The other day a high school classmate reached out to me on Facebook and asked if I had any advice for getting involved in local political organizing. He admitted that he had talked himself out of getting involved in any himself because he feared feeling disheartened if a particular action didn’t succeed.
I could relate. For much of my mid-20s and early 30s, I felt similarly, worried that if the small actions I took part in didn’t lead to overthrowing the entire oppressive system there was no point. I was hiding from my own brokenhearted burnout from activism and idealism during the Bush years and I wrongly believed that keeping activism at arms’ length would help. This is a position Rebecca Solnit describes as “naive cynicism” in her new book, Call Them by Their True Names. It was only after reading Solnit’s Hope in the Dark in the summer of 2016 that I started to let go of my naive cynicism, just before the very same book became the unofficial handbook of the resistance.
Then “the election” happened and I threw myself into activism and organizing at a pace I hadn’t maintained since my late teens and early twenties, repeating Solnit’s phrase “hope is action” to myself. Over the past two years, I have found particular hope in focusing on hyper local issues where the efforts and attention of me and my neighbors can make a real, tangible difference in the lives of people most affected by this administration’s policies. For me personally, that has meant focusing on supporting immigrant families and activists, and working to elect or reelect progressive, local politicians that will fight for a more expansive, inclusive New York city and state.
Solnit also echoes the importance of the local in her new book writing, “In periods where progressives don’t hold federal power [or even when they do, I would add] the work of rights and racial justice is largely relegated to the state and local levels. In the [current president’s] era this change of focus becomes imperative—if we advance at all it will be through actions taken in our own communities, on city councils, and in neighborhood assemblies and on the streets.”
This approach is mirrored by the Black Voters Matter fund, whose organizers have been traveling around the south, engaging progressive Black voters since long before primary season. In an opinion piece in the New York Times the organization’s founders discussed the importance of engaging people in local and primary elections like district court judges and how that voter engagement and political education ladders up to other, larger races.
This past spring and summer I spent much of my political time and energy on a very local campaign—supporting my friend, neighbor, long-time Sunset Park resident, and housing activist Genesis Aquino in her bid to become the Female District Leader for our assembly district for the Kings County Democratic Party. While this may sound like a ho-hum local position, the District Leaders hold a lot of power within the local Democratic Party. They help select judges and fill vacancies if an elected official is indicted. In true New York-style machine politics, the Democratic Party boss holds most of the power and many of the district leaders bend to his will. Local, progressive activists have been working to change that and to bring greater transparency to the Democratic Party and Genesis was one of them.
A group of neighbors spent all summer canvassing, flyering at subway stops during rush hour, knocking on doors and talking to voters, many of whom had no idea about the position or the importance of the primary election in New York City. Based on the energy and activity of Genesis’ campaign I felt like must have spoken to nearly every registered Democratic voter in the district. On primary day I got up at 5 am to watch the polls and hand out more fliers, full of hope that our hard work would mean a sure victory, as the incumbent had done little else but put up a few fliers and sent out a sketchily worded postcard that included the endorsement of our state assembly representative, who also serves as the male district leader, and is someone most interested in keeping himself and his friends in power than creating progressive change in Sunset Park. But Felix’s name still carries weight among some voters in the neighborhood and at the end of the day his endorsement helped the incumbent and Genesis lost by about 80 votes.
I was stunned and heartbroken, but as I looked around me on election night I saw I was surrounded by my community, by people who have become my friends over the past two years. I felt dejected and sad, but also felt a glimmer of hope. While we may have lost this race, working on supporting Genesis campaign was a step in creating a more politically responsive, transparent, progressive local government. It was part of opening a broader conversation about what is and what could be when it comes to politics and Brooklyn. The campaign also helped produce the highest voter turnout in almost twenty years for the female district leader position in our neighborhood, which is no small feat considering we have some of the lowest voter turnout in the city.
During the campaign, in addition to supporting progressive candidates Zellnor Myrie and Blake Morris for state senate as well as Genesis, I felt like I got much more on the ground experience and understanding about how a campaign could be run. I gained greater perspective about how incumbents in power, even Democratic ones, are intent on protecting themselves and the work it will take to create a truly progressive neighborhood base to vote them out.
Overall, those of us working on the campaign we had many conversations with our neighbors about the issues that matter to them: affordable housing, quality education, resources for immigrants, and jobs. Knowing this, we can go into future races even more informed. Finally, learning how much is at stake in the super-local elections has been personally motivating to me to stay involved in local issues and not just revert to naive cynicism or retreat into my own privilege when times feel challenging.
Genesis said it better than I can. Reflecting on her campaign she wrote, “Regardless of the result, we will keep going. We will keep learning about what our community needs and we will keep finding ways to provide that. We will keep working to protect our immigrant neighbors’ rights. We will keep pushing for affordable, safe housing. We will keep strengthening our schools and advocating for equitable access to education. We will keep fighting for justice reform, for policing that treats our brown and black neighbors as humans. We will keep our voices loud to ensure we don’t lose our working waterfront. We will keep holding our elected officials accountable. We will keep building resources, capacity, and energy… this isn’t over. We will just do what we’ve been doing all along, only harder, stronger, louder, longer.”
I strongly believe the work we are doing now, to support a diverse group of local, progressive candidates, to protect immigrants, to stand up for our trans, Jewish, and Muslim friends and community members, for all of those who are threatened by violence and political erasure, can set off a ripple and a larger impact. We don’t always know where that will lead, but we have to trust that energy given towards our ideals is not energy wasted. It is easy to retreat into inaction under the guise of “we can’t be sure,” but not doing anything certainly won’t bring about change any faster.
I share this now, with one week until the mid-terms and in the wake of some of the worst white-supremacist violence our country has known, to encourage you to not hold back. Donate your time or money, have those hard conversations, find who in your community needs extra support, and by all means get out and vote and make sure your friends do as well.
I write this to remind you that whatever work you are doing now will have impact beyond its primary intention. No matter what the election results, the groundwork is laid for deep, progressive, thoughtful work to continue, if we continue to do it.
Solnit provides us another reminder, “This is how epochal change often begins, with efforts that fail in their direct aims, but succeed in shifting the conversation and open the space for further action. These campaigns and achievements are far from enough, they need to scale up, and scaling up means drawing in people who recognize that these are indeed opportunities worth seizing.”
The opportunity to create a better neighborhood, city, state, and country is there to be seized. So many of you are out there doing the work. I want to send you encouragement and love to keep going. If you are worried about the right place to start, jump in anyway. Your impact will extend beyond you. Through our collective actions we can create a place where hope, and change, can continue to grow.