beyond the vote

november 2020
by NICK SCHON

 
I believe particularly with young BIPOC, there has been (and continues to be) a disillusionment about voting. And for good reason! As a young Black person growing up in working-class communities of color, I did not feel the presence of politicians or government in my community. I did not feel like we were invested in it. And that feeling persisted regardless of who was in the White House. What got me involved in organizing, and by extension, electoral politics, was connecting structural issues (education funding, mass incarceration, poverty) to structural forces like racism, patriarchy, and capitalism and realizing that people in office were often responsible for the policy that led to these problems.”


Presidential elections are always a big deal and voting has always been important, though I can’t remember an emotional intensity quite like what we’re seeing and feeling present, compared to elections of the past. And for good reason too.  A raging pandemic threatening people’s health and economic well-being,

coupled with the jarring reality of continued racial disparity has pushed the desire for any semblance of normalcy to the forefront of our social radar. We spent the summer months inundated with infographics, petitions, bailout funds, and protest schedules only to now find ourselves bombarded with the pressing need to get out and vote.  Which isn’t sitting well with many. The push for voting is conflicting, in that it stops short of these immediate issues— as if voting itself is a solution. There is a certain vagueness that’s associated with this advocacy since voting still remains largely anonymous.

My favorite example of this ridiculous ambiguity is posted on a sign, appropriately colored in red, white, and blue, with the words, “VOTE, MAKE A PLAN”.  In other words, “Just do it”. Do it, but we don’t care what it is.  Make a plan, but we’re not going to tell you what it is you should be planning for.  Let alone whom you should be voting for and if that person is going to bring about the change that you wish to see in the world.  From here I’m led to think about what people can do instead of desperately yelling the word “VOTE” at each other.  It’s not a solution or an end, and voting itself doesn’t actually solve much.  At the very least, it contributes to stealing the stage from more urgent and pressing issues.  To be clear, I’m not advocating for not voting, I am however suggesting that there are more tangible ways to make change that creates benefits on a local level, not just a different politician in the same office attempting to make national change. Besides, shouldn't we be questioning why it's so difficult for people to get to the polls in the first place?

Voter suppression is real, it’s right here in this election, and has been for generations.  In a democracy, voting for officials is the most fundamental and defining feature that citizens possess.  Right now, it’s difficult for Americans to do this very simple, yet incredibly important task.  Voting should be so obvious and uncomplicated that you shouldn’t need to get a sticker every time you do it.  It should be so mundane and ordinary that people shouldn’t be told or reminded that they need to vote or should vote.  But the reality of voting in this country is far from that.  From structures like voter registration deadlines and voter ID laws to illicit and immoral practices of intimidation, voting is not as permanent or permissible of a process as should be defined in a democracy.  Therefore, the stigma behind choosing not to vote should be lifted from people’s minds.

There’s an amount of understanding that can be extended to a person who decides not to vote, especially considering the reality of voter suppression.  Certainly, any aggression, usually displayed by liberals, to get people to vote is unnecessary.  What needs to be asked of people instead is how can change occur beyond the voting?  How are communities caring for each others’ needs?  How is support being distributed to the ones that need it most?  And how can it be done without a national legislature (because that is rarely set into motion)?  Underrepresentation in our political system is felt by all types of people, people who regularly face inequality and discrimination at the community level.  When the basic needs of security, resources, and education are irregular, the perspective of victims can be limited to handling these shortcomings, unconcerned with participation in a greater system.  That is to say, when a system repeatedly disappoints, the ones affected will be indifferent in regard to bipartisan candidates.  A clear example is seen by the lack of action from either Democrats or Republicans to curb the effects of police brutality throughout the second half of the 20th century until now.  It's understandable that considering an issue that has lasted so long, people affected by police brutality would be indifferent to anyone elected high office.  In contrast, the focus needs to shift to actions that affect specific issues on a smaller level, directly benefiting victims of political disparity.

These are questions and issues that many people, myself included, commonly neglect.  Yet, the same people will constantly remind others how important their vote is.  That’s because it’s exclusively important to them, the people who benefit from capitalism, racial inequality, the police, and the prison system— only some of the matters that cease to be mediated despite either party being in office.

