One of the most important lessons this election has taught me is how little I actually know about our current political system. What are senators for? How are they different from a representative? What exactly does chief strategist do? What is the point of the electoral college? I’d been living, as many privileged Americans in their early twenties do, in a political bubble, blithely unaware of the policies and systems that support and constrain my community, my state, my country.
Post-election, I could no longer remain ignorant. I could no longer remain idle. But I did realize that my ignorance could be a kind of strength. If I didn’t know how to talk to my senators, if I didn’t know how to articulate my stance on the Affordable Care Act, then so must hundreds, even thousands of other people. All around me, I saw people realizing the same thing — there’s power in knowing what we don’t know. Springing up on social media were detailed resources for the very demographic I was in, for people who respected activism but did little besides pay lip service to the cause.
One such resource — one I personally resonated most with — were the telephone scripts that began to float through Facebook and Twitter, aggregating eventually in Googledocs. As a writer I saw the creation and dissemination of these templates as a real way I could help. I have always had trouble articulating what I mean to say, and this has often stopped me from speaking all together. Just as writing has helped me take control of my ideas in other parts of my life, I believed that my telephone scripts were going to unlock my tongue and give me my voice back.
At first, they did just that. It was thrilling to speak out and be heard, to know that even if the impact of my voice was small, it existed. I added to the flood of feedback that Senator Stabenow, Senator Peters, and Representative Dingell would not be able to ignore. Yet I could also tell that I was reading a script. As I recited my message to the patient staffer on the other end of the line, I noticed the steady march of my voice. In the beginning, this steadiness calmed me. It became a substitute for the confidence and experience I lacked. But as weeks went on, this same steadiness belied the lack of true passion in my speech even though I believed in every word on my template. Some days, I rushed through the sentences, eager to get to the end. No surprise, then, that even with all my scripts, I eventually felt stymied. I stopped posting my contributions on social media. Days passed without picking up the phone. All around me, again, I saw a similar slowing down.
I didn’t understand, at least at first, why the scripts failed to launch me into full-blown activist mode. Reading this New York Times article made me realize why I was stuck. The article brings up a series of tweets from Emily Ellsworth that went viral a few weeks earlier. In her tweets, Ellsworth, a former staffer who answered phones in the Utah offices of two Republican representatives, recommended calling over emailing. But more specifically, she suggested making the phone calls as personal as possible. The personal stories were the ones that made the greatest impact, moved her to pass them on to her district director, and even caused her to change her own political views.
My ignorance raised its bashful head again. I knew immediately that this was what was lacking in my scripts. What I read and wrote and shared on Facebook and Twitter was necessarily general so that others could substitute in their own opinions. Yet that was work that I’d not done myself, not because I didn’t want to share my personal story, but because I didn’t know what the story was. How could I make my scripts personal if I had never really thought of the ways in which politics affected my life? Again, I had allowed myself to be lazy, to make what should have been a first step into the last step. The scripts were the training wheels. I had to learn how to speak for myself, and that required that I actually think, really think, about the space I took up in the world, the rights I desired, and a future where I could no longer assume my best interests were being protected.
How would the repealing of the ACA actually change my life? What about Stephen Bannon’s appointment? Jeff Sessions? Betsy DeVos? Asking these questions helped, but not in the way I imagined. Because I found that the reason I felt so angry post-election, so initially moved to action, was not all about me. Not even close. I called Paul Ryan about the ACA not because I would be greatly affected by its removal (I would actually benefit), but because I saw and heard the stories of people I love and respect who would suddenly become vulnerable. The same with Bannon, Sessions, and DeVos. With immigration policy, with LGBTQ rights. In the end, it was my friends’ and colleagues’ personal stories that moved me, just as they moved Ellsworth, and just as they will, hopefully, move those further up in power.
Even if they don’t, even if our stories are met with apathy, with disdain, I believe our enduring anger and our passion require them. These stories sustain my activism because they make concrete the issues that, for me, have always had a certain looming intangibility to them. Scripts are not enough, and they were never meant to be enough. The best thing my scripts ever did was open up a channel to the people in my community. To force me to ask the questions that I had never thought to ask. You don’t know what you don’t know. But now I do know. I know that I have no idea which policies affect your life, your health, and your safety. I don’t know the potential legislative changes that keep you up at night. I don’t know the repercussions you are already facing from the hate-filled rhetoric that have drowned our social media newsfeeds for over a year. My personal story is the aggregation of all of yours, because you are the people of my life. By giving an extra voice to your stories, I may finally find the voice for mine.