Growing up, I honestly thought that one of the most important things I do could as a citizen was to vote. By the time I was eligible, I felt pretty satisfied once I walked out of a voting booth (or that first time, turned in my absentee ballot) because I had done my civic duty for the next four years.
But as I got older and wiser, I discovered that it wasn’t just every four years; it was every two years. And then there were primaries to consider. Oh yeah, and there were these things called special elections that occasionally popped up in months that weren’t November and in years that didn’t end with an even number. Doing the very least that I could do as a citizen (voting) involved a lot more than just selecting a handful of names every time the Summer Olympics rolled around.
Then 2016 happened. By the time we were a couple months into 2017, I started to feel so helpless. After all, I had done my civic duty. I had voted in the primary for a Republican candidate who I genuinely liked and who I thought would be an excellent presidential nominee. I had voted in the general election, voted all the way down the ballot, and threw in a protest third-party presidential vote because my vote really didn’t matter in a state that was still decidedly red.
I had done what I had been asked to do and now it felt like the world was spinning out of control. I watched the news with dismay. I taught my students how to distinguish between fact and fiction with increasing vigor. I prepared for the midterms.
I dedicated my citizen self to learning about the causes of the problems that seemed to be increasingly harming my country and the potential solutions for how to turn the ship around. I started learning about the election process, the different movements happening around our country, and the many solutions that people were proposing that would help to make the process better and more inclusive. I needed to be informed before I could really push for change.
And I think we all know that we need significant changes in the United States if we are really going to move forward.
One of the things that I have tried to do increasingly with my high school students is to encourage them to move from being problem proclaimers to problem solvers. I’ve spent years bringing up topics and letting them hash them out in class with little intervention, but the trend seemed to be towards arguing or explaining why something was a problem instead of proposing solutions for those problems. Complaining about dress code and why it was unfair but not coming up with solutions that would achieve the same purpose. Railing against standardized testing and the stress that it caused in their lives but not presenting ways college admissions offices could look at applicants without considering test scores or class rank. Arguing that abortion was wrong but not discussing ways to prevent the cause of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. Demonstrating all of the ways that the criminal justice system was broken but not looking at ways to attack the root causes of that brokenness.
A few years ago I finally decided that for their major research project, I was going to force them to do just that: present a solution. They weren’t allowed to just argue why something was a problem or needed to be fixed; they had to present diverse solutions for how the problem could actually be addressed and potentially solved in the “real world.” What resulted was projects full of detailed research and critical thinking that looked at the positives and negatives of multiple solutions that could actually make a difference if they were implemented in tandem. And even better? It forced them to stop looking at solutions as “conservative” or “liberal” but instead as just solutions. It encouraged active citizenship that takes place outside of the voting booth and I hope it is a lesson that they will take with them into the future.
For too long, we’ve turned citizenship into a singular act: voting. But what if we started looking at our act of voting as the beginning of something as opposed to the end? Better yet, what if we saw it as just one part of a much bigger puzzle? What would it look like if we stopped seeing our job as complete once we leave the voting booth?
It’s not perfect, but this is where I think we should start.
Work on building a bigger table
The concept of a big table has become a popular metaphor for how we relate to each other in faith communities, businesses, and politics. It is true that in a lot of related sectors, people have been left out of the discussions. They haven’t been allowed in the “room where it happened,” to borrow a phrase from Hamilton. The important question we all need to ask ourselves is do we want to live in a country where everyone has a seat at the table?
If we want a country that works for all Americans, the answer needs to be yes.
We should want a bigger table. A bigger table doesn’t mean giving more seats for different groups; it means ensuring that there is a seat for everyone working towards a common purpose, a more perfect union. There should be space for both Tea Party Republicans and Democratic Socialists. There should be room for people of all races and ethic groups and religious beliefs. There should be equal room for men and women. There should be seats for members of the LGTBQ community and socially conservative organizations. More people involved in government doesn’t mean bigger government. It means more effective and inclusive government. It also means a kinder government focused on the needs of all Americans, not just those who have always benefitted from the structures put into place when our country was a struggling newborn.
Get out of your state.
I’m serious, get out of your state.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned as a teacher who loves to travel and has been all over the country it’s that those who have actually immersed themselves in different regions of the United States have a greater understanding of the beautiful diversity that is America. We are a country of diverse landscapes, economies, cultures, dialects, and experiences. We share a common thread of history but that single thread is woven into a complex tapestry that one can only understand if they leave the comforts of their surroundings and truly dive into the history and experiences of their fellow Americans.
Let your representatives know they are on notice
It is an uncomfortable truth that I never really knew the names of my representatives and senators until four years ago. Really, I never paid much attention to who they were or what they were doing or saying on a regular basis.
That changed in 2016.
While I am still working on familiarizing myself with my state representatives, I have now made it a regular practice to write and occasionally call my national senators and representative. I follow them on social media so that I know exactly what they are saying and doing and what their most ardent defenders (my fellow state citizens) are also saying. I’ve sent them post cards from places we have visited in our state with requests, reminding them that they serve me and my state, not their own interests in Washington, DC.
Remember that you voted for an individual, not a party. And if that isn’t the case, it’s time to start rethinking how you vote. If they aren’t doing the job that you want them to do, tell them. And if they still aren’t doing the job that you want them to do, vote for someone else. Vote in the primary and if that doesn’t work, cross party lines and give someone else a chance to do a better job. Our representatives work for us. It’s time we make that actually the case.
Fight to change the election process.
According to all security experts, the 2020 election was the most secure election in American history, and while the process was not perfect in any state in the union, considering we were having an election with record turnout during a global pandemic, I think we should be pretty proud of our election officials around the country. Personally, I never ceased to be amazed by the phenomenal Harris County staff which not only fought to make sure everyone who wanted to could vote safely, but who also made it fun with an entertaining and informative Twitter feed.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
Our electoral process is broken and it has nothing to do with machines and election officials. Our current system encourages extremist candidates, discourages people from voting, and often makes it difficult for them to do so. A couple years ago I started following the nonpartisan organization Represent.Us and they constantly present many ideas for how we can start having a more effective influence on how all of our public officials are selected, from the president to school board.
Additionally, start researching third party movements in your city and state districts. The majority of Americans claim that they want more options for elected officials, yet when they are given the opportunity they don’t give third party candidates a second look. While it may be difficult for third party candidates to break into national politics, one way we can make that more likely is to give those parties a bigger voice in our local politics. Contrary to popular belief, a lot of change actually trickles up, not down, and this is one way to give third parties a fighting chance.
Discover where you can make the greater difference
Americans pride ourselves in being busy. Volunteering always sounds like a great idea and we’re really good at telling other people to do so (pointing fingers at myself right now too), but we rarely devote real time to helping the causes that we say matter the most to us. We’ll donate goods or money, we’ll post on social media, and we’ll argue with friends and family over our selected causes, but when real sacrifice is required of us, we more often than not respond with “I don’t really have the time right now.”
A pandemic has taught us a lot of things, and I know that for a lot of my friends and family, one lesson that has been learned is that we prioritize what is important to us and we were all too busy before the madness of COVID-19 hit our shores. Pick one issue that really matters to you and figure out what you can do personally to make a difference. For me it’s literacy and education, so now that I’ve found myself with unexpected free time, I want to see how I can use that passion and those gifts to help young parents seeking help from crisis pregnancy centers so that they and their children can have better options moving forward.
We have to stop depending on our politicians to make our country better. Yes, there are big things that we individual citizens are not capable of doing on our own, but this is our country. We don’t have to wait for others to make it a better, more equitable place for all of us.
We just have to decide that it matters.