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Current Events The ballot box is only the beginning

Nov. 19, 2018
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When Barack Obama delivered his farewell address, I sat on the couch with my father and we both cried for the speech’s entirety. I proceeded to listen to the song “One Last Time” from Hamilton, feeling it fitting in my ever-growing, immeasurable angst and fear for an America without Obama at its helm—with a Trump at its helm. At eight years old, my parents took me to the polls in the razorblade Californian sunlight and I did not comprehend, but I felt the groundswell ripening around us. I remember 2008 with the memory of a child, but I still remember it. I still know how the sound of Obama’s voice on the TV that night brought my parents to ecstatic tears and me to a trembling in my fingers. I certainly couldn’t explain anything about politics to anyone then but still, somewhere, something irreversible lurched in me. 

When November 9th, 2016 happened, I started tugging my hair out. Clawing at my pimples. Gnawing on my fingernails, cuticles, skin. This is what I do when I am swollen with hurt: I unravel myself. I want to enclose the shakiness of the world, transfer my too-vague and too-bottomless anxiety into hurting myself in these small ways. Into tangibility. Since I began living in Trump’s America, I have unraveled myself every day. Every day is a picking, biting, knuckle-cracking sort of day. That night was not anything new, but a culmination, a reaffirmation, of the wounds unacknowledged and erased at the heart of America. That night, at sixteen, things were different. I’d canvassed, called and texted voters, hosted phone banks and rallies, fundraised, felt the ground shake, felt what people could do, what they could fight for, 16-year-old girls even, who’d been indoctrinated with self-underestimation. That night I also knew: oh. We can do all that and still lose. We can do all that and...shit still happens. A reckoning silly to me now, self-evident, but, at 16, I’d wanted to win that election so badly my heart flew into itself, into a vigorous idealism and that elementary belief: America is flawed, but it wants to do the right thing. It’s good at its core. 

On November 6th, 2018, I wrangled myself into bed, away from the computer and the polls and constant refreshing and FiveThirtyEight and still, I could not sleep. In Paris, America a sea away from me, I felt more American than ever. The incessance of our Americanness. Hours, a nation collected at our screens, at the lip of progress, hoping. Sometimes I overestimate the universality of compassion and decency in America. Sometimes I realize my anger, the roused rage against injustices perpetrated and normalized by the current administration and Congress, is everyone’s anger, but no—people, in 2018, will still vote for someone like Ted Cruz. Of course they will, but still, you hope, terribly. You want more from your country. 

The night of the 2018 midterms, we gained and we lost. Records were shattered: 103 women were elected to Congress, a record-breaker; there was a 75% increase in women of color running for Congress since 2012. At least 244 LGBTQ+ candidates ran. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, at twenty-nine years old. Young people turned out to vote in record numbers. The New York Times estimates that around 114 million ballots were cast this year, a significant rise from the 83 million ballots cast in 2014. This matters, breathtakingly, because it’s not a presidential election. Midterm elections usually acquire lackluster voter turnout, for a whole plethora of reasons, but our generation seems to grasp how crucial every election is, that we cannot afford to skip out on any. According to Vox, it is estimated that around 36 million people voted early this year. 

History burst out from the unlikeliest of places. The first Native American women and the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. The first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. The first openly gay governor. History that gilded my heart, goldened the bleary-eyed night for me. Lucy McBath, a fierce social justice advocate and the mother of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old black boy who was shot and murdered by a white man for playing loud music in 2012 in what is believed to be a hate crime (the shooter has since been convicted of first-degree murder), ran for Congress in Georgia’s 6th congressional district and won. Remarkable, unbelievable things. The Democrats took back the House. Perhaps the most glorious upset, however, was Florida’s passing of the constitutional Amendment 4, a “key ballot initiative that will restore voting rights to citizens convicted of certain felonies after they have served their sentences, including prison terms, parole, and probationary periods,” as described by NPR. 1.5 million people are currently unable to vote because of this restriction, and this initiative utterly upends this injustice. Over 20% of African-American Floridians who are otherwise eligible voters will be able to vote now. 

