I used to argue with friends about corrupt politicians and would vote, but I always saw myself as an outsider. I didn’t want to get my hands dirty. I had work to do, children to raise and books to write. I was too busy to volunteer locally to help my community.
But all of that changed in November 2016. I look back now and have to laugh at myself. I used to think that Democracy and the well-being of America was in the hands of politicians and people of power. In growing up, members of my family would argue: “I can’t change things. That’s just the way things are.”
And I believed that, too.
If I were lucky, my candidate would get elected and I’d ignore what they were doing because I had other stuff to do.
The day before the 2016 presidential election I told my work colleagues that there would be no way that Americans would vote in a man who bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” and called Mexicans “rapists.”
But I was wrong.
Little did I know that things would get worse, much worse.
Our president has called out those from “shithole” countries, he’s supported white supremacists at Charlottesville by saying that “both sides” were to blame, our government has pulled immigrant children from their parents as they try to come to America and this past week the president sided with Russia over America’s own intelligence agencies who gave him evidence two weeks before his becoming president that Russia was to blame in meddling in the November 2016 election.
America is in a dark place. Just when I think I’ve seen the worst, another big event takes place.
Prior to January 2017 I was disconnected and felt powerless. That is no longer the case.
During President Obama’s farewell address, I remember him saying that Americans need to get involved in their community and volunteer. He had faith in the American people and I thought it a great idea, but I turned away. I was busy.
I looked up Obama’s farewell presidential speech recently and found this quote:
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen. Citizen. So, you see, 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. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up, dive in, stay at it.”
Now I understand what Obama met.
My country, the country I raise my children, the country of my wife and all my family, needs each and every one of us.
But I didn’t understand this prior to November 2016.
Back in January 2017, I attended a “how to organize” event. The night before the training session, I lay in bed talking to my wife as couples do. I told her that I had wanted to go to a protest in Philadelphia to support those who fought against the Muslim country ban, but thought that the training would serve me better. Yet I was afraid.
I was afraid that I wouldn’t fit in, that there would be people better skilled than me, that I wouldn’t know what to do when I got there. I had a million reasons on why I shouldn’t go. My wife listened to me and she supported my decision and agreed with me that it would be harder to go and do something I’d never done before, but I would probably learn more than at the protest.
So I went.
I drove to North Philadelphia and arrived early on a Saturday morning in late January 2017. I learned a lot that day, but what really hit home was when the trainers took us through something they called a “Power exercise.”
I sat at a table with 5 other people. We had a poster-sized piece of white paper and some markers, and the trainer told us to draw what we thought was the perfect world. I spoke with the strangers at my table and we talked. We believed in education, peace, healthcare, etc. And we drew that.
About 10 minutes into the exercise, the trainer came over to our table and used a black marker to cross out a section. I noticed that he and another trainer did the same thing to other people’s drawings. Those at my table and I didn’t know what to do.
We tried to draw around the black mark on our sheet. A few minutes later the trainer came back and ripped a piece off our sheet. I heard cries from people at a nearby table as they watched in dismay as their work was destroyed.
I didn’t know what to do. I felt powerless.
By chance, I looked up and saw a group of people doing something extraordinary. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and took a picture.
The strangers at the table behind us had formed a protective circle around their drawing.
A whistle was blown and the trainer halted the exercise and pointed to the people who shielded their drawing.
The trainer faced us and said, “There are more than 100 of you, but only myself and another trainer who are disrupting. That’s 100 to 2. But we were winning. Imagine what would happen if all of you got up, linked arms and formed a large circle around all the tables.”
A light bulb went on inside me. I finally got it.
The trainer came closer to us and emphatically pointed at what he had written on the whiteboard in the front of the room: “I have power. You have power. WE have power.”
As cliché as it sounds, my life changed in that moment.
Our president is making decisions that go against my progressive values. You know that long laundry list of horrible events that have taken place so far since January 2017? I’m not powerless to bring change to my town, my county or my country.
President Obama’s call for Americans to “lace up shoes and do some organizing” now makes perfect sense to me.
Back in November 2016, I sat on the sidelines. I didn’t know how to help. I was afraid. I thought I might fail. I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. I just didn’t know where to begin.
In mid-January 2017, I was taking my daughter to a friend’s house on our block and noticed that they had two signs on their lawn. I read the signs, liked them and talked to my wife later that week about them. I wanted to get some for our lawn. I wanted people to see that we agreed with the values listed on the sign.
I made my order from the email listed on the signs and about a week later I was coming back from sledding with my kids when the signs arrived. A women in the Havertown-Area Community Action Group (H-CAN) had told me that she would personally drop the signs off to me. She did, I greeted her, we shook hands, she handed me my signs and she drove off.
That connection was my first with my local progressive values group. From there, my wife and I attended a meeting and it became very clear to me: We all wanted to do something to help, but weren’t sure how to do it.
But we met others like us, we talked, we listened, plans were made, whiteboards were used and I realized that Obama’s message of people getting up and organizing was becoming a reality.
Going from sitting on my sofa being angry at what was happening in the world to being an active member of the group took months. It just didn’t happen over night. My first H-CAN meetings gave me the courage to go to the organizing meeting where I participated in the “Power exercise,” and from there the protests and marches allowed me to learn more about how to volunteer at meetings as well as work with a team to build a voters guide.
Trust me, taking the first step is the hardest. Going from the sofa to a meeting was an extremely hard thing to do, but I cannot fully explain to you the joy of finding like-minded people who are working to make the community better.
I went from being afraid and unsure of myself to being actively involved. If I can do it, so can you.
The friendships I’ve formed, the work that we’ve done, it’s been an amazing journey so far. But I can’t really share with you the full experience. I think it has to be lived.
What I hope is that more Americans decide to listen to Obama’s call to “lace up your shoes” and get to work. Calls need to be made, ushers are needed for meetings, writers for op-eds and newsletters can find a home in groups like mine I belong all across this beautiful country of ours.
Volunteering can come in many forms. Showing up at a school board meeting to help an initiative, hosting a meeting at your house, book clubs, attending a training, and a whole host of things. You can be as involved (or not) as you like.
For a long time, I sat on my butt and didn’t act. When I had had enough, I took small baby steps and found my people. I didn’t just jump into the deep end of the pool. I listened to the news and then asked myself: What am I going to do?
Sometimes getting involved is as simple as buying a sign and putting it on your lawn.
I have power. You have power. WE have power.
I need to remember that.
What will you do with your power?
I hope and pray that you’ll join me.
(If you do want to help and live in my town, please join H-CAN. But if you’re looking for help on where to start and live outside Havertown, check on Indivisible’s map and find a group near your home.)