The root of this issue comes from a place of privilege.  The reason so many are fixated on voter turnout is because they are unsettled by the current administration.  Yet, their actions stop there.  There’s a reason that the importance of voting is being spread so widely instead of other pressing issues. As ordinary as it should be, it’s still a part of a system that creates large amounts of inequality for the benefit of individuals.  Shifting the focus away from the immediate needs of community members and onto the vote ultimately perpetuates the same system that benefits the wealthy and the white. A change in office is not going to banish these power structures.  And some don’t want it to anyway, given that they’re so enthusiastic about voting and not about making any real change outside a system.

Rick Krajewski, a West Philadelphia-based organizer, educator, and artist who is running for State Representative of the 188th State House District is familiar with the great differences of representation by presidential candidates.  He is also aware of the importance of strengthening communities and including them in the legislature.  And how advocating and organizing one’s immediate surroundings can eventually lead to policy changes that work for all, not just the powerful.

I believe particularly with young BIPOC, there has been (and continues to be) a disillusionment about voting. And for good reason! As a young Black person growing up in working-class communities of color, I did not feel the presence of politicians or government in my community. I did not feel like we were invested in it. And that feeling persisted regardless of who was in the White House. What got me involved in organizing, and by extension, electoral politics, was connecting structural issues (education funding, mass incarceration, poverty) to structural forces like racism, patriarchy, and capitalism and realizing that people in office were often responsible for the policy that led to these problems.”

Though these changes do not happen within the space of a few years, just as change doesn’t happen after one election.  That’s why voter turnout remains important each and every election cycle.  The election process is only a step in the greater undertaking of systemic change -- it’s just as crucial to consider alternate ways of working toward a greater good.

Some of the many things we can do to bring about change locally, focuses largely on donating and volunteering and can widely range in scale.  This can include giving donations directly to someone in need, as seen on many social media platforms specifically Instagram.  These posts include someone’s needs and a means to send them money virtually through services like CashApp or Venmo.  It’s a kind of informal way of donating, but the greatest aspect of it is that the benefactor is certain that the money is going directly to a cause that creates a very immediate change in an individual’s life.  The informal nature forces us to use an honor system and trust that the person in need is legitimately asking for emergency funds.  For some these are considered reparations of sorts, other times people are crowdfunding due to a financial emergency such as eviction, moving, or medical costs. 

Donations can also include funds that go to local organizations that advocate for changes in the communities they reside in.  A good example would be mutual aid funds.  Mutual aid projects reallocate resources, either financial or material, from donors to people in need.  They are a liaison between people who want to give to people who require certain forms of help.  Again this assistance can be money or it can simply be a week’s worth of groceries.  Many communities have mutual aid groups that are typically run by volunteers.  If a person is willing to contribute to mutual aid but does not have extra funds, they are able to donate their time and effort toward a direct cause.

Another good example is volunteering with local politicians like Krajewski.  Communities organizing for greater change of oppressive systems will build up to enact different and more beneficial legislation.  When many residents’ and neighbors’ voices are heard, candidates who are representative of these voices can be used to create laws that aid in the sustainability of these communities and the care of people who live in them.  This seemingly daunting process occurs in the space between elections, though it’s simple and it starts with communication on a small localized level!

Furthermore, an effective way to make your voice heard and to get people already in office to do something, is to contact them directly— via email or phone.  These people can range from members of a local government to Congress members.  Typically, contact information for these people can be found clearly displayed on governmental websites: email addresses, phone numbers, and mailing addresses.  Making it a simple process to make seated officials aware of public issues.  There are even templates that are circulated by organizers that guide others’ words to facilitate the process of getting high volumes of emails to members of government.  The highest benefit of this type of action comes from the fact that it can happen at any point in time when change can’t wait for another election season to roll around.

Most importantly, regardless of the type of action anyone takes, is recognizing that we have the power in us to make things happen.  Considering the energy that is displayed during an election cycle and converting that energy to extend the conversation to other issues, will help to make a more enduring and relevant change in the long-term, and not just until the next election.

*Photo Credit: Emma Lee, WHYY
Mark