I wanted so much: a victory over Ted Cruz for Beto O’Rourke, most ardently. I wanted Democrats to take the Senate, which I knew was nearly impossible, but I wanted, of course, anyhow. 

We didn’t drape the country in blue like we wanted to, in a ravenous and expansive blue, but we are a country gerrymandered to extremes, with the right to vote deformed into an elusive privilege by the Republican Party. The voter suppression was rampant in areas heavily populated by marginalized communities, and this severe disdain for democracy, this weaponization of the most elementary tool of our democracy, should not surprise us. It should intensify our intolerance to the oppression-reliant ideology of the current Republican Party in Congress and the White House. It should worry every citizen, should unnerve conservatives, because democracy, what America wants to embody, should not look like what it does today: participation withheld from so many Americans. It should be accessible. It is supposed to be a right. 

The midterms are over, but what I must insist on is this: our activism cannot begin and end at the ballot box. Too many people are denied their ability to vote, and more so, voting is not a cure for tyranny—it is a starting point for civic engagement. Now, we fight on. To engage in changemaking only through voting, only in election years, cannot on its own drive the radical change we need. 

What I suggest: fighting like hell to dismantle voter suppression. Although it is not an end-all-be-all, voting matters. Undoubtedly. The extreme measures (almost exclusively) Republicans take to suppress the vote should make that obvious. Why else would anyone invest so much effort in suppression? In engaging with the system of voting itself, young people can reshape what representation looks like. We are uniquely capable of reconstructing politics, and to do so, our activism must extend beyond a single vote or election into the difficult trenches of systemic, radical change. 

In Killing Rage: Ending Racism, bell hooks says, “There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” The shift in American consciousness must be an opening, an extending. Activism isn’t a hat you pull on once in a great while, or a one-time event; it is how you engage with the people and country around you, with its history and its fractures. It is even how you engage with yourself. We must take care of ourselves and allow ourselves the room to breathe, grow, ache. We must also wade into discomfort, often, and prioritize the work of change. 

You need not be a capital-A Activist, but, to call oneself “apolitical” is a privilege, often a cop-out or resistance to critical self-examination. If you’re “not really into politics,” let me say something: politics is certainly into you. We are steeped in politics. Politics does not exist in a vacuum. It touches everything, especially in 2018, and to not at least think about that, about its inextricable omnipresence in the lives of those with marginalized identities, is letting yourself off the hook. If you think politics doesn’t affect you, it does. It affects everyone.

To the family members I have who still somehow support Donald Trump and his agenda, who still support the current Republican Party in office, there seems a strange disconnect. It’s as if these family members believe that politics can be isolated, put away at times, that it is something we can nicely tidy up and shove under the couch while we have dinner, as if their politics don’t directly conflict with the existence of people they love. As if their adamant support for a hateful, reckless, cruel, incompetent man is separate from the hateful, reckless, cruel, incompetent “policies” he fights to enact. As if I, a queer young woman, exist disconnected from these policies. 

Let me say it this way: they have the privilege to “put away” politics. It is not written on their face, their body, their moving through the world every single day. Or they pretend it isn’t. I must constantly repress elemental parts of myself with these family members. I contain myself: do not mention anything even hinting at queerness, do not mention how you helped organize a march, how you love your gender studies class, how you wrote a new piece about feminism, never even say the word “non-binary” or “pansexual,” nothing. I know it is far worse for so many others, who cannot “pass” or suppress facets of their identity, but still, these little containments build up, burn in my gut. And you know what? They matter. 

So yes, we must vote and fight tenaciously for every American’s right to do so, uninhibitedly. We must do more than that, though. We must vote and try to dismantle the forms of oppression that tangle with our lives “outside” of politics. Because really, that “outside” doesn’t exist for marginalized people, not at all. 

I mean not that every person must be a perfect activist, but that we should strive to understand that lofty, vague thing we call “civic engagement” as something far more everyday, entrenched in the roots of our lives. We should call upon ourselves to do more than vote, if we are able. Slacktivism is not activism. To post about issues is not bad, but one’s political consciousness and efforts should not end there. 

I want to offer up a list of ideas and resources to throw yourself into civic engagement, beyond voting, at whatever level you can handle. As an often-anxious introvert with a terror of phone-banking and incessant social interaction, I want to highlight activities uniquely suited to the more introverted, perhaps highly sensitive activist. Really, for everyone, though—this list is just a diving board. The opportunities abound.

  • First and foremost, decide which issues you want to focus on. I have always wanted to engage in everything at once, to try and work on every single problem plaguing America at the same time. This is not how effective change works, though, and I’ve since learned that it’s far more important to dive deeply, meaningfully into an issue rather than only commit to surface-level engagement with a million issues. You can care about everything, but focus on a few things at a time. There is nothing more rewarding than not only volunteering or getting involved but getting really involved. I aim for depth in volunteer work, which requires a lot of patience and dedication, but it is, to me, truly the only way to incite radical change. Voting rights, gun violence, reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, healthcare, whatever it may be, you can hone in on an issue and examine its intersections with other conflicts, because none of these things exist separate from one another. Intersectionalize your activism, whatever it may be. 
  • Start a feminist consciousness-raising group. Starting, at a recognized level, with the feminist organization New York Radical Women, the idea came from Anne Forer, who asked her fellow members to explain ways they’d been oppressed, to “raise her consciousness” of experiences outside of her own. Kathie Sarachild, another member, “realized that the personal experience of an individual woman could be instructive for many women.” Essentially, thanks to centuries of misogyny and oppression, the personal is political, and these groups aim to express that—the individual humans affected by oppression. These groups choose topics somehow related, even vaguely, to women’s experiences, and take turns speaking about the topic. This structure can and should make a comeback, but be intersectionalized as well—rather than expect women of color to patiently explain and validate their own oppression to white women, these groups can be made into networks of all different women and nonbinary people. Truly, these groups can be so many things. (I’m fond of feminist book clubs!) Start one at school or a community club; contact your local library or a cafe about using free meeting spaces. I’ve had good experiences with this, and lots of local spaces are more than willing to help you out, especially if you can describe how your group will empower the community. These groups can organize individuals into communities aware of a myriad of experiences, and eventually transcend discussion into campaigning, too. Read more about how to start your own group here
  • Digital campaigning. Posting about important issues on social media certainly matters, and can make movements accessible, but social media alone most definitely cannot overhaul the problems embedded in American politics, institutions, and policy. 
    • Text-banking. This is probably most relevant during campaign seasons, but there are more opportunities for text-banking throughout the year than you might think, like fundraising efforts and recruiting volunteers. I love the Open Progress Text Troop, which I used during the midterms. Text-banking is the best thing ever for introverts who despise talking with random, often angry people on the phone; instead, you can talk to them via text! Truly, though, text-banking feels more effective to me, in certain ways, than phone banking: everyone checks their texts (especially young people), it’s much quicker and an easy way to gather some highly useful data on candidates/races, and you can text a ton of people at once. You can also still have meaningful, productive conversations with regular people, and make people know that actual human beings are taking the time to volunteer and want their support. People can be awful, too, or troll you, but overall it’s easy and still important work that really anyone can do with only a few hours a week. Multilingual volunteers in particular are needed. Open Progress’ platform works best on a computer—you do not use your phone number or full name, and they have an easy, efficient program for texting. Some other text-banking opportunities include:
    • Digital micro-volunteering. A plethora of small but deeply needed online volunteering opportunities exist. There are so many ways to offer any skills you have, and it’s accessible from anywhere with internet. Here are some links to help you find opportunities:
