I recently had the pleasure of tagging along with a friend for her job: grassroots organizing and mobilizing South Asian immigrant voters on the north end of Chicago. Over the course of two days and walking neighborhoods, door to door, standing on street corners with clipboards, catching people outside of bars and music clubs, and peeking into barbershops and nail salons, we registered nearly 25 new voters. Virtually all were voters of color and naturalized immigrants.
Door knocking and street outreach in general is a less-than-glamorous task. It involves walking long distances, down one street and up the next, ringing endless doorbells followed by silence (“anybody home?”), or approaching person after person with the hope that they will hear your 15-second platform speech before turning away. But Chicagoans were nice enough, and – surprisingly – especially chatty at the bars and clubs and barbershops. Our presence was greeted with lively shouts for their favorite candidate, and even extended conversations about local politics or the concept of building civic power among “the people.”
One such conversation I even began with my friend as we walked the looming streets. I had always been told that I should vote and that “every vote counts” via Rock the Vote’s mass media campaigning at my college in 2004, but as I roamed the streets in pursuit of unregistered voters, I questioned again how much it all really mattered.
I must explain a bit of background first: My mother, from poor working class white America, and my father, an immigrant from West Africa, both imbued in me the value of education and personal and family advancement. Despite obstacles, I learned and did what was necessary to get ahead for myself, and how to do what I could to bring up the family – both in the US and in Africa – along with me. However, because my family always been very mobile and I’ve moved to numerous schools, cities, and countries throughout my life, my idea of community is a fragile and transitory concept. The act of community mobilization, especially succeeding in organizing for a common goal, simply has never been a feature of my experience.
What is part of my experience, unfortunately, is seeing and hearing about candidate after candidate promising the earth, wind, and sky, and then once in office, being nothing short of a royal let down. My experience has been to see amazing candidates drown in political monopoly games where the richest win and the losers go back the lick their wounds and apologize to the underserved communities that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) organize effectively enough to put them in front. I’ve learned in Political Science classes the horrifying plight of all people of color and immigrants and all the power that they lack, rather than embracing the few, yet empowering stories of how they fought and won that power back in their own court.
I spent most of my life, in short, going through the motions, the façade, of political engagement. But inside, I was 100% jaded. I still have yet to change my mind. However, with the prodding of my friend and the ubiquitous hope and change messages that have transformed this election season, I will make a personal goal for myself to at least try. At perhaps it is my own apathy that is self-induced. The only reason that politics don’t follow the people is that people don’t follow the politics. Looking at my own peers and the community members I serve on a daily basis, it seems education is what we lack the most.
And we need to look far, far beyond the Democratic-Republican split and beyond the Obama-McCain battlegrounds to see what change would really look like in our own backyards. I have already decided on my presidential vote, but what about the governor, local school board, or state representative that will decide my family’s fate in health care, education, employment, gas prices, and more? No presidential candidate can single-handedly make these changes for me, and yet this is the only sexy campaign the media is willing to cover vigorously. Any presidential candidate, no matter how popular and how enlightened, can make the sweeping changes that we all desire without supportive officials in the Congress, in the governor’s offices, and in the local positions of power. If we expect reform of our nation, it is up to us to allow ourselves to be inspired by one great leader, and then act as one great country. We must each take that little step to act, to engage, to empower, and rid ourselves of the cyclical apathy that undermines the very core of our democracy.