Librarian who rejected gift from Melania Trump: Give books to kids who need it.

First lady Melania Trump called on Dr. Seuss to help her celebrate National Read a Book Day on Sept. 6.

Then things got ... complicated.

Melania Trump reads a book to kids during the Easter Egg Roll at the White House in April 2017. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.


As the White House had previously announced, a school in each state that had "achieved high standards of excellence" would be receiving a box of 10 books by Dr. Seuss. Achieving "excellence" is a vague benchmark, of course — and one the White House doesn't define in detail in its press release — but it seemed as though performing well on standardized testing was a key benchmark.

In Massachusetts, that school selected to receive the donated books was Cambridgeport Elementary. The school librarian there, however, wasn't exactly happy about it.

In a blistering open letter to the first lady published on family reading blog The Horn Book, librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro laid out why she won't be keeping the books.

Although she said was "honored" by the gift and thanked Trump for the gesture, Soeiro pointed out why students in Cambridge — home to Harvard University, and a community with significant resources to offer its schools — certainly shouldn't be the ones accepting donated books from Washington when there are many other schools that need the help.

"My students have access to a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science," she wrote. "Meanwhile, school libraries around the country are being shuttered."

Detroit teachers protest in May 2016 after significant budget shortfalls cause large setbacks for the district. Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.

Soeiro noted the Trump administration has exacerbated education inequality by appointing Betsy DeVos — whose policies tend to favor students in wealthier or privileged areas, like Cambridge, over those in impoverished rural and urban districts — to run its education department.

"Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?" she wrote.

Education secretary Betsy DeVos. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

As you can imagine, Soeiro has faced both support and backlash for the letter.

The first lady responded to Soeiro in a statement from her communications team, suggesting the librarian needlessly made the gift political: "To turn the gesture of sending young students some books into something divisive is unfortunate, but the First Lady remains committed to her efforts on behalf of children everywhere."

Many online agreed:

In her letter criticizing Trump, Soeiro also called Dr. Seuss a "bit of a cliché" and noted his work's well-documented racist undertones — points conservative media seized and panned harshly.

But Soerico certainly has a group of supporters in her corner too — notably, it seems, many Cambridge parents.

CBS Boston reported that many moms and dads picking their kids up from school after the controversy unfolded agreed with Soerico's motives: "That’s the librarian’s prerogative and I support her decision," one dad chimed in. "I think the letter is really articulate, constructive in its suggestions," another told the news outlet.

Whether or not you agree with the librarian's decision to reject Trump's gift, one undeniable point in her letter is worth remembering: Public school kids deserve better.

"Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school 'choice' with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools," Soerico wrote. "Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control?"

Of course not. And our education policies should reflect that.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by Tod Perry

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