First things first: apologies for the hiatus. It’s legislative session, which means it’s high tide for the organizing we do around public policy. And that’s what I want to write about today.
When it comes to our communities, however we may identify, we’ve got a lot to address: discrimination, unemployment, harassment, profiling, lack of access to resources that can help us meet our most basic needs of housing, employment, and taking care of our loved ones. Some of us face high incarceration rates; some of us face astronomical rates of bias-related assault, and even murder, because of how present, identify or are perceived. When dominant systems don’t meet our needs, we create parallel systems with what resources we have, to protect ourselves. And on top of all that, we’ve got to create spaces to build community, spaces where we feel respected, empowered, and authentic.
So, in amongst all that, why organize? Why change public policy? Why seek power in the very systems that seek to disenfranchise us?
I can’t speak for anyone else, and I won’t claim to make a universal or comprehensive case for it, but I will share my reasons for organizing. Here are a few:
I want to end the need, not just fill it.
Many of us know someone who, right now, today, is getting completely fucked over by the system. They can’t get food stamps. Their unemployment has been cut. They can’t apply for a job or a place to live without fear of deportation. They can’t take their kid to the hospital and know that they’ll be recognized as a parent. They can’t seek reproductive health care safely and securely.
And all of us want to fix that—find an attorney, give a friend a place to sleep, send some money. But when we do that, the problem is likely only temporarily fixed. And even if it’s completely taken care of for one person, how many hundreds, thousands or millions of people are still in that position? Individual change alters circumstances for some of us; policy change, when done well, can alter circumstances for all of us. That is to say, systemic change has the potential to heal what individual change can only bandage. This isn’t to say that changing a policy makes a problem disappear (hello, hate crimes laws!), but it does give us a voice in the process, an opportunity to resist, and an opportunity to show our lives and experiences as an object lesson for the world at large (see: Angie Zapata). And for some of us, that’s all we’ve got.
I want public education.
Statewide and national policy campaigns are some of the largest, most concerted projects in existence that are designed to shift public understanding of our communities. Many Americans learned a whole hell of a lot more about LGBT communities through Prop 8. For some white US citizens, Comprehensive Immigration Reform is the only reason they even give a second thought to hateful opposition rhetoric about immigrant communities. Whatever the campaign, people in the middle—who may also be our coworkers, neighbors, friends and family—hear the messages put out by advocates of our communities. Now, whether or not those are messages all of us want to spread is another question, and one on which there’s plenty of debate. But if we don’t acknowledge the power those messages have, then we’re lying to ourselves, and we’re missing a huge opportunity to speak from our own experiences about our own needs.
I want power for my communities.
We’ve all seen what power can do when it’s held exclusively by people with privilege. We’ve seen the heartache and headaches it can cause. But power isn’t bad by definition. And we haven’t seen what power can do when it’s concentrated in the hands of those who are most deeply impacted by a policy or set of policies. We haven’t seen what power can do when we have it.
When we take part in political processes, we make it clear to elected officials that we are watching carefully, and we are voting frequently. We make it clear that they work for us. We make it clear that, in spite of everything, and in spite of a world that tells us to sit down and shut up, we will scrap and fight for every last inch of space we can get. We make it clear that, in a system that seeks to represent the people, we are the people.
And here’s the thing: we don’t just get power temporarily. We build power for the long haul. Before you know it, trans people are a powerful voting bloc. Elected officials and voters are forced to take economic justice more seriously, because we’re not going anywhere. We’re creating accountability to our communities. We’re not just getting power for ourselves, we’re changing the balance of power for all of us.
What you can do. Right now.
- Call your elected officials. All of them. From your City Council member all the way up to the President of the United States. Tell them what matters to you, and what needs you’re facing. They have to pay attention – their jobs depend on it.
- Find organizations that work on policies that impact you & your community. Look at what kind of work they’ve done in the past, and what their current goals are. Sign up to join their email list, make a contribution, volunteer your time. Because overwhelmingly, those organizations are wildly under-resourced, and the number of people paid to staff them are often in the single-digits. They certainly can’t do it alone – they need you there every step of the way.
- When they say click, do it. I know it sounds silly, but when an organization asks you to email your elected officials, do it. As small as it is, it truly can be the difference between winning and losing.
- Set up a meeting. Social justice organizations aren’t hard to access. Just call and tell them that you’re interested in their work, that you want to help out, and that you’ve got some ideas. Again, they can use all the help they can get, and many will welcome additional thoughts & energy with open arms.