“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. … Show up. Dive in. Persevere …
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”
— Former President Barack Obama
Ever since President Trump was elected, the questions I hear from many people and that echo my own are: What’s next? What does it mean to be an engaged citizen now? What can I do that will have the most impact?
Amidst the buzzing questions, has been a louder chaotic and anxious noise. My inbox delivers a daily stream of mini-panic attacks sent by political, social justice and environmental organizations. These emails lead with catastrophic headlines and are followed by online petitions and/or contribution requests. The last bit is their real priority. My inbox has also delivered a stream of forwarded political essays, focused initiatives, and the occasional SNL or Stephen Colbert clip (aka comedic life support) to lighten the load. To cope with the onslaught of “anxious information overload” and also as a protest of the Marketing Beast dressed up as Social Sally, I stepped away from Facebook until the Women’s March in Montpelier. Sheer solidarity and celebration drove me back temporarily.
While trying to figure out how to be an informed, engaged citizen is not new territory in post-9/11 America, the stakes seem higher and the path evermore obscure since Trump’s election. Does it matter if one signs online petitions (ever?), follows the news daily, or focuses on local, national and global issues simultaneously or in some designated priority? As for the news, how does one determine the veracity of information as content is spun and twisted faster in today’s super-tech splice and dice, cut and paste world?
More confounding, Facebook and Twitter and their cyber-brethren are not reliable purveyors of news despite the post or tweet slip into this role for a majority of Americans. What about writing and calling state representatives? Do you put them on speed dial? (Yes.) Do you try to respectfully communicate with a neighbor or acquaintance who voted for Trump in an attempt to build bridges across the growing American divide? (Albeit first dropping the snarky satire Trump invites.) Or is it better to pick a social justice issue and volunteer at a related nonprofit? Anybody else spinning, breathless and worn out before any substantive civic engagement has begun?
Then a real 3-D opportunity for action presented itself through the Women’s Marches in D.C., Montpelier and beyond. True confession? I almost skipped participating after a tentative plan to go to D.C. flared out. When the question about participating locally resurfaced, I questioned if the Women’s March mission was clear and would have any real impact. I was not interested in protesting against Trump. I also wondered if the time marching would be better spent on specific, concrete initiatives. Thankfully, I jettisoned my reservations and joined the masses sans pussy hat, sans pussy ears, sans pink. Like Trump at an inaugural ball, but without the Sinatra soundtrack and trophy wife, I had it my way, too.
On a raw, gray January day in Vermont, there are any number of better places to spend three hours than walking on slushy pavement or standing on an icy slope in front of the Statehouse, the chill bleeding through the soles of your boots. Unless you have a damn good reason, and many Vermonters apparently did. In Montpelier, like in many other cities, the actual attendance far exceeded the estimated. In Vermont, they expected approximately 4,000 and ended up with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000. Yes, we rock. And walk.
I was reminded how protests are civic engagement at the most embodied level, the masses swelling into and beyond the borders of streets and public spaces, generating collective energy and resolve. People show up, with or without signage and say: I’m here. This matters. We The People MATTER. Listen up. After all the noise and grinding angst post-election, the Women’s March was homecoming and harbinger. It provided a context for connection and a vessel for hope. It energized the parts of me, and I suspect many others, that want to find a way forward, but get overwhelmed by the scope of challenges, the peaks and valleys of fear and grief, and the self-doubt that individual activism matters. While one can rightly say the Trump administration attempted to minimize the protests (his related tweet was absurd), what cannot be ignored are the impacts for those participating, as well as those bolstered vicariously. History was made as these marches go on record as the largest collective day of protests in our country. Across the nation and the world, women, men and children joined together to express their commitment to sustaining progress to date and/or cultivating a nation and global community in which common decency, human rights and the health of the planet matter.
Bernie Sanders, who spoke in Montpelier, said it best when he acknowledged the protests were a clear statement of America’s unwillingness “to go back” and insistence on “moving forward.” Hearing Sanders speak was the highlight, as he epitomizes the best and most faithful elements of a public servant. While Trump ran for president as a popularity contest, a power grab or for personal deification, and like some beauty contestants may grow weary of the responsibilities post-crowning and pageantry, Sanders ran to serve humbly, as he continues to do.
So now what? Are we back to the same questions about effective civic engagement? Yes, absolutely. But we’re back with a sense of a collective that bridges local, state, national and global communities. As we reflect individually on our best use and service as a citizen, and choose accordingly, we can be reassured we are not alone. When needed, we can reach out to those we protested with for solace, inspiration and shared activism. This gives me faith in my own capacity to act and persevere. As I turn to my own priorities and choices, I offer the following for support and consideration:
• Take care of yourself. If as Joan Baez said, “Action is the antidote to despair,” right action is effective and life-affirming. It is in balance with our capacities and aligned with our passions.
• When you get discouraged or overwhelmed about the state of the world and the depth of the challenges, remember the wisdom passed on by Rachel Naomi Remen, the physician-turned-therapist and author: It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.” This reminds us of our sphere of influence and the significance of the small daily actions of showing up and caring.
• Support quality journalism and choose multiple lenses and platforms, moving beyond echo chambers. The function of a free press in a democracy is to allow for public oversight, dialogue and critique of the government’s functioning without fear of reprisal. This administration has already demonstrated an unwillingness to honor this civil right. We must insist on transparency and support journalists who are taking risks to deliver fair, in-depth analyses.
• Communicate regularly with representatives and make it easy. Put their numbers and email addresses into your contacts.
• Vote with your wallet. Money talks. Women hold 84 percent of the buying power in this country. Understand the secondary choices made when purchasing products or services, banking, investing or donating.
• Stay in connection with others and resist activist infighting. Reject ongoing attempts to be manipulated and divided by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, socio-economics, sexual orientations, etc.
• Be ready to protest again. And again. This is just the beginning.
• Consider best use and purpose of social media. Don’t rely on these platforms as primary news sources. Don’t support outlets that propagandize or that the government can utilize to misdirect, confuse, censor or limit your right to know about or evaluate their actions.
• Set priorities that speak to your passions and values and shut off the broader noise. For me that means cleaning out my inbox, selecting specific organizations and initiatives to support, and staying focused and flexible.
• Resist fear and hate. Practice love, remembering whatever we practice grows.
As Obama reminds us, “The most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen.” One by one, we can stand up, be counted, and find compromise in the messy endeavor of forming a more perfect union. Ready. Set. Go.