  • Focus on local organizations. I love the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and they do desperately need as much support as possible. However, smaller, local organizations are often severely underfunded and understaffed, when they actually have the ability to make the most immediate, tangible change in the lives of people around you. I highly recommend that you research local or statewide organizations, and ask what they most need. They know better than you. Your skills, no matter what they may be, are needed somewhere—so please find specific organizations to volunteer with and give it your all. Some useful tools for finding them:
  • Be informed about local and statewide politics! My activist work has mostly focused on California-specific issues and politics. National politics obviously matter, but they are not more important than local politics. Know your congressional representatives, but also, know your state Congresspeople. Learn about your governor. Learn about your district’s school board. Your city council. I am an ardent believer that change stirs from the bottom up. Go to town halls. Go to city council meetings. Yes, they may feel dull, but municipal and statewide politics most directly impact your life. You also have the most control and impact over local politics. California, for example, has committed to the Paris Accords even though as a country, the president has pulled us out. While the United States’ state system can certainly be dysfunctional and imperfect, it also exists for a reason, and every state has an amount of sovereignty that allows it to enact a statewide vision—which, of course, can be a terrible thing. If your state has inadequate gun control, be aware of that. Focus on state legislation. Resistance and change start close to home.
  • Fight voter suppression incessantly, noisily, and passionately. Voter suppression threatens everything America is supposed to be about, and ending it really shouldn’t be a partisan position. The fight for the right to vote is the most patriotic fight there is. Racism, bigotry, and nativism produce the GOP’s voter suppression tactics, and none of that is remotely patriotic. Voter suppression manifests in insidious ways, such as voter ID laws, outdated and malfunctioning voter equipment, poll hours, etc. Read up on your state’s voting laws, and fight for a fair, free democracy for everyone. My favorite organizations are Let America Vote,League of Women Voters, and Spread the Vote.
  • Educate yourself constantly, and make the time to do so. Embolden your passion with information. Become as well-informed as possible on the issues you care about, and then some. Take the time to read up on issues you know nothing about. Read op-eds on the topics, research the statistics, and always question the sources. The politicians currently controlling the government tend to lie, a lot. That’s not my opinion; that is a fact. We need a well-informed populace to call them out on it, to recognize facts as facts. It is one thing to be passionate about something, but to be well-informed makes you capable of actually working towards the most effective, nuanced change possible. Care enough to admit that you do not know everything on a topic. Read, read, read.
  • Read and write. Op-eds. Letters to your Congresspeople. Write about the issues you have a unique perspective on, about the issues you are well-equipped to write about. Also: writing need not be “political” to be political. Meaning, writing in general matters—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, everything. Read policy books. Read fiction. Read things by non-white-men. Literature can be activism in itself, a revolution all its own. Marginalized voices, writing, and making art can crack the world open; it is a revolutionary act. The human is at the heart of politics, so yes, fiction matters, poetry matters. White people: actually listen to non-white people without immediate defensiveness. It’s a derailing strategy. It ignores a history that benefits you even if you don’t realize it. Read experiences extraordinarily different from yours and encourage the people you know to do the same. Expand your circle of experience. I find literature to be my favorite way to do this, to push myself out of myself. Here are some resources for writing and reading as an activist:
  • Raise money. In America, money dictates too much. To change that, though, progressive organizations ironically need money to be effective. Fundraising is challenging and necessary. Holding fundraisers for organizations—again, I suggest local ones—is one of the most vital actions you can take. I urge you to research and ask specifically what donations will be used for. Some ideas and resources that I’ve found most helpful for fundraising:

The ideas and resources I have outlined should be a mere starting point for newbie activists. Google can direct you to infinities of creative, helpful resources. To truly challenge yourself to expand your activism beyond voting, to prioritize civic activity, to reframe our general conception of political engagement, to volunteer outside of election seasons—all of this matters. Our mechanisms for political action are varied and expansive, and it all starts with voting, but that is not an ending in itself. Politics shape our lives and our lives, in turn, should shape our politics.