And I’m 31 years old. I was very hesitant to put this out on the net. Because I am embarrassed. It seems counter to many of the things I stand for. I like to think I am “aware” of various social issues in my city and in the world. I care about issues affecting marginalized communities, I try to do as much community service and volunteer work as I can be plugged into. I’ve liked many a Facebook post (HA!) about all of the -isms (race, sex, homophobia, ability,). I popped champagne when marriage equality became law. I have a diverse set of friends and acquaintances. I’m in a book club where we talk about race! I am a black woman; I bring a diverse perspective by just living and breathing. I love Black History Month! My day job involves education policy work.
My greatest passion in life is to work to make sure that every child, regardless of their zip code, has the opportunity to realize the greatest vision for themselves. I feel individuals, communities, and private sector, non-profit, and government organizations have a stake in that same vision. I am acutely aware that my life would have turned out very differently without a whole bunch of investment from many people and systems. I will yell and scream and cry about inequity in our country….yadda…yadda…yadda…..blah, blah, blah. I am a “good” citizen……….aren’t I? (I’m aware that the notion of parsing citizenship up into binary notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is inherently problematic and perhaps lazy. I’m primarily speaking of my perception and expectation of MYSELF; ultimately everyone of course has to make a subjective value judgement that jives the way s/he wants to live in this regard).
But I have NEVER voted in a local election in my life, and I NEVER thought it was that big of deal. And then, like so many other people, the 2016 presidential election slapped the ego right out of my mouth. Of course I voted last fall, but like so many others it finally dawned on me that this one action, taken once every four years was not enough. So I work in public service, donate miniscule amounts of money to various organizations, tutor some kids semi-regularly and I talk about racism and sexism non-stop….AND?!
To top it all off I’m that person who, upon hearing that someone else is not going to vote in a presidential election, starts smugly ranting about how the ancestors fought, bled, and died for the enfranchisement of black people (ugh…I am seriously so embarrassed right now). With that, I had someone deluded myself into thinking I was an informed, engaged citizen.
- Could I tell you what bills are on my state congressional floor?
- Could I tell you who my state and city representatives were?
- Could I tell you the dates of local elections?
Heck No. I barely remember when trash pick-up in my city is. And for me, that is a SHAME! (just call me Black Cersei…..or Hotep Sistah). Because this is not the type of citizen I want to be. Everyone’s civic engagement will (and should) look different, but the very idea that we can have a robust, functioning democracy without putting in work after we exit the voting booth ( if some of us even do that more than every four years; see post title) is naive at best and negligent as worst.
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.
Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.
-President Barack Obama, January 2017
For the last few months, I have been on a mission to learn how to be a citizen (imagine that!) and to better engage in democracy. I’ve had to fight my shame and deep discomfort every step of the way. I sought to answer:
- What does that look like?
- What are my entry points?
- What is the local and state political infrastructure of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania ( my relatively new city and state)?
- What the heck is organizing? President Obama told me to go organize but I don’t even know what it is, who does it, when I should do it! HEEEEEEELLLLLPPPPPP!!!!
So I decided a good starting point for me was to just show up. I’ve attended as many organizer trainings, issue forums, activist group meetings, non-profit information sessions, and primers for running for office as I’ve been able to jam into my schedule. On a given week I’ve had anywhere from 3-5 post work and weekend events, with the primary goal of trying to learn and absorb as much information as possible. Even with all that, I’m nowhere close to answering these questions, but I feel like there are some key lessons that I’ve learned to date.
I’m not ready to give up on systems….YET…
This may be controversial but I still believe that as bureaucratic, inequitable, and sometimes corrupt our social, economic, and political structures are, there is still change to be had. There are many that feel that the various institutions that run our country (and perpetuate all is the -isms) are so inherently oppressive that working within the system is a massive waste of time. I can’t blame them, sometimes I think this was as well. But I also know that they won’t work at all unless we participate and stay informed. I can’t complain to my city councilman about neighborhood trash, if I don’t even know when city trash pick-up even happens.
If you stay away from a swamp, it will stay swampy. There are those in history that have bucked the system and those (many of whom we revere) that have still chosen to participation in some way, in service of incremental change. Some of this work hasn’t been flashy, some would say it hasn’t been big enough, that it requires too much capitulation to the ‘powers that be’, meanwhile people continue to suffer. I believe we need both types of people: people who rage against all of the oppressive, white-centered systems that exist (often at a greater sacrifice than many of us are willing to participate in), and people who embrace change that takes place gradually, over time. There has to be room for everyone, or else we lose too many.
