I didn't think I'd be an activist
I don’t want to change the world. I’m about to graduate, and all I really want to do next year is wake up each morning, go for a jog, make whole-wheat, blackberry pancakes with my boo, go to work at a job that I enjoy, read some books, see some plays, learn some more math and get at least eight of hours of sleep every night.
I want the world to already be changed. I want to pay my taxes once a year—be it 30 percent or 50 percent or maybe more—and know that every American has access to a good education, affordable healthcare and a safe place to lay their head at night. I want to know that future generations of Americans will have a clean environment and a solvent government. We might be too far gone to “fix” climate change, but I know that the other goals are all achievable, in part because other countries have achieved them. Germany, for example, has universal healthcare, a balanced budget and a reasonably modest carbon footprint. I want these things to be taken care of, so I can think about the things that interest me—math, philosophy, literature.
But these things aren’t taken care of. I wish someone else would take care of them. I wish these problems would sort themselves out on their own.
A few weeks ago, I talked to a woman named Nona from Huntersville, N.C., who lies awake at night worrying because she was diagnosed with spina bifida. She lost her job because she was too sick to work and her COBRA will run out in March. She’s 63 years old and won’t be able to see a doctor for two years even though she’s in tremendous pain.
And so I lie awake worrying about Nona and worrying about all the “Nonas” out there in our country. I know there are mothers and fathers whose cars broke down yesterday, and they don’t know how they’ll pay for fixing their car when they are already worried about paying the utility bill and rent and daycare and saving enough for their own retirement. And so I lie awake worrying for these mothers and fathers who want so badly for their kids to have a better life.
These worries are not immediately my worries. I lined up my job for next year last July. It pays more than enough and has a generous 401(k) match. But I know that, for all my hard work, there was a lot of luck that is putting me in a position where the worries of so many families won’t be my own worries. But I worry about these worries anyway.
“It’s not fair!” I feel like a child sometimes. But whom do I protest to?
For me, being an activist is about feeling these problems so deeply in my bones that, even though it’d be better for my career, better for my GPA and better for my social life to sit back and do nothing about these problems, I feel compelled by anger and sadness to do something.
This semester, I told myself I would take it easy and get coffee often with all the people I’ll miss when I graduate. For the first time in at least six years, I’m not an officer of any organizations. But I keep getting pulled back in.
I don’t really like being an activist. Some parts can be fun—I like meeting new people, and I often enjoy writing. But I don’t like sending out lots of emails or asking for money. Tabling is usually a pain in the butt, and knocking on strangers’ doors is sometimes interesting but nevertheless extremely awkward. I’ve spent a lot of time as an “activist” filling in spreadsheets, flyering and sitting through long meetings. I don’t like doing these things, and I wish I could pass off these tasks to someone else. It’s not that I think I’m irreplaceable; a lot of the things I’ve worked on, frankly, do not require all that much talent. Rather, until these problems are solved, no matter how many others are on board, I still must help in the work that remains to be done.
I don’t think being an activist is about wanting to change the world. It does not require tremendous ambition or ego. It is mostly about impatience—about not being able to go with the flow, because you don’t like where the flow is going or you know the flow is going way too slowly.
There are skills to be learned in community organizing—clever tricks you learn along the way, like, “if you really want someone to show up to a meeting, call them a few hours beforehand and let them know how excited you are that they’re coming,” but if you’re a first-year looking up at the “old guard” of Duke activists, know that we don’t have any special sauce. I didn’t think I would be an activist—but I became one anyway.
Elena Botella is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every Thursday. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenabotella.