Politics is personal.
My grandfather Henry was born the day after Independence Day. We drove from Columbus, Ohio, to North Carolina each summer to celebrate his birthday and the Fourth of July on the Outer Banks. One summer, Henry gave us money to buy beach towels. We ran down the road to the Trading Post in our bare feet, stopping only to pick out sand spurs stuck in our heels. We came back and stormed into the house to show off our colorful selections.
Henry took one glance at Jasper’s towel, marched into the kitchen, and came back with a pair of scissors. He grabbed the towel and cut it into shreds on the living room floor. Jasper had chosen a towel with the confederate flag on it, unaware of its history. Henry, a proud Virginian, made sure we understood the significance of the flag, and the oppression it symbolized.
The week of my 18th birthday my mom took me with her on a bus full of League of Women Voters and other friends to Forsyth County, Georgia. We marched with 20,000 people from all over the country to protest violence that had broken out the week before at a Martin Luther King, Jr. parade.
As we marched, a thin line of National Guardsmen and policemen separated us from thousands dressed in Ku Klux Klan uniforms or camouflage gear. They held confederate flags and shouted ugly words. I heard later David Duke was there. We sang songs of solidarity and peace and drowned out their hate. Coretta Scott King spoke, and Mayor Andrew Young, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. It was 1987.
I have never felt as afraid of other human beings, nor as connected to so many people as I did on that day. I have never felt so much hate and so much love in the same place. I have marched in other protests and happenings. But none so powerful as that one. I wonder if today’s demonstration feel the same? It has been almost 30 years.
My grandparents and parents participated in the democratic process. I counted votes with my grandparents when I was young. My mom ran for the Ohio House of Representatives when I was in high school. We celebrated election day by going to the polls with our parents to watch them vote. Our schools were closed.
I love my country. But I’m not a patriot. A patriot is “a person who loves and strongly supports or fights for his or her country.” It implies sacrifice. I am a matriot. I show my love of country by doing my best to love my neighbors and raise my children to be forgiving, loving, empathetic humans. I believe life is precious and want to work towards a peaceful planet of co-existing communities. I try to live lightly on the land, and believe we can all be happier and healthier if we build community and extract as few new resources as possible.
People are afraid. Some are afraid of an uncertain future. Some are afraid of change. I am afraid my children will have fewer chances for a secure and happy life than I did. While it is impossible to say what will happen in the future — near or long-term — one thing is certain. We each have power to make our world a little more like the world we want it to be.
Despite my grandparents and parents’ example, it took me a while to find my voice as an advocate and community builder. I struggled for a long time with believing I had anything of value to say despite having an education, a privileged upbringing, and people who believed in me. When I began advocating for a safer neighborhood for my children, I decided to go back to school, in large part because I thought people would believe me if I had letters behind my name.
But here’s the secret. Participating in our democracy is free (at least, my mentor reminded me, if you are white and straight and male and christian). Everyone, no matter how young or old, how educated, or how poor, can have a say in making our future. Yes, we can vote (if you can take off work and get to the polls and have an id). But we can do so much more. Every city and town has open meetings where the public are invited to comment. Every voice is welcome. If you want to voice an opinion, propose a change, weigh in on a plan, you can have a say.
Your voice matters. You alone experience your community from your shoes. No one else sees what you see. When we assume that someone else knows best or planned best we disempower ourselves. When we assume a park is neglected for a reason, or there are no shade trees for a reason, or a crosswalk can’t go there (because wouldn’t it already be there if it could?) we disempower ourselves. And so often we ask, why isn’t someone doing something about this?
That person can be you. You know how you feel and move through and interact in your community. You know what’s hard and what’s beautiful and what needs to fixed and who needs help. And if you don’t, you can start looking for them. You can start a movement to change a life or a park or a street or a neighborhood. You can speak and write and vote and assemble.
And you don’t need letters after your name. You just need you.