(Apologies in advance for the length of today’s post)
I’ve been politically active for almost 2 years now (although it seems like a lot longer), and there’s one universal piece of everyone in politics: they all have a reason to have entered politics. For some, it’s a game. For others, they want to make change. But everyone has a reason, and no one’s in it for the big bucks (at least at first, and then they become lobbyists and ruin lives but that’s a different discussion). So, as we reach the 2 year anniversary of my un-grand entrance to politics, I want to explain why I’m involved, and why I plan to make this my career.
My first political experience (as far as I can recall) was standing in line to vote with my mom during either the 2004 or 2006 election (neither myself or my mom can remember, so it’s one of those). Whenever I see the photos of people standing in live to vote, I’m instantly reminded of how amazingly bored I was, and I’m sure it gives my mom nightmares over having to wait in that line with a 4 or 6 year old version of me (not fun). I did, however, get to pull the lever when she voted, but I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing.
In 2008, my mom dragged me and my sister out to canvas for Barack Obama, and I honestly have no recollection of it other than one guy who answered the door and told us that he had voted for Nixon in his first election, and never voted for a Republican again. I, again, had no idea what was going on.
I can remember when Obama was reelected, and also the 2014 midterms (but not vividly). But politics was never a leading interest to me for a good 14 and a half years of my life.
I generally did pretty well in math class at school, so I was always told to do something STEM related. First, I wanted to do stats analysis for baseball teams (after reading/watching Moneyball). Then, I wanted to be the next Steve Jobs, some tech billionaire who created crazy cool computer gadgets.
All of that changed when I started high school.
I went to school for Kindergarten through 8th Grade at a small private school. Nearly all of my classmates were white. Everyone came from well-off families who could afford the hefty tuition. At the end of 8th grade, my class took a trip to England (as does every 8th grade class at the school), which required each student contributing $1,600 and for every student to fundraise for the group on their own. That all required having money and knowing lots of people who had money.
While I certainly enjoyed my time in K-8, and was shaped by that experience, it gave me a very limited view of the world. My mom is an avid NPR listener, and I remember hearing all sorts of stories about the recession and people who lost their jobs. But no one I knew was really affected by the state of the economy.
I chose to go to a brand new high school and be a part of the founding class; I was more or less a test subject alongside my peers. But my high school is very different from where I was coming from.
72% of my peers qualify for free-or-reduced lunch, meaning their families are low-income. 92% are students of color. It’s a completely different place than where I had been before. And it changed my life.
For the first time in my life I was meeting people whose lives were vastly different from mine. I had classmates whose families had had to sneak across the border with Mexico to get here when they were babies. I had classmates who had gone in and out of homelessness. I had classmates who only had one parent around, or sometimes no parents (they lived with other family members). And most of my classmates had no idea what going to college could even look like, let alone how they would pay for college.
It all made me really upset. Why was it that I, who was born within 4 months of nearly all of my classmates in the same city (or close to it), had so much more opportunity than my peers? What made me better than them? I hadn’t done anything better than them, I hadn’t earned it, it was simply luck of the draw, that I was given more opportunity based on who I was born to. That, I believe, is the core of what drives me to politics.
Of course, there is vastly more than the simple economic inequality I’ve been witnessing. My first sort of endeavor into social justice was helping to lead a walkout at school to protest the failure to indict Michael Brown’s murderer and the horrific murders of other unarmed black men. That experience, and the discussions after, helped me to understand my white privilege, and explained to me why some of my black peers were nervous to start driving when they turned 16 (many of them have decided to, despite their fears of being pulled over).
3 of my classmates have very bravely come out to the school as undocumented students, or DREAMers. They work harder than most everyone else I know and have aspirations that they can easily accomplish, but because of a decision their parents made when they couldn’t even walk or talk, they have no idea if they’ll randomly be uprooted from their lives and sent back to a country they can’t remember. And many more of my classmates have parents who are here without correct documentation, and they don’t know if they’ll come home from school and their parents will have been sent back to Mexico (or another country, but most have come from there). All of this makes going to college much more difficult, and can be a preventative force to them getting a further education and a better paying job.
By the second half of my sophomore year of high school, I was ready to try to make some change. Talking about all of it in school was helpful, but nothing was getting done, and nothing was changing. And it was now an election year. In my mind then (and still mostly so now), politics was the way to make change (I know that a lot of people don’t agree with that, but I still hold the belief that when politics work right, good change comes).
So one Sunday afternoon, I asked my dad for a ride down to Bernie Sanders’ campaign office in Denver. For someone who didn’t really know what campaigning was like, it was slightly crazy. When I walked in, people were walking back in the forth on the phone, it was crazy loud, and I was very scared. The woman who technically worked the front desk asked me why I had come in, and I very timidly told her I wanted to volunteer. She disappeared, and a while later some other guy came and asked me the same question. Then he disappeared, and when he came back he asked if I had a phone and a computer. I told him I had a phone but no computer.
By some miracle in that madhouse, he managed to get me setup to phone bank for Bernie. When I came in after that, which was about 15 more times, I just came and did my own thing. I tried to stay out of the way of the official staff, and probably made around 500 calls for Bernie. I also spent a bizarre amount of time cleaning up the office, since I was the youngest person and apparently the only one bothered by the mess.
In the end, Bernie won Colorado, and the day after the caucuses the staff tried to give me champagne, which I politely declined, and that was it. The offices were shut down in Denver, as they tried to move the effort to the rest of the country to try to pull off a massive upset. It didn’t happen.
Shortly after the end of my stint with the Bernie campaign, I met a guy named Aaron Goldhamer. Aaron was running for Colorado State House in the district my school is in. He seemed cool (and not really different from his primary opponent but I didn’t really notice), so I spent a couple of evenings in his house making some calls and canvassed for him once. He ended up losing the primary by 20% (he also ran for a position on the Denver RTD (bus system) board in the general election and lost that too).
As I left Aaron’s campaign following his loss, I finally accepted that Bernie had lost too, and began to move away from my support of him. I also almost decided to leave the whole political sphere, because I wasn’t too sold on another candidate to back, and I was upset over the back-to-back losses.
But wait! I didn’t quit! There’s more!
In August of 2016 (yes this is 2016 still if you’ve lost track), I went to another dingy campaign office, this time to support Hillary Clinton. I’d made a change in my presidential candidate of choice because I had become deeply afraid of what would happen if Donald Trump were to win. Everything I mentioned before that deeply worries me about the state of our society would only become worse under Trump (called it). I didn’t join the campaign because I wanted Hillary to win, I joined because I wanted Trump to lose, and Hillary had the best chance of making that happen.
I became a fellow for the campaign, which was essentially one step above a volunteer, in that I coordinated volunteers on top of doing regular volunteer activities. I got to speak at an official campaign event, introducing the actor Don Cheadle and the campaign’s Colorado director Emmy Ruiz. I met Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Morgan Carroll, and a whole slew of other public figures.
We all know how that all turned out. (If you want a further description of my campaign season, see this post here).
And then this blog was born! I became really annoyed with people writing and sharing posts about politics on Facebook (especially because they don’t know what they’re talking about), and I wanted to be able to express how I was feeling about, well, everything.
Campaign work was certainly important to me, and I do enjoy it a lot. I’m sure I’ll spend a lot more time doing that in the future. But if your candidates don’t get elected, what are you supposed to do? The change I had set out to have a part in making wasn’t going to happen when the candidates I backed kept losing (I’m really bad luck for candidates, apparently).
So I decided to try out actually being a part of the government. I scored an internship over the summer of 2017 in the Colorado Governor’s Office working for my hero John Hickenlooper (I later learned that my hard work for Hillary’s campaign had helped me get the internship, as another member of our campaign team had been working there prior to me and had expressed that they should take me onboard. I was one of only 2 high school interns in the office, which was pretty cool).
There, I worked in the office of constituent services. I did most of our phone calls, which meant listening to anywhere from 15-115 voicemails each morning and returning a good number of those calls. I would deal with policy related requests (like the hundreds of people who asked the Governor to join the US climate alliance), people who needed assistance with some government service, and then our frequent flyers (I’ll explain in a minute).
A lot of the calls I made back to people were to help them when a government service wasn’t really working out. So a lot of calls about problems with the DMV, medical marijuana cards, Medicaid payments, and so on. My job was to be able to understand exactly what they needed help with (not always too easy), and then determine what government department or agency would be best suited to help them. I would then refer them on to the correct people in the government. 99.9% of the time, the Governor’s Office couldn’t actually do anything directly about the concern they had brought up. Some people wouldn’t let me refer them on, so I just had to let them talk and get angry until they would get off the phone, and then I had to let the citizens’ advocate at the appropriate department know about this person and have them call.
Our frequent flyers kept things interesting. There were about 4 people who would call at least once a week (usually more) about a different issue every time. Some were completely outrageous, and some we had tried to help and then refused our help. While we tried to get the appropriate support for these folks, we never could, which was one of the only downsides to this work. Nonetheless, it was extremely rewarding to have a part in getting essential government services to the people who needed them.
In my time in the Governor’s office, I met lots of really interesting people, both who worked on the staff and also members of the Governor’s Cabinet. Governor Hickenlooper has assembled a cabinet of people who are extremely qualified to run the department they are in charge of. It’s what’s making his administration one of the most successful in Colorado’s history.
My time in the Governor’s office was life changing. I met incredible people have been so supportive of me and my goals in the future, and without it, I don’t think I would have such a continued drive to continue to do this work.
This blog you’re reading is a result of all the experiences and opportunities I’ve gotten over the past 2 years. And yet, it provides a bit of a paradox for me. The reason I decided to do all of this was to combat the inequities that were created based on the situation of my birth opposed to others. And yet, I’m getting opportunities that those same people I hope to work to support aren’t because of that situation. I get to spend my time volunteering and taking part in unpaid internships that will set me up for a future career because I don’t need to work to help my family pay the bills. But yet, many of my closest friends can’t yet do what they love because they have to be support for their families.
This isn’t a problem with a simple fix. It’s not something that one bill in congress will change. It’s not something I think I can change. But if I help push the train down the tracks towards a better, more equal future, then I think I’ve done my job.