Before proceeding -- I asked my new friend Alston, 16, to read this post before publishing it. He told me the piece wasn't too long -- a concern of mine -- and asked me to explain what politics was, both in person and upfront in this post.
The answer is simple.
There's what politics is, and what politics is supposed to be...
Currently? Our political process is a mess. Ideally? As I understand it, our political process was created to give power to the people -- to empower Americans to play a role in the decision-making that results in the rules, laws and decisions that determine how we live our lives. We live in a representative democracy, meaning that we elect people to government with the hope that they do one thing and one thing only: Help.
Americans aren't looking for a hand out -- they're looking for assistance. Politicians are elected to pass laws, oversee budgets and to prioritize where money is spent -- ideally they're spending money on things like infrastructure (roads and buildings) and education (schools and supplies). Currently? A lot of our money goes towards financing wars and defense spending. Ideally, politicians are accessible, meaning that as a constituent (someone who lives in his or her district) you feel comfortable enough to email or call the office of your congress person or council member with a question or concern. Does your district not feel safe? Does your school need to be renovated? You should call your representative to say as much.
Alston told me that he's anxious to see another skate park built in his home district, Ward 4. He's going to try organizing towards making that happen. I'm going to help him. He's trying to stay out of trouble. He loves to read and loves to skate. We have to empower kids like him to take matters into their own hands.
There's obviously much more to be said about politics and government. If you have young people in your life, I encourage you to talk to them. As I told Alston, the internet places the world at his fingertips. It's also up to him to google his questions -- the answers are out there. In the meantime, I want to take a minute to speak to the greater issue of civic engagement, while focusing on one election that I'm personally, particularly invested in.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit to feeling increasingly frustrated with our political process, in this election cycle more so than most.
I've made my thoughts on the matter pretty clear...
My gut tells me that, this time around, change will actually come from the ground up. But that assessment doesn't justify dismissing the political process outright. In fact, quite the contrary.
Over the last few years I've worked primarily in politics, and in the process have interacted with dozens of politicians, particularly on the local level. After a while, it becomes really easy to spot the difference between a "politician" and person who does politics.
The people who do politics are the ones who, more often than not, abide by the principle that doing the right thing is good politics.
Nobody's infallible, but let's face it: most folks in metropolitan areas settle when it comes to who we elect to represent us.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit to feeling pretty frustrated with that too.
He's a person who does politics.
His career as an educator and youth advocate confirms a steadfast commitment to tackling the systemic deficiency of our education system and increasing opportunities for small business, all while encouraging ethical activity in government. Furthermore, Max maintains the sort of grassroots sensibility that is near and dear to my own organizing heart. With Max as a D.C. Council member, the residents of Ward 4 will be a part of the system rather than victims of it.
I know. I don't live in the district. In fact, I live in New York City with all of it's stereotypes of liberals and lattes and hooligans etc.
You might think I have no business butting into the affairs of another city.
I hear you. Here's the thing: the root cause of the symptoms that plague Ward 4 are the same that plague every city in America. There's a lack of leadership at a time when change is leaderless. We're seeing it right now -- I'm seeing it by virtue of the work I'm doing with Plan4Trayvon.com. There's a hunger for change grounded in the understanding that perhaps we all do have a role to play in making things better. The way I see it, that kind of change only happens if we all commit to changing -- to personally trying to be better. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing more important towards that end than reclaiming our political legitimacy. To placing a stake in our politics.
I also know that I'm no celebrity, and as it stands, culturally, they're the only ones whose endorsements seem to carry any weight. But the truth is that whether your name is Oprah or Warren Buffett, Sandra Fluke or Joe the Plumber, in the ballot box we're all equals. It doesn't matter if you've contributed a billion dollars to a Super Pac or five dollars to a candidate for local school board. On election day, you only have one vote.
I've known Max for quite some time and I know he's a good guy. Yet I'm invested in this election now for folks like Alston -- for folks like the patrons of Debre Selam St. Marry church, who I met Sunday morning and who are doing innovative work around education and community. They need an ally. I think they'll find one in Max.
If we want things to get better, we have to vote.
Every level of government.
Every election day.
If we don't show up, then those in leadership start to show off. They start acting in their own interests rather than in the interest of their constituents.
It happens across the country. It's currently happening in Ward 4.
Right now, the recent standardized assessments in Ward 4 and throughout the city have shown alarming reversals. Teachers operate under a punitive and highly-politicized IMPACT evaluation system. Furthermore, the district is currently faced with a rising teen unemployment rate and a growing achievement gap between white and black students.
Ward 4, you can do better. I'm of the belief that Max is the man you need in your corner to do just that.
Don't live in the district? That's okay, I'm talking to you too.
These times require a change in leadership -- we can't, and frankly shouldn't, all run for office. Yet we can all recognize a good thing when we see it and support those, particularly those who are young and/or innovative, who take on the burden of running for office.
Collectively we tend not to do that.
It's a story I know too well.
The last candidate I supported and worked for -- who remains one of the best people I know -- is a man named David Yassky. David's currently NYC's Taxi and Limousine Commissioner but in 2009 he ran and lost the race for NYC City Comptroller. Three years later City Comptroller John Liu -- the man he lost to -- is currently under federal investigation for shady campaign accounting. Mr. Liu was recently charged with fraud and obstruction of justice.
Voter turnout in New York City on Election Day 2009 was incredibly low.
We allow this to happen. All of the time.
David lost his election.
Max still has the potential to win his.
Like many others, Max has also been vocal about the larger issues at stake when we discuss #Justice4Trayvon. Watch the video below for his powerful insights:
The election is on Tuesday.
I'll be in D.C. until the polls close, joining other volunteers over the course of the next few days to knock on doors.
Want to join us? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Historically, we've tried just about everything in the pursuit of making things better. Protesting, rioting, marching, rallying, boycotting -- all of those things have a place and the process of a change is a marathon, not a sprint. The simple truth is that we haven't tried this.
We've yet to explore what happens if we #VoteEverytime.
Cross posting on sarahailemariam.com.