The other day, I asked my friend Sho, founder of my Indivisible?activism group, what political stuff she was working on.
“Honestly,” she said, “these days I’m mostly just trying to advocate for my daughter to get the school services she needs.”
I doubt she realized it at the time, but her response shook something up in me. It helped me answer some of the many questions that have been floating around in my mind over the past few weeks, these weeks of crippling wildfires and crippling hurricanes and crippling dread. I’ve been more engaged politically since this past election than I have in my entire life. But somehow, lately, with so much tragedy, I’ve been finding myself desperate to understand the best way to really be an activist.
When Sho told me that most of her activism time was focused on advocating for her own kid, it occurred to me: activism is personal. I mean, duh, right? But it is. We pick our causes based on what’s most pressing in our personal lives. I fought hard, for example, against the repeal of Obamacare. I sent texts I feared would be received poorly to my many relatives in Maine, lobbying them to call Senator Susan Collins. I contacted my own senators about a million times, too, even though I knew they were on the same page as me.
Why did I do all of that?
Because I have a pre-existing condition, an autoimmune disease I’ve had since my teens. I know what it’s like to be denied health insurance over and over again. You know what that makes you feel like? Shit. It makes you terrified that because you have this weird disorder where your hands turn white when they’re cold that you won’t have insurance when you have an unexpected heart attack or car accident. It makes you feel unhealthy, even when you’re walking around strong as an ox. It makes you incredibly grateful to have resources, like parents who could bail you out if you got a $40,000 hospital bill. It makes you deeply aware that most people aren’t so lucky. The mandate, under Obamacare, that people with preexisting conditions not be denied was a Godsend for me. Sure, Obamacare is far from perfect, but on a very basic level, it gave me something I didn’t have before: security. We often come at politics like this: this is what affects me, my kids, my community.
And I don’t think that’s all bad, as long as it doesn’t make us myopic. (Example: being staunchly anti-gun control just because no one in YOUR family has been killed in a mass shooting.) And if your life is pretty good, it might be tempting not to…do anything. But we’re in a time when no one can afford to sit idly by and not do anything
So what’s the best way to be an activist?
1) Identify?your issue(s).?My delightful friend Annie Burke is a huge champion for the outdoors. She organizes kids to, well, go outside. And so recently, fueled by this deep love for the outdoors, she started her own blog and weekly action list called The Sun Rises. You can sign up for her updates?here.?I love that Annie took something personal to her?environmental advocacy?and turned it into actionable items for good. What’s your biggest concern these days? What are you going to do about it? THAT’s where you focus your attention.
2)?Schedule your activism. There are so many campaigns happening all the time, and so many important causes. If you’re like me, you might get five to ten different emails a day urging you to call, write, tweet, donate, organize. When Trump came into office last January, and I decided I was going to fight like hell, I started doing so much activism I stopped writing, got behind on my schoolwork, let my house go to the dogs, and did crazy things like transport my kid in the Baby Bjorn to San Francisco at rush hour to stand in front of Senator Feinstein’s office shouting with a bunch of Berkeley hippies for twenty minutes before going home again. (If paid protest wasn’t fake news, I’d have made a bundle.)
The reality is that you can’t be an activist every minute of every day, and faced with that, you might just…stop doing anything at all. The solution? Schedule your activism. Join a group. Go to a Protest Playdate. Set aside Tuesday nights, or ten minutes every morning. Give yourself a limit: five calls per week, 20 postcards per month, twelve Resistbot texts per day. Whatever works for you, but just DO IT. (As I say to my students, with regard to turning in essays: it’s always better to do something than to do nothing.)
3)?Give money, if you can. Turns out money DOES make the world go ’round. While donating isn’t activism in the strictest sense of the word, if getting out there and raising hell isn’t in your wheelhouse, then support the people who do. Personally, I think that supporting local businesses, buying sustainable products, supporting organic farmers?all of this is its own form of activism. But donating to the political candidates of your choice, to organizations doing work you believe in, to your kids’ schools, to hurricane relief, to wildfire relief?even more so.
