When I thought about writing this I was stumped for an opening. What catchy first line speaks to being a writer in these socially traumatic times? Then it came to me. Thank you. Thank you for all the work I know you must have done, all the work I know you must be doing. Thank you for caring about the world even when that caring takes away from the time you have to write the novel, finish the poem or invent a new form we haven’t seen yet. Thank you for even thinking about doing something – that’s actually an active step in socially responsible responses. Thanks for helping where you can, at a foodbank, in a volunteer program, on a political campaign. Or on six political campaigns.
I live in Pennsylvania, where there are always at least six political campaigns that could use my help, my money, my time and my gasoline. I’m nearly 71 so I’m not able to do all the things my younger political friends and allies can, but the one good thing about a state as mucked up as Pennsylvania is today is that there is always a job to do that will fit your skills and energy. So, although there are countless ways you can respond to the social disfunction we call modern American, I want to talk a bit here about political activity.
Full disclosure: I did not come to politics naturally. The hot ticket items of the 70’s and 80’s involved me, the Vietnam War, Nuclear Power Plants, but I was not active in social movements like aiding AIDS victims. I’ve marched on Washington a few times, but I have not marched to end genocide or to change voter laws. I kept many issues at the periphery of my attention and I hoped that someone was addressing those issues. I was a poet. I made art. And art matters. I volunteered in the art field, teaching in schools and running a free writing workshop in my living room for fifteen years. But I was not a political operative.
Then came Trump. When I got past the flattening shock of the elections results, I realized that Pennsylvania put him over the line. The Republicans who crafted his campaign had been smart and sneaky. It was new to me, the way they got him elected. I knew they were able to do it in part because I had been asleep at the wheel. Politics, I’d thought, was not my domain. I was a good enough person doing lots of good things. Other good people were taking care of this political stuff. I thought they did not need me.
So that’s me. If you’re a conservative, you can still listen to (or read) this. Just substitute your values for mine, and consider what writers are called to do when a political crisis of this magnitude overtakes their country and their generation. I will set down a few things I had to do in the past election season, and in my ongoing involvement in politics. Other writers will probably need to do them too.
- I had to get educated about my local situation, and meet the local people responding to it. Here’s where I got lucky. A University of Pittsburgh professor, Marie Norman, responded to the 2016 election by forming a Facebook group to organize political action. She called it Order of the Phoenix (yup) and as soon as I caught wind of it, I joined. I was not alone.The group attracted a lot of people who were appalled not only by Trump as a man, but by the policies we knew his election would enable. When Trump said he would have all the “best people” running things Stephen Miller and Betsy De Vos showed up.
- I read a critical book that described in excruciating detail the Red Mapping that had damaged the fairness of state and federal districts in my state. “Ratf**ked” by David Daley, tells the story of the gerrymandering of America, state by painful state. Daley’s facts motivated me to get involved with elections and with a group that fights gerrymandering. In Pennsylvania, legal activists took the Republican controlled State Senate to court when they drew highly gerrymandered districts that violated legal constraints. The State Supreme Court ruled that they had to re-draw the maps using parameters that resulted in fairer representation for Pennsylvania’s citizens. I could explain all this, but just read Daley’s book – especially if you live in Arizona, or Wisconsin, or Florida, or Ohio, or Michigan. Or anywhere really, just read it.
- That led me into working on the 2018 election where we did well in southwestern PA. Republican control of our State legislature was impacted by the election of many Democrats. It’s great when things go that way. But there was no time to bask in that success.
- When 2019 came around, I asked, “there’s a 2019 election?” Yes, Deborah. There’s an election every year – not just when Senate and House seats are up for grabs. That year we worked to elect a better District Attorney for Allegheny County. We had a great candidate, but we lost. I look forward to helping her win next time. For me this was another lesson: if you want social change you have to think long-term while you work as if this is your only chance. You must persist in the face of defeat.
- Then there was this year – and you no doubt know that Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes put Biden over the top. You might not know how big a part Allegheny County played in that. We made a difference, maybe even the difference. In Allegheny County the group that may have had the biggest effect is Order of the Phoenix. And when the race was called for President-Elect Biden, we all got to feel something we cannot expect to feel again soon.
So that brings us to now. What does this history have to do with you, with writers in the age of Social Unrest? Well, here are a few thoughts:
- Social unrest means there’s something very wrong. Contented citizens do not spend their time hollering. So whichever side of our current divide you’re on, there is a place for you to work, and work you should. That does not mean you can’t write poems, essays and novels as well. There is no “one size fits all” in responding to current events. The many things that happen in our personal lives matter. Family and friends still matter. Music matters. Art matters. Gardening matters. Having fun matters. Laughing matters. Being lazy matters. Looking at clouds matters. But there should be some time and energy that you put into bettering this world at every stage of your life. When I was between trying to stop Nuclear Proliferation and trying to stop Trumpism, I was raising kids, sustaining my community, being a lover, a wife, a writer, a teacher and you will be (or are) those things too. Those were worthy pursuits, but I regret not keeping my eye on the way things were going nationally. I regret that my serious political involvement came so late. I regret that we were on the way to this place for such a long time while I was ignorant. This will be a lifelong regret. Mea culpa.
- So we can work. We can educate ourselves in lots of areas, not just in the literary world. We should learn about our states, our towns, our cities, our neighborhoods. Who is feeding your homeless? How are school funds disbursed? None of us can work on every problem but we can keep swinging our eyes around the landscape to keep it all in mind. We can choose something to learn a lot about. I have a political ally who studies how elections are conducted. She knows the safety records behind various kinds of balloting. She knows who makes voting machines and how the contracts to do that are awarded. She knows what local governing bodies have the final say on issues related to voting. I didn’t even know we had a County Council here who makes these decisions. When I need to know about election issues, I contact Julie. I’m re-visiting everything I can find about gerrymandering – the laws and practices, the US Supreme Court cases. I hope to be a useful resource about that when I’m done. But my other specialty is being a good foot soldier. I take orders well these. When we need to get yard signs distributed, when thousands of postcards need to go in the mail to get voters to the polls, when we need to recruit other workers, I’m a good person to contact. There is always a critical issue here, and there are always great people to work with – folks who keep me at it, or let me off the hook when I need time off, because we all have lives, need rest, and all that other good stuff. But – for a start – we can get educated about how things work where we live.
- I had to admit that the things I do, and the things I don’t do matter. That’s not complicated, but it’s easy to forget. Take a look at climate issues, the economy, the educational system, the healthcare system, voting rights, energy production, food distribution, and especially racial inequity which will be a part of the story in each of the preceding areas.
- Find your tribe, your people, your interests, and once you do, stay loyal. These are the people who will sustain you all your life. It may be something as personal as reminding you to keep sending out your work, or as big as reminding you to care about the generations who will need this planet when we are long gone. This is what is currently called “selfcare” – a phrase I find chilly and antiseptic, but then I’m an old lady.
And that’s it from me. Thanks for reading this. I’d love to hear from those of you engaged in political work, big issue work, little issue work, any of it. I don’t go to writers’ conventions anymore, but I sometimes imagine a session where there is no panel, no major writer. Regular writers just come in and write briefly about the work for the world they are doing. Then those descriptions, those pieces of paper, are pinned to a very big wall so we can see how effective we can be. This is the age for the fully engaged citizen and the fully engaged writer. Meet you on the ramparts.