When I was seven years old I cast my first presidential ballot in a school election for a candidate of which I would learn later neither of my parents approved. He won in my school, but lost in the “real” vote. I was devastated, but undeterred. I made a promise to myself than as soon as I was old enough to vote, I would vote. I kept that promise and have rarely missed any chances to vote from local school board and millage votes to representatives and presidential elections. I have never cast a vote without thoroughly researching every issue and every candidate. I took pride in my voting record. I thought I was a good citizen because I was such a dedicated voter; I was wrong.
I took a political science course in college and I learned how political parties work and how they intersect with different politicians and positions on issues. I wasn’t a political news junkie, but I paid general attention to whatever the hottest button issues were currently. As the daughter of a twenty year veteran of the army, I always listened very closely for where and how we were deploying our troops. I always listened for up and coming politicians and their positions. I thought I was a good citizen because I tried to stay aware; I was wrong.
When I heard about a bill of which I particularly approved or disapproved, I would contact my representative or senator by letter or email. If I heard that bill passed, I sometimes I contacted my President or Governor. I participated in a few demonstrations in support of issues I cared about. My activism was so infrequent, I always mentioned it on social media. I thought I was a good citizen because I showed up when I felt it really mattered; I was wrong.
When social media became a daily outlet, I slowly felt brave enough to voice my opinion when I felt it really mattered. I carefully selected items to share that I felt merited discussion and I did my best to remain composed and respectful in all my conversations. I tried to remain mindful always of the person on the other end of my interactions and to keep my mind and heart open in case I had not fully realized another nuance of the thought that someone else brought to the conversation. I thought I was a good citizen because I was willing to make reasoned arguments and have conversations with other voters; I was wrong.
When my seven year old son asked me about the election this year, I showed him how to research the candidates. We discussed issues that were important to us as a family philosophically and morally. I let him make his own choice whom he would vote for if he could after he did his own research and he cast that children’s vote with pride only to see his candidate lose. I thought I was a good citizen because I taught my son about voting and issues; I was wrong.
I woke up the morning of November 9, 2016 realizing how wrong I had always been. A good citizen may do all the things I did, but a good citizen is also active every day and cognizant every minute that our “rights” only stay ours as long as we are willing to not just exercise them, but also fight for them. I had always been privileged enough to use my rights as much as I wanted (or didn’t want) to use them. That may no longer be the case without a new phase of active citizenship and vigilance on all our parts. I always took for granted that the struggles of the past that made our rights possible: the Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Labor Movement, all of that was in the past. I was privileged enough to think everything was different now. Progress was going to happen inevitably now. I was wrong. Nothing is inevitable. History’s progress depends on the active citizenship we use now. Our future depends on the active citizenship we use now. Everything, always, has depended on now. This is our now.
This weekend, millions of people showed up and showed the world that the progress we have made that people like me were privileged enough to take for granted, means something. We are proof that facts are facts and no spin can change them. Progress means something to us and through the work we do now, we will make progress seem as inevitable as those who struggled before us did. We have to keep listening to others, we have to keep our minds and hearts open, and we have to keep exercising our rights even when we are tired of making phone calls and we are tired of seeing our work seemingly defeated. One of my greatest inspirations has always been Maya Angelou who said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” We will not be defeated. We will be vigilant and active. Remember that today and every day as you address your postcards, visit and call your representatives, campaign for those you believe in, reform the parties that represent us, march when you have to and cast your votes,
History and the future are counting on us now.
— Shawna, Forward Action Michigan Staff Writer