The first time I voted it was in a cardboard box covered in blue butcher paper and decked in red and white stars. It was 1996 and I was in the fourth grade. The candidates were Bill Clinton (blue), Bob Dole (red), and Ross Perot (white—at least according to Scholastic’s Weekly Reader). The results of the election weren’t much of a surprise at a conservative Christian school where only two students dared to vote Democrat.
Eight years later, I was a senior in high school, freshly 18 and ready to vote “for real” at the Methodist Church down the street. I had not yet taken U.S. Government, but knew enough to view voting as a civic responsibility. My dad walked me through the issues on the ballot shortly before I left the house. He told me what he and my mom would be voting, but made it clear that my vote was still my choice to make.
Prior to that election (and, sadly, every election since) I failed to do as much research as I should have. I didn’t know if I was a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian, or an Independent—in truth, I doubt I knew that Libertarian was a party—but I knew that I was an evangelical Christian, so much as I had in that cardboard box, I voted Republican out of ignorance and affiliation.
In the years since, I have mostly avoided political debates. It isn’t that I don’t care, but that I don’t know how best to do that—to care, that is. I don’t like to argue for the sake of arguing (at least not anymore), and I’m too empathetic and open-minded to come down really hard on one side of most issues.
Truth be told, there have rarely been propositions or platforms whose passing or rejection have affected my life so directly that I immediately noticed the difference. Or maybe there have been and the effect has been so minor I haven’t even noticed. As someone with precious few assets and ample opportunities, I live most of my life under the radar.
As a child, my impression of the Democratic party was that they were liberal baby killers who wanted to take all of “our” hard-earned money (though I’m not sure who “we” are). I may have believed it was sinful to be a Democrat, though I don’t think this was ever told to me directly. What was told to me was that liberal taxes were too high, the government took too much of our money (thanks to the Democrats), and welfare and medicare were abused by people who didn’t want to work.
It wasn’t unfounded, but it also wasn’t true.
The path to forming my own opinions concerning politics has been a slow, meandering journey, more often influenced by real relationships and personal experiences than by compelling ideologies or skillful oration. It has also been influenced by revelation and realization, both of the power I possess as a person with a voice and of the ignorance I have hidden under for far too long.
A friend of mine recently shared a blog post that was unabashedly bias in its plea for Hilary Clinton. What the author had to say was straightforward and pragmatic. Still, this phrase grabbed me:
If you’re a white person who has the luxury of not caring who wins, whose life won’t change much regardless, I encourage you to think about the women, people of color, LGBT folks, and religious minorities in your life and think about how dramatically different the country under Trump would be for them, not just in terms of policy but also climate…
Mine is not an argument for a candidate, but an argument for caring.
I am a white person who benefits from systems that have been structured in my favor and I do have the luxury of riding out whatever happens this coming Tuesday. I can choose to cast no vote at all, and my life, such as it is, may not really be all that strongly impacted.
But I also can’t not vote, because I have chosen to love and care for people who do not benefit from the system, people whose lives could be dramatically different based on the outcome. Not taking the time to educate myself and vote with these people in mind is the same as saying they aren’t worth the effort.
Aside from writing, teaching ESL is the only thing that I have consistently done since graduating from college. In the past seven years, I have worked with Polish and Czech university students, Hispanic immigrants, Chinese graduate students, Bhutanese refugees, and Iranian, Pakistani, and Kurdish asylum seekers.
Earlier this year, I met with a woman in San Francisco who has been heading up an ESL class for Arabic-speaking immigrants in the Tenderloin. Another volunteer joined us and together we sipped coffee and threw out ideas for unit themes and teaching methods. They shared stories of students who have children back in Yemen and who are fighting for the visas they need to reunite, of women who are amazing cooks but lack access to the culinary job market, and of young mothers who are eager to attend college, but unable to secure child care for their toddlers.
In the midst of brainstorming ways to ease the road to resettlement, I remember thinking how vital and important this work of educating can be. Somewhere, I thought, there’s got to be more funding for this. When I inquired about writing grants and soliciting support, I was told that a lot of it was contingent on the election, and what little support we did have could instantly be cut.
It was a first for me to realize that whole programs could be eliminated and entire communities devastated by a single piece of legislation. Suddenly, the stakes seemed terribly high.
That was back in August. In the three months since, I’ve become more conscious, curious, and concerned about politics. I’ve ceased thinking about voting as a means of preserving my money and protecting my privilege and started seeing it more as an opportunity for advocacy and a means of standing behind propositions and people that I hope will do the same.
This gets me excited about voting. Really excited. I could care less if we permanently abolish plastic sacks in California (sorry sea turtles), but funding for under-resourced schools, the protection of dual-language education, and the rehabilitation of sentenced criminals—those are things I can care about. Because there are people on the other end of them. People who need the votes of the many who may not be directly affected to advocate for those whose futures could depend on it.