Emily Walton 

Galoshes, potatoes, politics and ruffling feathers

Just when you think you've figured out Emily Walton—and there's plenty to figure out—there are more things she's added to her formidable list of accomplishments.

The 36-year-old political activist is a staunch advocate for public education, yet is a product of homeschooling. As a young girl she dreamed of being a ballerina, but needed to don knee-high galoshes to move hand lines on a Cassia County potato farm in order to pay for dance lessons.

She grew up in Declo but lived in north-central Idaho and southern California before settling in Boise where she's a regular fixture wherever there's conversation of social consequence. Of late, she's a newly elected board trustee at the College of Western Idaho, an advisory board member of Boise State Public Radio and the new state legislative manager for the national nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety, which launched an Idaho presence this year.

Let's begin with growing up in Declo.

Mom and dad decided to have 10 children and I'm the oldest; there's a 15-year difference between me and the youngest. My parents also decided to homeschool all of us. I think a fair amount of that was couched in some of their beliefs about the government and religion.

There must have been times when you wanted to socialize with kids at the public school.

Oh, we did. I went to three proms in one year: in Declo, Oakley, and either Burley or Minico. We were Mormons so you knew everyone in the valley.

Tell me more about your parents' belief systems.

When I was 17 our parents moved us to Harpster to be around people who were more like them; that's somewhere between Grangeville and Kooskia. Declo was a huge metropolis compared to Harpster. My parents wanted to be around people who were more like them and, quite frankly, those other people had a more apocalyptic view of the world. We didn't have too much personal identification and didn't have too many plans for the future.

Hold it, does that mean no driver's license or social security card?

I didn't drive until I was 22 and, when I was 18 years old, I had moved to Riverside, Calif., and got a job at a Mexican restaurant owned by El Salvadorans. But I was without a social security card. And they told me, "Oh, you're white. You don't need one."

The world has changed a bit since then.

And are you ready for this? Later in life, I got a job working for the Social Security Administration for two years.

When you moved back to Idaho, you decided to live in Boise, yes?

In 2001, I got a job at the Boise Centre as an operations supervisor. And I remember on my first day, three men said they couldn't work with a female supervisor and they walked off of the job. I said, "All right. Get out of here." And things were changing for me. I got a job at a CPA firm and got my GED when I was 28. That's when I met an amazing counselor at Boise State who really inspired me. I had thought that I was smart enough up until then. And looking back, that was just the saddest yet most hilarious thing. So, I flourished at Boise State.

Is that where your political activism gained steam?

I was very attracted to politics on campus, so I decided to run for office: lobbyist for the student association.

Did you ruffle any feathers doing that?

I don't know what you're talking about [big laugh.] Of course I did. I worked on inequitable funding issues. Boise State still gets a lot less per-student dollars from the state general fund than the University of Idaho.

Boise State President Bob Kustra made a pretty impassioned plea on that exact issue earlier this year in front of the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. So if you were queen for a day...

I need more than a day.

OK...If you were queen for a day, how would you fix that inequity?

You have to fix the funding. Restore funds to public universities.

But expanded funding doesn't fix that problem with the distribution formula.

I don't think the U of I is opposed to changing the formula. I think they're opposed to losing money.

But why wouldn't you change the formula first. Aren't we talking about an issue of fairness? Yes, raising revenues and setting budgets is a lot trickier. But anyone can choose to be fair in a heartbeat.

I wouldn't want U of I to be damaged. I don't think I would instantly slice the funding pie differently. We need to value that institution.

Speaking of institutions, can you appreciate the irony of your upbringing in a homeschool environment, yet today you're a trustee for the College of Western Idaho and a champion of public education?

I absolutely value public education and my story is a testament to that.

What does CWI need that it currently doesn't have?

Greater access. More mobility. More locations and classes for a growing student body.

So, are we talking about more brick and mortar?

Absolutely. Now's the time.

[As BW was going to press, CWI announced that it was buying 10 acres of prime real estate in Boise's West End. CWI officials said they were about to form steering committees to determine which classes and facilities would be most appropriate for the location. Walton, no doubt, will be very much a part of that conversation as well.]

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