Politics isn’t necessarily a dirty word
I am a lifelong skeptic of politics. I never saw myself having any part of it. I can barely tolerate navigating workplace drama. For me, community level engagement needed to be at a direct service level. I’ve had this inherent belief that any sort of politics is antithetical to authenticity. Politics was for self-centered, power hungry people. My dominated thoughts where:
- Why would I willingly and actively participate in a political system that has historically marginalized people that look like me?
- Why would I willingly and actively participate in a political system that continues to marginalized ( Voting Rights Act anyone?) people that look like me?
- The system is rigged, so my participation doesn’t matter
- Government is run by big business anyway – so what is my voice going to do?
- I don’t have the kind of money that allows elected officials, at any level, to listen to me.
But I’m tired guys. I’m tired of feeling self- defeated about our government. I tired of talking and complaining and judging, and not ACTING.
I’m not too old
Y’all, I’d somehow convinced myself that at 30+, I was too old to get engaged in government (someone give me a face palm here puh-lease!). I really thought that engaging with representatives was for young 20 something political superstars who work on the Hill. Well let me just say, that is naive. It’s never too late. If you don’t want to go march on the streets or organize, there’s still plenty of opportunity to give your representatives an earful every chance you can get. I’ve been so fearful of doing so many things in my life, and have missed out on amazing opportunities as a result. If I have to be the old lady in the room, then so be it.
Civic engagement and voting are two different things.
It can be straightforward (for some) to walk into a voting booth every four years (or two years or every six months) and vote. But to be an engaged citizen, damn, that takes TIME. You literally have to schedule citizenship into your calendar, particularly for things such as:
- Going to elected candidate forums, town halls, and other meetings
- Meeting with like-minded folks to organize around issues you collectively care about
- Getting to know, calling and writing your reps
- Learning about civic issues (listening to podcasts while cleaning or cooking makes this much easier!)
- Taking part in public service
- Raising money for a cause you care about
- Getting people registered and out to vote.
- Going to civic association meetings
- (Re) reading foundational American documents
- …..and so much more!
WOKENESS is not a competition….
As a recovering serial perpetrator of the wokeness olympics……I have come to see the light and also see that you better back your judgement up with sustained action of your own. Just like oppression olympics, going around yelling at people about how woke they are or are not may not always be the best strategy. BUT GEEZ (I said I was recovering not cured, HA!), there has to be a minimum threshold! As I’ve learned for myself, apathy can sometimes be more dangerous than ignorance. We have to be able to garner some base level of compassion for people who continue to suffer from the effects of multi-generational poverty and oppression. When we can’t see the world outside of our bubbles, when we don’t care about policies that do not affect us directly, we all lose. I know we are all trying to do what we can with what we know; none of us are perfect. However, the easiest way to get under my skin is to hit me with the ‘this doesn’t affect me so I don’t care’. OR ‘I built my life by myself’ Maybe someone can break this down for me, but the concept doesn’t make sense to me. I just don’t get it.
I’ll get soapboxy for a few sentences and say: those of us who think our various forms of privilege and ‘self-determination’ will protect us, PLEASE resist this notion. The very fact that you walk down the street unharmed in this country is the result of someone else’s time, blood, sweat, and tears, particularly if you are a member of a historically marginalized group. Please try to be that someone for someone else, in any way that you can – small or large. Stand up for someone/something outside of your immediate circle. AND please let’s all vote as much as we can. If voting wasn’t important, there wouldn’t be such a concerted effort to disenfranchise so many people.
Ok off the soap box!
This past winter, I marched in the Women’s March, but the most important march I will be making this Spring will be to the polls. On Philadelphia’s primary election day (May 16), I will be casting my very first vote in a local election. I’ll have the chance to choose my party’s candidates for:
- District Attorney
- City Controller
- Nine seats on Philadelphia County’s Court of Common Pleas
- Two seats on the Philadelphia Municipal Court
- Election officials (aka poll workers)
- One seat on PA’s Supreme Court
- Four seats on PA’s Superior Court
- Two seats on PA’s Commonwealth Court
Whew! But then it won’t stop there- I’m gonna have to continually engage with and talk to these people so they understand that my vote wasn’t a blank mandate. They will be hearing from me!
What about you? Have you always been politically engaged? Has the past election prompted you to re-rethink your feelings about voting and politics?