It is no secret that the 2016 presidential election left Americans more polarized than ever before. Between the contentious campaigning, the relentless scrutiny of candidates, the circus of media coverage, and the debates over hacking and emails, the process of voting for a new leader to represent our nation left many of us reeling.
In President Barack Obama’s farewell speech on January 10, he encouraged all Americans to step up as proud citizens. He said, “[Our democracy] needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
Regardless of how you feel about the incoming President-elect, Obama’s words are applicable to all of us. In a year that felt like a constant game of “two truths and a lie,” one thing is clear: an opportunity for change is on the horizon. Rather than becoming disillusioned, here are eight tips to get involved with politics so that you — yes, you — can make a difference.
1. Learn Who Your Elected Officials Are
I’ll be the first to admit it: for a long time, I had no idea who held office in my city. It seemed irrelevant since I didn’t work in government or plan on running for mayor someday. That stance, of course, was wildly privileged and naive of me — especially because it literally takes about five minutes to learn who represents you as an elected official.
Without minimizing the importance of the presidential office itself, remember that state and local elected officials frequently function as the people who make decisions regarding issues that affect our day-to-day lives. For example, your elected officials should be focused on things like equal access to essential public services, fair governmental priorities and policies, city hall policies, school district choices, and public health measures. (And this is by no means a comprehensive list!)
Knowing the names and faces of those behind local and state decisions positions you as a more informed citizen, which allows you to better advocate for your needs as well as the needs of your community. It also means you can vote more frequently, due to the nature of state and local elections, as well as fill out all sections of the ballot every time a presidential election rolls around, instead of staring at them blankly. Don’t be that person.
2. Contact Your Leaders
Once you know who your elected officials are, talk to them! Tell them what’s on your mind: what concerns you, what keeps you up at night, what you expect of them, what makes you proud to be an American. Their job is to listen to you, so reach out frequently and respectfully to voice your opinions.
Tip: according to this now-viral advice by former Congressional staff member Emily Ellsworth, skip the social media comments, and stick to penning a letter, writing an email, and picking up the phone to ensure your point of view is heard. Not exactly sure what to say the first time around? Introduce yourself as a constituent, explain what you’d like to hear or see from them as an elected official, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or request a response. Not all offices function the same way, but if you request a response, the odds of your comment moving past a general staffer to your Congresswoman or Congressman are higher.
3. Attend Town Hall Meetings
Town hall meetings are notoriously under-attended, but they also happen to be a chance to speak directly to your local legislators and even members of Congress. These meetings are free of cost and held in a public space, typically beginning with a short speech from an elected official and then an open Q&A, where attendees can ask questions about a piece of legislation or a specific issue.
To find out when town hall meetings are happening in your city, do a quick Google search or call your elected officials. And if you’ve never attended this type of meeting, enable the “buddy system” by inviting a friend to come along. Worried it might be boring or pointless? Well, to that I say, you won’t know unless you go.
4. Join a Political Party
Ever heard the phrase “lesser of two evils”? Many of us are hungry for more political party options than what our current limited system provides. We can’t make that change overnight, of course, but getting involved in party affairs from a grassroots stance is a tiny step toward building out more choices all the way down both sides of the ballot.
Party affiliation is most commonly linked to who you voted for during primary elections; however, it also impacts endorsements, affects recruitment of candidates, and influences selection of official election delegates. If you aren’t sure where to start, look online for information about how to join a Republican, Democratic, Green, or Libertarian club. (Reminder: if you prefer to deem yourself an Independent or want to create your own party, you’ve got the freedom to pursue those choices as well.)
5. Participate in a Peaceful Protest
The civil rights movement and women’s suffrage are just a handful of examples where public protesting as a form of activism led to significant social and legal changes. Well-organized, nonviolent protests that refrain from causing public disorder can keep issues top of mind for others and build general awareness and/or sympathy; similarly, the manner of demonstration can promote hope and inspiration for a better future.
