What is the single most important thing everyday leaders (who are at least 18) can do right now? Vote!
Yesterday, I turned in my ballot at City Hall. This is only the second election since I turned 18 in which I did not vote in person at my local polling place. The other was my very first election in 1992.
I became eligible to vote on September 2, 1989. Though it was not an election year, it was monumental.
- In January of 1989, George H.W. Bush was inaugurated, carrying Ronald Reagan’s torch into the next decade.
- In March, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
- In June, Chinese troops and security police fired on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds of their own citizens.
- In October, the Battle of the Bay World Series was interrupted by a magnitude 6.9 earthquake, which damaged the Bay Bridge and caused more than $5 billion in damages.
- In November, German citizens were permitted to travel freely between East and West Germany for the first time since WWII, signaling the “fall of the Berlin Wall” and a new period in world politics.
And, I graduated from high school and began my freshman year of college.
Flash forward to my first presidential election: 1992, I was a senior in college, and I had recently turned 21. I was on crutches, nursing my blown ACL that had ended my final season of Division 1 soccer. I was 3,000 miles from home, so I dutifully filled out my absentee ballot and mailed it across the country. Similar to this year, a democrat (Bill Clinton) was challenging an incumbent Republican (George Bush), hoping to make him a one term president. Also for the first time ever, both California senate seats were on the ballot at the same time. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were hoping to become the first all-female senate duo in history.
At the time, I was coming into my own as a politically and socially aware individual. Thanks to classes like Women and the Law, The Sociology of Public Education, and Race in the 20th Century, I was developing a more realistic understanding of the history of our country, the intersection between privilege and power, and the challenges faced by marginalized groups. My learning wasn’t entirely in the classroom. I saw the same issues I was learning about play out right in front of me in the Harvard student body.
Early that evening, the news broke that Bill Clinton had won the presidency and both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer won their respective senate races. I was ecstatic. I had such hope for the Clinton presidency and I was so proud to be from a state that had just elected two female senators. How did I celebrate? I did what any newly-21 and basically broke college student would do: I bought everyone at the bar a round of shots.
The 1992 election had a profound impact on my future. Inspired by the political victories and fueled by my commitment to social change, I lined up two unpaid internships upon graduation: I split my time volunteering with both Senator Feinstein and Superintendent of Alameda Unified Public Schools, Dennis Chaconas.
After a couple months, I was hired as a staffer on Senator Feinstein’s reelection campaign. In that role, I worked harder than I ever had in my life. I met lifelong friends. I saw up close the immense role that money plays in politics. I learned the grind of campaigning. I discovered the compromises necessary for success in political office. I saw the personal stakes – the immense scrutiny, the level of conflict, and the battering of ego – individuals choose to subject themselves to when they run for office. I learned that politics are not for me.
But, public service stuck with me for a lifetime.
By 1996, the next presidential election, I was teaching high school history. I will always remember the pride I felt walking into my classroom on November 5th wearing my “I Voted!” sticker. No matter how busy my schedule or how harried my day, I have voted in person ever since.
This year due to the pandemic, many of us across the country are voting absentee or voting early, puzzling through confusing processes or braving long lines. What’s worse, so many of us feel intentionally disenfranchised or manipulated by public officials. We fear that election results will be challenged or the Electoral College system will let us down or that our vote won’t count. Honestly, these feelings are nothing new for many Americans.
And, yet, by voting we have the power to change the world. Please use it.