Shepherd Janeway, 26, has taught creative writing for four years. As a “teaching artist,” Janeway describes their job as a way to merge social activism with art, giving young students the freedom to express their opinions.
“Sometimes [it’s] things like ‘I believe that we should have candy for dinner,’ and a lot of times [it’s] things like, ‘I believe that we shouldn't be racist anymore’ and ‘I believe that we don't need a wall’ and ‘I believe that love is love,’” Janeway said. “These are things that the students are coming up with themselves.”
Elementary schoolers in Madison are given this opportunity to express a cause that they believe in with Whoopensocker, the University of Wisconsin-Madison youth program that Janeway teaches for. Through creative writing, Janeway explained, children can.
“Young people and even very young people are paying close attention to what's going on in the world,” they said.
Janeway is a transgender, non-binary activist, and Whoopensocker is not the only way that they incorporate activism into education. Janeway will also be on the ballot this April for one of the three open seats on the Madison School Board.
Janeway said that they have always had a strong interest in public office and education reform, but reading transphobic comments from Mary Jo Walters, who was previously the only candidate for the positions, encouraged Janeway to run.
In December, Walters commented, “I’m a trans-a-phobic,” on Facebook. Walters also posted that “women can’t be men, men can’t be women.” Walters responded to backlash she experienced from her social media posts, saying “I’m not backing down,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
“[She] was making a point of her platform to target and roll back progressive and inclusive policies in the district, and I was hearing a lot of concern and urgency in the community calls for someone to do something,” Janeway said. “So I decided to do something.”
Janeway said that while they took time to think about whether they were capable and comfortable running, opposing Walters was a “gut instinct.” Defending transgender children in the school district, including their Whoopensocker students, was a priority.
They added that they’ve always been an activist, and their biological mother taught them to not only stand up for what they believe in, but be able to “explain why you believe in it.”
“Our existence, point blank, period, is political. Everything that we do has a consequence and has been informed by politicized decisions, whether or not they should’ve been politicized in the first place,” Janeway said, referring to their gender identity. “It's a moral imperative to do what I believe to be the right thing all of the time because my existence is political. I want it to reflect my politics and not to just be a mirror of the politics around me.”
Janeway expressed relief when Walters dropped out of the race in December. “Knowing that I could focus on being the best man for this job and not have to worry about responding to petty nonsense, I could really focus on being qualified for this,” they said.
Janeway now has one opponent, Laura Simkin, for seat three on the Madison School Board. The election will take place on April 5 and Janeway will appear on the ballot under the name Shepherd Joyner.