A woman in the back of the room raised her hand. “I didn’t even know this was a thing,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Public hearings. I didn’t know they happened.”
In my hometown of Billings, Montana, I was leading a training on effective public commenting last month at the local library. We had just finished watching a five-minute video I put together with a few examples of compelling speakers.
I didn’t know if anyone would come, because I hadn’t done any active recruitment—just made an event on Facebook and waited to see who showed up. There was no specific issue I was pushing, no ask of the attendees. And to my surprise, forty people showed up. Before Trump, I doubt there would have been more than five or ten.
As one political party ceded the driver’s seat to the other, tens of millions of people had been dozing on the passenger side—and then were jolted awake by a violent swerve of the wheel by a man named Donald J. Trump. Now, the car is speeding toward a cliff, and we’re not sure how to take the wheel because we never learned how to drive.
We were only told we had to choose the driver. We’re not supposed to worry too much about the details; people who care about politics will attend to those.
How do I know if what I’m doing matters? It doesn’t feel like it matters.
The details are fuzzy now, but the message stuck. My high school government teacher asked the class to divide into two groups: Republican and Democrat. Independents weren’t allowed. Being an independent was not taking a side, he explained—it was the easy way out.
Pick a team, kids, and when you turn 18, you vote. Welcome to Citizenship 101 in the United States.
I thought about that class as I considered another woman sitting in the back of the room, watching me intently with her brows furrowed. I just knew she was about to tell me how wrong I was about everything. I thought, I might as well go ahead and ask her.
“Ma’am, you in the back, is something bugging you about what I’m saying?” Startled, she answered, “No, not at all, I’ve just never done anything like this before. I’m trying to understand what to do.”
People around the room nodded.
She was asking what everyone I meet seems to be wondering. How do I make a difference? What can I do besides vote?
Field notes taken in a runaway car
Trump is driving. We are screaming in the passenger seat, yelling at him to hit the brakes. But instead of figuring out how to stop the car ourselves, many involved in political advocacy work will tell you that we just need to get better at “messaging.”
Somehow, I’m not convinced. The messages aren’t working. Maybe that’s because people feel like they’re being sold something, not being asked to actually participate. I have yet to see messages build lasting connections between people.
The first question I asked everyone at the training last month was: “What don’t you know about public commenting?” Hands shot up around the room.
Do our elected officials have to keep track of how many people are calling them and what they say? When I call Senator Daines, do I stick to one topic or do I tell the staff everything that I’m for or against? How often should I call? I’m worried that someone will ask me why I think what I think and I won’t have the right answer: do they make you do that?
And the kicker, the one that my organizer heart can barely take: How do I know if what I’m doing matters? It doesn’t feel like it matters.
Oh, I thought. This is a consequential moment.
I wish I could tell you that I gave a rousing speech that lifted everyone’s spirits. But to tell you the truth, I can’t remember how I responded. I’m pretty sure I said something about managing expectations, and I’m certain I saw a couple of faces fall. Real inspiring.
But that was the key moment when the discussion shifted gears, to a question that I hadn’t even expected to come up. It is a question that political philosophers from around the world have been kicking around for centuries. A question that millions of Americans are now asking themselves: What does it mean to be a citizen?
To be clear: when I say “citizen,” I mean every person who lives on this land. I have a friend who attended the meeting. She is from México and has a green card but is deeply afraid for herself, her friends, and her family. She told us the story of a teenager who came home one day to find that her mother, who had been living and working in the United States for 18 years, had been taken away and sent back to México. The girl came home from school to an empty house.
Attacks on the lives, dignity, and rights of migrants are nothing new in this country, but Trump is escalating them in terrifying new ways. So we can’t talk about the idea of citizenship without confronting how it continues to be weaponized. Some people choose to avoid the term, which I respect. I prefer to reclaim it: We have to be talking about fundamental rights that belong to all people in a democracy.
When I think about the political, moral, and philosophical complexities of those rights and responsibilities, my brain wants to run away to something concrete and easy. Let me post an angry rant on Facebook to alleviate some anxiety and stress. Give me a number to call and tell somebody to vote “no.”
But this question of what it means to be a citizen, I believe, may be the most important thing we can ask ourselves. It is a conversation where our expectations, and therefore our mindset, is created—where responsibilities are accepted, where connections and networks are built. Where we decide that we won’t cede our responsibilities to others. That our democracy, as John Dewey said, lives within us, not in our institutions.
No more messaging—and a lot more listening
Our conversation bobbed and weaved around topics like lobbying and public commenting (the original point of the training, yet obviously not the most important), and dabbled in some do’s and don’ts for public hearings. Do: prepare what you are going to say. Don’t: be an asshole.
I learned more from people’s questions, I’m sure, than they learned from me. They said things that our political class simply isn’t hearing. And we’ll continue to talk through all of it at the next Beyond Voting training.
These trainings are just one component of a larger project, which I’m developing in collaboration with The Leap. It is not enough to just resist Trump and his agenda—we need an organizing approach that rebuilds our democracy from the ground up. Stay tuned.
The task before us is not as simple as mobilizing angry people, telling them what to do, and declaring short-term victories. For lasting change that addresses the slow decline of our political participation and knowledge, we also have to train ourselves how to be citizens, and that means providing the tools for people to engage with democracy and think for themselves. Democracy is a habit built up through practice.
If I can see one silver lining in Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s that the passengers have woken up. Now, it’s our responsibility to grab the wheel.
Alexis Bonogofsky is a community organizer, writer and photographer who lives and works along the Yellowstone River in Montana. To fight new coal mines in Montana, she built coalitions between indigenous groups, ranchers and hunters and anglers. Her family ranch was impacted by the 2011 Exxon oil spill along the Yellowstone River and she organized other Yellowstone River landowners to take on Exxon and demand proper remediation of the land. She writes about coal, energy, politics, and organizing on the blog East of Billings.com. Originally published on commondreams.org.