4) Remember ALL members of your community. I was pretty heartened, last week, by the incredible outpouring of support for victims of the Northbay fires. At L’s school, parents bustled about filling boxes with goods. “Donate” buttons cropped up all over. The Bay Area community rallied heavily around our friends up north. And while it felt like Armageddon here, I nonetheless had this sense that if we were all going down, we were all going down together. One incredibly important way to be an activist is simply to take care of the members of your community, whoever they are. That may mean remembering that even though your kid is doing great at his school, another kid with special needs might not be. Or it may mean that while your family feels welcomed by the soccer team, the one kid of color on that team might feel less welcome.
The most rewarding thing I did in 2016 was contribute to a gift drive for needy families by buying a Christmas gift for an anonymous junior-high aged girl whose younger sibling attended L’s school. Going to Marshall’s and picking out the fluffiest socks I could find, the cutest underwear, the games she’d asked for, and some other silly little things that would have made me happy when I was 13 is one of my best memories from 2016. And to put that in perspective, in 2016 I had the baby I’d been wanting for six years.?
5) Engage in self-care. Burnout? It’s real. We’re assaulted daily. We see evidence in our own communities of climate change, while elected officials deny its existence. We see vitriolic, nasty fights between our Republican friends and our Democrat friends on social media. We despair of America every being a unified country again. We learn that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator. We remember that our president is, too. It’s a lot. Add that to our personal and professional difficulties?a baby not sleeping through the night, a lost job, an argument with a partner?and it can feel like a little too much. The antidote? Take a break. Going to Esalen for six days might not be in my budget, but I’ve got my own mini-spa date in October planned (ooh! One in November, too). And practically every night, I sit with B on the couch and watch an episode of The Office.?We laugh. (We also fold laundry).
Most of all, we try to remember that we have each other, that we’re Americans, and that we’ll get through this. And then we get back to work.
How are YOU being an activist these days? I’d love to hear from you.
Many of us have cried since the 2016 presidential election, some of us every day, some of us more sporadically, and some of us, Trump supporters or those more measured or those whose tear ducts no longer work, not at all.
I?d woken with a terrible cold, the kind that escalates from a mildly scratchy throat at four a.m. to aches, burning throat, and uncontrollable sneezing by nine. B was in Orange County for the day, had a six a.m. flight, so I handled the whole night with the babe myself, the babe who slept great until 4:00 and then barely at all. L was grumpy as we walked to school. B was not due home until 8:00. It was pouring down rain, a relentless, gray rain, and every time I had the baby close to falling asleep, I?d wake him up with a sneeze or because my nose was a fountain, running down my face and onto his blankets?I kid you not, it was disgusting. So circa 7:00 p.m., when he and I were both exhausted hot messes and I hadn?t managed to get dinner on the table yet, I crept into the bedroom and, all of a sudden, began crying like I haven?t cried in ages, big old wracking sobs (as silently as I could, because I was holding Baby S and doing the baby dance). I cried for my stupid day, sure, but mostly? I was crying because of the appointment of Scott Pruitt, a climate denier, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, an appointment that is more disastrous than the election of Trump himself. *
Eventually, I emerged from the bedroom. Putting the baby to sleep was futile, and L still hadn?t eaten, so I quickly put a bowl of soup on the table. Through tears, I called, ?Bunny, dinner?? at which point he walked into the kitchen, took one look at my face, and said ?Mumma, what?s wrong??
?I?m okay,? I said. ?I?m just having a hard day.?
?Oh, well, I?m sick?and the baby won?t sleep.? And then I paused and added, ?and I?m still just really upset about Donald Trump.? As I said it, I wondered if I shouldn?t have. I don?t want L to worry too much about Trump. I want his childhood to feel intact, blissful, ignorant. But I also didn?t want to lie, so I said it. He ate dinner, and that was it.
Here?s the thing, I realized later: unfortunately, L?s childhood won?t be blissful, ignorant, intact. In the next 4-8 years?and who knows how much beyond?he may well see his national parks drilled and his Latino friends deported and his Muslim friends harassed. He?ll probably lose his affordable healthcare and we?ll somehow find $1,200 a month to put him on one of our plans instead. He?ll see his parents wringing their hands and writing letters to nowhere and slavishly following Rebecca Solnit and Bill McKibben and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie looking for someone we trust to make sense of this world for them. He may see his mom?s reproductive rights taken away. He may be raised in an era where there is no safety net if, God forbid, he gets a girl pregnant by accident. In eight years, L will be fifteen.
