Prepare yourself: This will be the least impressive story of political activism you’ll ever hear. I’ll do my best to keep it short, because that’s what it deserves.
About a month ago, here in Durham, NC, I attended a meeting sponsored by Durham CAN at a downtown church. The “CAN” stands for churches, associations, and neighborhoods, and though I wasn’t part of any of these groups, I wanted to go because many of the judges standing in local and state elections would be attending. There, the leaders of CAN asked them to commit to several facets of a judicial reform agenda, all of which amounted to fair treatment and fewer financial punishments for those who become entangled in the legal system.
It was inspiring to see hundreds of citizens pack the church, and at the end, one of the leaders mentioned an upcoming Durham County Board of Commissioners meeting on the topic of affordable housing. The board would be deciding between two plans for a housing development on Main Street, one of which would provide 100 more affordable units than the other. Like many cities across America, Durham is gentrifying at an alarming rate, and projects like these are needed to fight against a serious housing crisis and stem the tide of low income residents being kicked out of their neighborhoods. The Durham CAN leader urged us to show up and express our support for the “good” plan.
So I did. I went to a work session last week, and spoke (nervously) on behalf of the Durham branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, and in solidarity with Durham CAN and other organizations, in support of “Option B.” At the actual vote last night, I spoke again, and around 9 p.m., the Board of Commissioners passed Option B unanimously.
Now, let me put this in context for you—while this is a real triumph for the city, my participation was minimal. Along with DSA, I discovered this cause very late in the game, and nothing I said at either meeting had a real impact on the outcome. Perhaps I added imperceptibly to the public pressure, but the truth is that the result would have been exactly the same with or without me. Moreover, I have not to date been a good activist. Even my participation in DSA has been minimal since I joined after the 2016 election, consisting of a handful of meetings and almost no direct action. I have given money to causes I support, I have attended the odd march, I write about politics here at Paste, and I have helped peripherally in certain campaigns by phonebanking, but to call me an “activist” would be stretching the definition of the word to its absolute limit.
And yet—I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to be a part, even a small part, of the downtown affordable housing plan. I can’t explain what it felt like when another speaker at last night’s meeting asked everyone who support Option B to stand, and a hundred people rose in unison. I can’t explain the sense of hope I felt watching local government actually accomplish something positive for the community—something unencumbered by the rot of conservative politics, and something that would make a huge impact in hundreds of real lives.
I care about affordable housing, but I would be lying to you if I said that my reasons for attending those meetings weren’t partly selfish. The reason I went to that first Durham CAN meeting in the first place was because of an encroaching feeling of mental distress. The nightmare of the last two years had occupied my brain to the point that whenever I thought about politics—which was always—the predominant emotions were overwhelming anger and guilt. Anger because even after witnessing Republican policy for a lifetime, and covering the Trump era as a writer, I still have trouble reconciling myself to the fact that this kind of callous, cruel, empathy-free mindset can not only exist, but gain a crushing power over my country. (I think of myself as a cynic, but I must be an idealist, because a cynic would learn to expect the nightmare to persist while I am continually shocked and hurt and upset.) Guilt because I live with the constant realization that despite my writing, despite angry pleas on Facebook, despite a little money here and there, despite my vote, I am not really doing anything about it. For the most part, I sit on the sidelines and hope for things to get better.
If there’s a message I want to convey here, it’s that voting is not enough. Having the correct opinions is not enough. If you are on the sidelines, you are contributing to injustice. That’s a hard message, and I realize it’s rather rich coming from someone like me who has spent two years on the sideline, and whose only brush with activism to date was superficial and not at all crucial or brave. And yet, I’m saying it anyway, for you and for myself: Voting is not enough. Having the correct opinions is not enough.
To remain on the sidelines is to indulge in privilege—privilege of various kinds, but all of which boil down to the idea that as bad as things are, right now people like me are basically unaffected. The Trump era has filled me with disappointment and rage and anxiety, but on a material level it has not had a measurable impact. I have not lost my job or my home or faced discrimination or deportation or harassment as a result of his administration, and because of that, I have the privilege of choosing my level of involvement.
But here’s the truth: As long as I have anything to give, as long as I have any energy that can be committed to the cause of justice, withholding that energy is more or less giving it to the other side. Across my community, there is a void that spans the last two years, and that void is where my activism would have existed. The people who weren’t helped, the battles that weren’t fought, minimal as they may be, can all be attributed to the fact that I wasn’t there. My failures are measured in absence, and though that absence might be hard to define, it exists all the same.
This doesn’t mean that politics has to be our entire lives, or that we have to exist in a state of perpetual activism. We can enjoy ourselves, we can live normal lives, we can be frivolous and stupid and lighthearted. But if we truly believe that unconscionable acts are being perpetrated by our government, and we are not committed in some way to positive activism at the national, state, or local level, it’s an inescapable fact that we are failing, and that our failure means the success of Trump and people like him.
The good news, as the title indicates, is that activism is intoxicating. If my secret mission in attending the affordable housing meetings was to feel better on a personal level, that mission was a success. It has been years since I felt the sense of optimism that hit me last night, and though I don’t fool myself that one affordable housing project is a panacea, it nonetheless proved to me that good things are still possible and that our situation is not hopeless. Moreover, the simple act of doing something had a curative effect on my mental state—like most people, I am better off busy, and the sense of having a mission these last two weeks acted like a shot of adrenaline to my pessimistic, guilt-ridden political brain. I was not necessary to the cause, and I knew I was not necessary, but this did not stop me from feeling infused with purpose.
When it comes to political activism, I don’t claim to be anything more than a dilettante. But I hope that’s changing. And what I’ve learned in the last two weeks is that becoming politically active, truly active, will serve dual purposes. First, and most importantly, it will help the people in your community who need it the most. Second, on a level that is admittedly selfish but that doesn’t detract in any way from the activism itself, it will make you feel better. You will form friendships, you will shake off your ennui, and you will make a difference.
“Self-care” is a recurring buzzword in the Trump era, and it usually refers to separating one’s self from society as a means of reducing stress, but there is a certain point at which we can no longer retreat into our private spheres of comfort while the wider world suffers without feeling that pain ourselves. There is a certain point at which the only true self-care is caring for somebody else.