By Tom Reardon, February 2020 issue.
The cream tends to rise to the top in most situations. One area where this is a rarity is politics. The cream, in the political world, is often in the background, working behind the scenes to help people get elected, keep them honest, and look out for the rest of us in the process.
For people in Phoenix, one such person who is back there, looking out for us, is Miryam Lerma, who recently founded For State’s Sake, an organization built upon the principle that one voice, even ours, can help make our state a better place.
Born in Holland, Lerma moved to Phoenix, Arizona with her mother at the age of 3 in 1980. After attending Richard C. Simis and Meadows schools in the Madison District, she graduated from Central High School and then got her bachelor’s degree in Education from Arizona State University. During the summers, Lerma would return to Amsterdam, where her father lived, and spend her holiday with her family in Holland, which has given her a unique perspective on how the world works. It wasn’t until 2018 that she became a United States citizen, but her desire to make our community stronger came well before she was able to vote.
In addition to Lerma being an incredible advocate for everyone (literally) in the state between For State’s Sake and her work with Save Our Schools Arizona, she spent her early career teaching in the Washington Elementary School District. She is also married to husband Bobby Lerma, a mortgage advisor and drummer in The Father Figures (full disclosure: Bobby is my bandmate), and the duo have a daughter, Elliot, who is in seventh grade. Lerma and her family live in central Phoenix near 12th Street and Glendale Ave., in Legislative District 28 where Lerma serves as executive secretary for the district board.
We caught up with Lerma to talk about getting involved with local politics, how we can do our part in the voting the process, and the importance of educating ourselves on the issues, as well as a few other things. Here’s what she had to say:
Echo: Thanks so much for taking some to talk with us. You’re a busy woman. Have you always been interested in politics?
Lerma: No, never. I've been trying to backtrack in my mind, you know, “When did this begin?” and I've pinpointed that I started being involved with the PTO at Elliot’s school (Madison Heights) when she was in kindergarten. During that time at her elementary school, I was president of the PTO for three years and it really was eye opening to see some of the inner workings of a school from a parent perspective.
Did you have to run in an election to be PTO President? Did that get your political life going?
Well, there is an election, but unfortunately, as I'm sure we'll get into not enough people get involved in these types of arenas. And so, there was no election, it was a no contest as there was no other candidates. That happened three years in a row. Typically, you do it two years in a row. There are bylaws that we abide by, but there was literally no one else to do it.
That must’ve been an eye-opening experience. What did you take away from it?
I discovered through this process that I wasn't interested (in politics prior) because I didn't know that I had skin in the game. I didn't understand the connection between politics and my life and the things that affect me. So that was the huge eye-opening discovery for this process of just becoming involved was to understand that this is affecting me, and I need to pay attention.
What has motivated you to do something about that idea of having skin in the game?
I would say getting more involved and seeing different perspectives and it blossomed out from there. If you think of the PTO as a small nucleus in the center, then if you look outside in the next rung, you have the school board. I started getting interested and asking, “What does the school board do and what are they up to?” And then, if you branch out from there, you've got the leaders in your legislative district.
I started to see how things develop and how they are being decided within the school about teachers, about classes, about students, and, obviously, about the budget. I started to see there was a connection and it kept going out further and out further. I started to realize that our state leaders and elected officials have a lot to do with everything that's going on right here in my backyard. Not only at my child's school, but also, in everything else in the community. Things like affordable housing and water management and all the things that are on my heart, they really have to do with what's happening right here in my own state by the people that we have elected to represent our values.
I think a lot of people overlook that. So, if someone wanted to get more involved, what advice would you give them?
Well, first and foremost, democracy is not a spectator sport, so, I would definitely suggest starting like I did and start in your own backyard. Check out the PTO and school boards in your own area if you have children, and even if you don’t, you live in a school district and you can go attend a school board meeting and just hear what's going on. I mean, it affects us all. Whether or not you have children, the future is in the hands of these children and it does matter what the school board is deciding for our kids.
I would say to join some (political) groups on social media. Figure out who your legislators are, for sure, and find out what legislative district you live, who represents you, and go to their website. Read about them, read articles, Google them, just find out what their values are and how they've been representing you and see if that lines up with how you want to be represented.
What do you do when you find out that you don’t quite see eye to eye with a candidate or someone that is representing you?
When you don’t see eye to eye with a candidate, it’s an opportunity to discuss it with them. Make an appointment, call their office, or send them an email to discuss the issues. If that candidate does get elected, you continue to stay engaged and hold them accountable. Also, Arizona has an awesome online tool called Request to Speak, RTS, that allows you to give our lawmakers feedback on bills. It is a bit of a misnomer, as you do not actually have to “speak”. You can give a thumbs up or thumbs down and leave comments on bills. You can find out more information on forstatessake.com.
I’m glad you mentioned For State’s Sake and your website. Tell us about it.
It's a website where people can go to get information about local political issues and the importance of local voting. I've made a T shirt that I designed to be a conversation starter that has state issues on it (t-shirts are available on the site). I hope this will get people discussing and acknowledging the issues that we can affect right here in Arizona that affect our daily lives while connecting the vote and your daily life.
We haven't had an official launch, but I do have an event coming up that Irene’s Tap Room (1227 E. Northern Avenue in Phoenix) is hosting on Valentine's day, which is also Arizona's birthday. We are promoting it as love Arizona by voting local or, “Love Arizona = Voting Local.” There will be several speakers including legislator Kelly Butler from District 28.
That’s awesome. What else can people do to get involved?
If you don’t want to support a candidate, there are also causes that you can support. For instance, the outlaw dirty money campaign is going on right now. You could work to gather signatures for that or other things, such as other initiatives that are trying to get on the ballot. If you're passionate about a topic and it's something that's trying to get onto the ballot, those things are important, too. So, it's not just a person you have to support, but it could be a cause or a movement. Get out and talk to people. It’s one conversation at a time. That’s what get things done.
Will you ever run for office?
No. I don't have the stomach for it or the heart. I find it all too heartbreaking, but I will continue to be as much as I can behind the scenes there. Every candidate has an enormous team of volunteers and committed people who work with them and for them and I will be that till the end.
To learn more, visit forstatessake.com.