Politics and Prose’s Teach-ins Take a Cue From the 1960s
Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse’s answer to its community’s desire for action following the 2016 presidential election is a series of teach-ins in the spirit of 1960s activist gatherings.
“After the election, we had a lot of customers who were very expressive about how much they appreciated the store as a place they could go to have a kind of sanctuary where they could be with other people to discuss issues and read and converse and share ideas,” said Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of the Washington, D.C., store with her husband, Bradley Graham. “So we tried to think about what we could do to help people understand the changing political landscape and how we could be a resource for people who wanted to get involved in a range of issues.”
As a D.C. institution for more than 30 years, Politics and Prose has long stood for civil discourse and it continues to stage a diverse roster of discussions, panels, author readings and signings, and other events every night, with multiple events on weekends. But the teach-ins are a bit different from most events Politics and Prose does, said Graham, in that they aren’t associated with promoting a new book.
“We have a lot of those types of events going on in the store regardless,” said Graham. “But as people who came of age in the 1960s, we were familiar with the idea of teach-ins and we wanted to see if we could launch our own. Our staff was very, very excited about getting involved.”
So far, the format of the teach-ins has featured three panelists at a time, with Muscatine as moderator leading participants in a 30- to 45-minute discussion, followed by a question-and-answer period for another 30 to 45 minutes. The first teach-in, which tackled the topic of civil liberties, drew some 400 people to the store on Sunday, January 8, for a conversation featuring David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union; Todd A. Cox, director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School.
The second teach-in, on January 20, Inauguration Day, featured a discussion of women’s rights under the Trump administration with Fatima Goss Graves, senior vice president for program at the National Women’s Law Center; Jennifer Klein, an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law Center, who served as senior advisor on women’s issues to the Hillary for America campaign; and Rebecca Traister, a writer at large for New York magazine and author of Big Girls Don’t Cry (Free Press) and All the Single Ladies (Simon & Schuster).
A third teach-in on Sunday, February 26, on the subject of immigration featured Scott Michelman, the senior staff attorney at the ACLU of the District of Columbia; Nithya Nathan-Pineau, who manages the Detained Immigrant Children’s Program at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition; and Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program.
To date, each teach-in has filled Politics and Prose to capacity, said Graham, and livestreams of the events on Facebook drew hundreds more viewers and Twitter followers using the hashtag #TeachIn. These videos are now available on the Politics and Prose YouTube channel and the store website. According to Muscatine, the store’s marketing and events teams were heavily involved in the planning and execution of each event, including brainstorming about panelists, promoting the teach-ins on social media, and stocking display tables with books related to each topic.
Prior to bookselling, Graham worked as a journalist, while Muscatine’s background was in politics, so over several decades of working and living in D.C. they have built connections with many people who work in fields relevant to today’s political discourse.
“In D.C., there is such an enormous talent pool to draw from for these teach-ins,” said Muscatine. “We are so lucky that these very accomplished, very busy people have been so generous and so willing to give their time and energy to participate in these events just for the good of the community.”
Graham emphasized that, as an independent bookstore, Politics and Prose strives to remain non-partisan in its approach to bringing the polarizing issues of immigration, feminism, and personal freedom to the table.
“We’re not necessarily trying to present all points of view, because some of these issues have many, many points of view, but we’re at least trying to present a balanced picture,” said Graham.
For example, said Muscatine, for the immigration teach-in, the store reached out to a former Republican member of Congress for a different perspective from those of the other panelists, but he was unable to attend.
“We really are trying to make sure we have multiple perspectives. There are some issues that that is more natural for, and there are others, like civil liberties, that are really about constitutional rights; they’re not really partisan issues,” said Muscatine.
“We’re not trying to take sides here,” added Graham. “We’re more interested in informing and giving suggestions of ways for people to be active in their own way, as they see fit.”
The store tries to end each teach-in with ideas for people who want to get engaged in the issues, said Muscatine. “We usually ask the panelists to come prepared to provide guidance for people who may want to get involved,” she said.
Going forward, Graham and Muscatine said they will try to hold at least one teach-in per month. In the future, teach-in topics will include the media and press freedom, climate change, education, and healthcare.