There have been so many articles this election season asking ?what do we tell the children in the wake of the election?? Tell your kids, “You’re safe,” the articles say. “We won’t let you come to harm.”
1. Don?t regret your children. A friend asked me the other day, ?what?s it like having a new baby in the midst of all this?” I paused, and then told her something that I have been thinking but have been a little too ashamed to say: “I honestly don’t know, if Trump had been president, if we would’ve pursued having a second child.” I know how that sounds; of course Baby S is precious to us. But when we created that baby, we didn’t live in quite the same world as we do now, and I feel so sorry for what we?ve brought him into. But regretting my children and despairing for their futures? That may be just what they want us to do, and damned if I?ll do it.
2. But?don?t create an us versus them narrative. At least not towards your fellow citizens, and not in front of your kids. This is a hard one, I know: I feel such a wall of anger towards Trump supporters right now. But many Trump supporters liked his economic policies or were fed up with Hillary or disenchanted by Obama or were uneducated, or didn?t think it would be this bad. In the end (you know, when we?re in a nuclear war with North Korea, and our water and air is too toxic to breathe anymore) it will be our commonalities?that we all love our kids, for one?that help us reunify this damaged country. I will not support or condone this government and the monsters who will be in charge of our environment or our bodies, but I will try to model openness and tolerance to my fellow citizens as much as possible.
3. Realize that if you?re a progressive, or even a conservative who believes in things like climate change and equal rights, that you?re raising your kids in an era of resistance. In fact, L needs to know that his dad and I are upset about Trump. I won?t shield him from the nasty realities of the world he?ll inherit; instead, it?s my job to prepare him for it and for the work that will inevitably fall to him to take on.
4. But keep it light. At all costs, assure your children your anger and depression are not about them. It?s hard to be emotional in front of kids, and harder to be measured when your world is falling apart. But your kids can bring you enormous joy, and in the end, your family and children are the people who will watch out for you and keep you whole. So make some time for watching movies, taking hikes, going to Berkeley Family Camp (can?t wait!), seeing friends. Your life still has light and life and value.
5. Model being an active citizen. This is the most important, parents. I know we?re all tired; the baby won?t sleep, the minivan needs a new carburetor, the school is harassing you to volunteer for the PTA. You have college essays to edit and kids to drive to sports practice. But you can?t put on Netflix just yet. You need to write, call, text, email, march, donate, and protest. And your kids need to see you doing it. We have to raise the next generation to raise hell, think critically, and protect their rights and the rights of their friends. Because apathy may be what got us into this mess in the first place.
* Footnote: I try my best to be an empathic person. In part because I teach to a very diverse population, I need to make space in my life for people from all political walks and belief systems. I?ve taught staunch right-wing gun nuts, people so far left they don?t make sense anymore, and, for the most part, a bunch of young adults whose lack of engagement makes me want to pull my hair out. We do alright together, and I care about all of them deeply (and urge them to vote!). But climate change deniers are beyond my empathy. Denying that climate change exists is like denying that the Holocaust existed. It?s morally reprehensible, and more than that, it?s stupid. Climate change will kill us all, but not before it makes our planet a hell of an awful place to live. Quite honestly, I don?t understand why it?s even a political issue, why climate change is not merely accepted and embraced as a bipartisan challenge to address, and I partly blame the fact that whoever?was it Al Gore??used the phrase ?global warming? for too long, giving people the false impression that if we had some bitterly cold winters, that meant we weren?t really experiencing climate change. I believe we all have our issues: some of us worry most about reproductive rights, some about human rights, some about healthcare. Me? It?s the environment, in part because I have spent time in some of the loveliest wild places on earth and know their value, but also because, let?s face it: all of our other rights will be totally irrelevant if the planet becomes uninhabitable.
I'm working from the premise that motherhood is not just all diapers, tantrums, and setting limits. It's interesting. Okay, sometimes.