In light of the upcoming inauguration, unprecedented protests are scheduled in Washington and across the country to express dissent regarding the outcome of the 2016 election. Some argue that protesting remains ineffective, but it depends on the subject of the protest as well as the manner of demonstration. And whether you personally view protesting to be effective or not, know that every American has the individual right to peacefully come together with others to express, promote, and defend ideas. This freedom of association has proven to be a crucial civil liberty over the past several decades, and organizing or attending a protest or march can be a useful way to show solidarity as an effective ally against forms of oppression.
6. Support Organizations Already Doing the Work
Name an issue close to your heart — jobs, immigration, taxes, race relations, climate change, minority rights, abortion, education, law enforcement, health care, terrorism, pensions, the death penalty, minimum wage, guns, mental health (plus, obviously, many more) — and there’s likely an existing organization already doing the work. This means no matter what side you fall on in a given debate, you have an avenue to partner for change with other individuals who feel the same way.
Support takes shape in numerous ways: volunteer your time and energy, raise funds, donate your hard-earned cash, lobby elected officials, sign petitions, or write letters to raise awareness. And last but definitely not least: volunteer! Campaigns and nonprofits are always looking for hands to help knock on doors and make phone calls, especially during an election season. P.S. You’re never too old or young to be a first-time volunteer for an issue or candidate. And if there’s not an organization set up to support your exact cause, take the initiative and start one.
7. Do Your Research
We live in an age where vast multitudes of information lay at our fingertips, and yet, fake news has never been more prominent. This is due partly to human nature — and social media algorithms — which tend to steer us toward information that reinforces what we already believe to be true. This echo chamber prevents us from hearing and understanding perspectives or arguments that run counter to our beliefs and opinions.
The result? Unless we make a continual, dedicated effort to read, hear, and listen to people and media outside of our own bubbles, we lack opportunities to challenge long-held stances, concepts, or ideas, which creates even more of a divide. (It doesn’t help that many of today’s politicians seem to view honesty as optional, which makes us trust them less and less. That’s another issue altogether.)
Fake news is real. But let’s be clear: news that makes you say, “What?” and “Hmm…” and “I didn’t know that” should not be immediately written off as false. It means you need to do your research while remaining a critical thinker. Seek facts, and don’t be afraid to stubbornly remind others of their basis in reality. Don’t make assumptions and clarify for context.
8. Speak Up About Issues That Matter to You
Never talk about politics and religion, right? Wrong. If we truly want change as Americans, if we seek a more inclusive society, if we strive to be a great country, then we should not be afraid to talk about politics. That doesn’t mean it isn’t scary. It is. For some of us, speaking up comes at a great cost, which means that those of us who experience a little or a lot more privilege should feel even more compelled to speak up.
Start with your friends and family members (aka, not strangers on the Internet): these folks may think and feel differently than you, but having an open and honest conversation is vital. Remaining silent only ensures our separateness, when we know, deep down, that we are capable of finding common ground. Be brave enough to voice your opinion and compassionate enough to realize yours is not the only one that matters.
9. Run for Office Yourself
The number of women in U.S. politics remains disproportionately low, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Organizations and programs like She Should Run, Emily’s List, Ready to Run, and Running Start aim to support girls and women interesting in running for office through resources such as educational information, digital incubators, online communities, and leadership summits. Additionally, some states have their own initiatives and groups that support women who wish to run for office (like Iowa’s 50-50 in 2020).
And please, ignore the loud cries of people who insist women need to stay out of politics. Or those who expressed shock at Teen Vogue recently tackling political commentary with as much rigor as, say, fashion. (Newsflash, women can care about both!) Women make up more than half of this country’s population and yet our representation doesn’t reflect that in Congress and many local and state legislatures. So if you don’t like who is in charge, or desire things to be done differently, remember that you can run for office and be the change you wish to see to see in the world. Make that cliché a reality.
We’re all in this together. We are one nation; united we stand, divided we fall. The issues that cause us to cry, complain, mourn, celebrate, and take action — they require us to communicate, compromise and most of all, care enough to get involved.
How will you get involved in public service, local politics, or your community in 2017? What will you do, for the first or fiftieth time, to make your voice heard?
The Everygirl is a nonpartisan platform and we encourage our followers to participate in the democratic process guided by their personal principles and beliefs.