusions included a “need to reach youth before age 12” and a commitment to strengthening the urban church, which “is still the best place to influence youth.”

Out of this came the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative, which, according to its website, “partner[s] with area churches and youth ministries to challenge approximately 35 youth each year to become Christ-like, cross-cultural, servant leaders.” These “city coordinators,” as they’re called, in turn build out a network of youth ministers, who create their own mentoring programs – the same multilevel approach Amway has championed for the past 60 years. “It’s all about evangelizing people through sales and building your network,” says one Grand Rapids resident. “You transform the culture from within. That’s their model.” One celebrated graduate of the program, a pastor and former corporate lawyer named Jeremy Del Rio, started the Thrive Collective, which “adopts” New York City public schools through partnerships with churches and an emphasis on the value of mentorship. It has since sent volunteers into 100 of the city’s cash-strapped public schools under the pretense of art, working on projects like painting murals.

In West Michigan, such pretense has been unnecessary. Over the past few years, with generous support from Doug and Maria DeVos, the Grand Rapids Public School system enacted its “transformation plan,” closing schools one public-education advocate described as “no longer serving the needs of the community well,” and restructuring secondary education around support from the private sector. Betsy DeVos, who has had limited involvement with the city’s school system, nonetheless paid for executive coaching sessions for the district’s superintendent, Teresa Weatherall Neal. Neal has since referred to Betsy as a mentor whose support has been invaluable to the district’s “transformation.” (The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment from Betsy DeVos. A spokesman for the family confirmed several figures with regard to its philanthropic and political donations.)

In many regards, the plan has been a success. Of the
city’s eight public high schools, six now focus on college prep; three of these
are “themed,” specializing in areas like art or environmental
science. But this has its own cost, says Hekman, the public school teacher. “Parents
have to provide transportation and make extra commitments,” he says. “And
if they can’t meet all these requirements, the kids can get kicked out.”
That leaves the city’s two “comprehensive” public high schools,
Ottawa Hills and Union High, which have been mostly left out of the
district-wide transformation plan. They have, however, been fertile ground for
a spin-off of the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative, the Grand Rapids
Initiative for Leaders, which works with 30 kids at both high schools. “They
are training students to be peer mentors through a faith perspective in the public
schools,” says Smith. “This is about injecting Christian values
into public education. But it’s also about how they can have more control as
they’re setting about dismantling it.”

• • •

UPDATED: A response from Thrive Collective’s executive director, Jeremy Del Rio.

In “Betsy DeVos’ Holy War,” Janet Reitman alleges that the nonprofit arts and mentoring programs I lead are a “pretense” for churches to “evangelize” in public schools; and that somehow my association with the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative proves that Mrs. DeVos’ supposedly decades-long master plan to undermine public education was working even before her appointment as Education Secretary.

For a lifelong activist who came of age in the 1980s and 90s, I imagined a mention in Rolling Stone as a badge of honor, signaling that a lifetime of grassroots youth and community organizing had captured a wider public consciousness. Never would I have expected the magazine to offer me as Exhibit A in a misinformed conspiracy theory without even giving me an opportunity to comment on allegations before publication.

The pretension here: not once did Ms. Reitman or anyone from Rolling Stone speak to me or even reach out before publishing this defamatory libel. Had she done a rudimentary fact check, she could have met principals and students from twenty Brooklyn schools where we have worked without even leaving her home borough, or one hundred schools citywide plus others nationally. She could have visited fifteen school murals completed in Brooklyn since 2011 (and four currently in production), or thirty-five completed citywide (and thirteen in production).

She could have watched thirty-nine student films produced last year, or interviewed 2,800 students, hundreds of parents and volunteers, scores of UFT teachers with whom we collaborate every day, or 100% of the graduating seniors from last year’s mentoring programs who are enrolled in colleges today. She could have interviewed eight current and former Democratic City Council Members who have invested in twenty-five of our projects since 2014, a Republican state senator, or Mayor Bill de Blasio, who commended Thrive Collective for, “empowering the next generation to rise and fostering a more equitable tomorrow.” She might have even interviewed the outspoken DeVos critic UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who hosted and sponsored our first annual “We Are Thrive” fundraiser last spring.

Had she done any of those things, she would have seen evidence of students working collaboratively with artists and mentors to reclaim public spaces and create enduring beauty. Our programs and impacts speak for themselves. Pretense does not.

Instead, Rolling Stone published alternative facts as fake news and missed the real story.

New York City, arguably the arts and culture capital of the world, and the city both Rolling Stone and Thrive Collective call home, lacks art teachers of any kind in 419 public schools primarily in low-income communities of color. At Thrive Collective, we cannot imagine a world without visual or performing arts, music or film, or any expression at all. Yet our City sentences 250,000 of our most vulnerable New Yorkers to that kind of artless education every day. By diminishing the work of nearly sixty affiliated Thrive Collective artists, filmmakers, musicians, and art educators, Rolling Stone helps perpetuate a perfectly curable injustice.

As far as my personal credentials and relationship with Betsy DeVos are concerned, I thrive building bridges between unlikely allies in the fight for educational justice. I have been a student organizer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side since the 1980s, a minister since 1994, a lawyer since 1999, a professor since 2004, and a graduate and faculty member of the nonpolitical, accredited youth ministry training DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative since 2011. I have briefly met Mrs. DeVos twice, and have never discussed politics or educational policy with her or anyone associated with her political or education-related activism. I have written and spoken extensively on public education reform for the last decade.

None of the school programs I lead feature religious evangelizing of any sort. When religion factors directly into a specific project, like murals that include women wearing hijabs, it is because those symbols inextricably reflect the cultural fabric of the communities that created them. Religion was neither the driving message, nor was it purposely omitted from that expression of community and culture.

Conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, unionized teachers, homeschool parents, American citizens, undocumented immigrants – all are welcome in Thrive’s big tent. Our one condition: do you care about restoring the promise of public education for everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us? If so, then you can fight alongside us any day.

If not, then we’ll respectfully bring the fight to you.

In service,

Jeremy R. Del Rio, Esq.

Executive Director

Thrive Collective


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