Pathways to activism
It took me three years in West Africa to see the United States from the outside in.
There are many reasons and ways to become politically active.
A good number of today’s activists are veterans of movements over the past half century: the civil rights movement, anti–Vietnam War protests, the anti-apartheid movement, the Central American solidarity movement, and, after the turn of the millennium, opposition to the US war in Iraq.
Not everyone has this history, though. I know quite a few dedicated door knockers whose political involvement sprang to life when Trump descended the golden escalator in 2015.
Even for many longtime activists, the Trump election and what followed was a powerful motivator. Jean Simons, a friend of mine – our daughters were in school together years ago – published a letter in the Washington Post in February. “Back in 2016,” she wrote, “we didn’t know that the Republican Party would so openly embrace white supremacy. But we did know that [we had to] do something to fight back against the lies, racism and violence of Donald Trump’s followers. . . . We raised money, wrote postcards, and made thousands of calls and texts to elect Democratic candidates and support Black-led grassroots groups across the country.”
Many activists I know are women my own age, from backgrounds like my own. Just as important are younger organizers, many of them Black and Latina women, who came of age politically during the Obama and Trump years. In some cases their communities have been directly affected by racial and economic injustice in ways that people like me haven’t experienced. As a result, they have different perspectives and sometimes a different kind of drive, and to some extent the rest of us are following their lead.
Looking back, I’ve tried to make sense of my own journey. Growing up white and in relative privilege, in a conventionally liberal New England home, I marched in antiwar protests as a high school student in the 1960s and knocked on doors for McGovern in 1972. But I was basically a wannabe, mimicking older activists. It wasn’t until I spent three years in West Africa – a junior year abroad at the University of Dakar in Senegal, and two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger – that I began to form a more coherent worldview.
Returning from Niger in 1977, I saw the United States through a new lens. What I had accepted all my life as normal now seemed an aberration. I’d lived for two years in one of the poorest countries in the world, and the wasteful, boastful consumerism of US society unsettled me. So did the notion of American exceptionalism and the arrogant exercise of US power. Reagan took office in 1981, surrounded by his coterie of cold warriors. The US was arming murderous regimes in El Salvador and elsewhere, while at home, a steady concentration of wealth was underway. I gravitated to the Central American–Caribbean solidarity movement and was active in it throughout the 1980s.
Some activists of that era saw lobbying Congress as a means to challenge US policies; the anti-apartheid movement, for example, used this strategy among others. Others disdained electoral politics as a hidebound system and an ineffective route to change, given big-money control of both major parties. I could see both points of view. Though I did my share of marching, I also edited legislative advocacy materials for a church lobbying office during the 1990s. That showed me how many critical issues, from climate change to racial justice to health care, were affected by who was in Congress and the White House and what they did or did not do.
In the first decades of the new millennium, a series of events laid bare the importance of the electoral arena: Bush v. Gore in 2000, the election of Obama in 2008, the election of Trump in 2016, and Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020. Just as consequential were GOP takeovers of state legislatures across the country, setting the stage for redistricting Democrats out of power and locking in minority party rule.
By 2021, with a wave of voter suppression laws sweeping the country and the rollback of the 1965 Voting Rights Act underway, there was no longer doubt: if we don’t act to protect voting rights and our democracy, we can’t hope to advance on any other issue.
But as a resident of the District of Columbia I have no voting representation in Congress. If I want to get anything done electorally, I need to venture outside DC. That’s how I found myself ringing doorbells and talking to voters in York, Pennsylvania, in 2004; in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 2008; in York again in 2016; and around Northern Virginia in the years that followed. In a future post I’ll reflect on the experience that moved me most deeply, my five days of canvassing in York in the runup to Trump’s 2016 victory.
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