Recently, a young man named Benjamin called and asked me if I would like to volunteer for the Obama campaign registering voters in Philadelphia. When I arrived at Starbucks, our designated meeting place, I learned that Benjamin, a college student (who was too young to vote for Obama the first time around), had attended an inner city high school and had many friends who were able to be the first in their families to attend college because of Obama's educational policies, most importantly the Pell Grants.
When he asked me what motivated me, I responded that I was aware of the issues -- and in fact have lived through them -- having been through a massive downsizing in a human service nonprofit. What I didn't tell Benjamin was that I am also the first in my family to attend college. The story seemed too long to go into.
Out on the Avenue -- in a working class Philadelphia neighborhood -- with clipboard in hand, I began to approach people. Most cheerfully told me they were already registered. But I encountered a substantial number of lower income white people who told me they are not registered to vote and have no interest in doing so. "There's no one to vote for," said one. Another one, who probably meant the same thing, put it more mildly: "I don't know who I would vote for," she said. Before I had a chance to tell her that if she wasn't registered, she wouldn't be able to vote for anyone, she took off across the street. One young man who kept walking, said, over his shoulder, that he didn't want to get mail from jury duty.
A man in his fifties, with gray hair, smoking a cigarette, wearing a guard's uniform -- said that he didn't vote. "If you work for [I mentioned the name of the guard company whose name was on his sleeve], it could make a difference," I said. (Having worked in human services, I know the policies of the company -- hiring off the welfare rolls for tax credits, paying low wages and no benefits). He just shrugged and walked away.
The presidential election in 2008 saw one of the largest voter turnouts in the past century. This record turnout (estimated by Michael McDonald of George Mason University) meant that still only 64.1 percent of eligible Americans voted. It's a well-known fact that many lower income people feel that their vote doesn't count.
Long before I was the first in my family (and the only one of my peers) to attend and graduate from college, I was ridiculed by my contemporaries for being interested in the news. I remember this as a major signpost to the fact that my life was and would be vastly different. I never would have admitted it at the time, but my mother's influence had taken hold.
A few years later when I was an older teen, I went with my mother to a pro-choice rally. She carried a wire coat hanger, bent in the middle, and when the counter-protesters heckled us she marched over and heckled them right back. My mother had been a nurse when she was younger, and although she didn't talk about it, I'm sure she had a few stories about botched, illegal abortions. When my mother became terminally ill (first misdiagnosed and then correctly diagnosed with fourth-stage cancer), I went home to care for her and chronicled my life as a second-generation feminist (and lesbian) in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, recently published by Bella Books.
When I was about ten, my mother gave me a book entitled Women Of Courage. I remember reading about Susan B. Anthony and her fight for a woman's right to vote. When Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman presidential candidate, ran in 1972, I was thirteen, too young to vote. But somehow Shirley Chisholm, Susan B. Anthony, my mother and my own courage became entwined in my mind. Since I turned eighteen, I have voted in almost every election.
Despite my mother's feminist activism, she was in fact a conventional stay-at-home housewife for most of her life. She referred to herself as part of the silent majority. She was, however, very much her own person. She said that she voted with her dollar. She participated in many boycotts. In her later years, she took petition to senior centers to get signatures to improve the Social Security laws. My mother believed in the possibility of change.
She also had a sense of self worth. "Ask and you shall receive" was one of her favorite sayings.
If I had had a different mother, there's a good chance that I would have turned out to be one of the people on the street telling me that they don't care (enough) to register to vote.
As I walked back to the Starbucks to meet Benjamin, I began to think that people need to have a stake in politics to feel empowered. The Affordable Care Act is an obvious benefit for most people. If it had been around years ago, chances are my mother would have lived longer. A middle class white woman on the street who was already registered to vote, stopped to talk.
"I was a registered Republican," she said, "and I changed parties so that I could vote for Barack Obama." When I asked her why, she told me that she loved his speeches. She said that she is definitely going to vote for him again in November. She said her son is married to a woman with a pre-existing health condition: "He is thirty years old, and can't change jobs because no one will insure his wife."
On the way back to meet Benjamin and turn in my voter registration sheets -- about half were completed -- I thought about the people who told me that they aren't registered to vote and don't plan to register. All of them could benefit from the Affordable Care Act -- including the man in his fifties who works for the security guard contracting company which does not provide benefits. I returned the clipboard to Benjamin and my voter registration sheets -- more than half were completed. I talked to Benjamin briefly, shook his hand and agreed to meet with him again next week to do it again.
That is what hope is all about.
You can learn more about Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters here.
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