Sunday, September 12, 2010

Peter, Paul, and Precincts

Last night, I attended a Peter, Paul, and (memory of) Mary concert at Birch Aquarium. The stage was set outside on the aquarium's tide pool deck overlooking the Pacific, where I was in the company of a colleague known for blaring folk music from her Mercedes, a bunch of mellow Baby Boomers, and a delegation of anti-gravity shoes. It seemed fitting on September 11, 2010 to listen to anthems from the Civil Rights movement and the musings of two men who've seen a lot in their day.

The song that caught my ear and stayed with me was "Jail for Justice": "Laws are made by people/And people can be wrong...The more you study history/The less you can deny it/A rotten law stays on the books/‘til folks with guts defy it!"

I can think of at least one rotten law on the books. As the song reminds me, though, "Once unions were against the law/But slavery was fine/Women were denied the vote/While children worked the mine," so there's hope that this injustice, too, will take its place in distant memory.

Tonight, as I prepared to walk precincts for the first time on behalf of a ballot initiative, I thought about my record of political action, about the fact that I've never been "jailed for justice." I've attended rallies and speeches and marches, but I haven't walked a picket line or participated in a sit-in.

I won't lie; my knees knocked at the mere prospect of ringing doorbells to confront my neighbors. It was dinner time on a Sunday evening. I would be That Guy on your doorstep with the clipboard, the one you pretend you're not home for. Proposing that we raise your taxes. After factoring in the Creepy House and Big Dog potentials, I found myself whimpering, "We're going out there alone? Without a partner?"

Geez, I berated myself. Where is your courage, Fer? What are you made of?

I can remember reading Gone With the Wind in my youth, and wondering what I would have done as the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. When I read Stones from the River (one of my all-time favorite books) as an adult, I imagined I would have emulated the character of Trudi, caring for her Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust.

What would I have done as a young man during the Vietnam War draft? What if I were a white South African during apartheid?

The answers, my friends, are blowin' in the wind.

How about, what if I were myself, living in my own time? I mean, we've got a war on and institutionalized discrimination and hurricane victims and injustices, and I haven't been jailed for justice. I could enumerate some reasons I haven't taken my convictions to the wall: priorities, lifestyle choices, career considerations.

But I've also come to understand that while there are few limits to my righteous indignation and sense of moral outrage, my guts have boundaries, starting near your front door and ending at the county jail.

Perhaps we each chart our own propensity to take action where "Know Thyself" intersects with "Do Your Part."

Walking precincts was admittedly outside my comfort zone; marching and writing letters feel a little less personal. But as a public school employee, mother of a student in a school of which I am immensely proud, and resident of a state cutting funds for education, I knew the right thing for me to do was walk confidently up the block, clear my throat, and find out where people stand on a proposal for a parcel tax to help our city's schools.

And I quickly discovered that besides getting to peek inside some cool houses I've jogged past and admired, a benefit of walking precincts and talking to my fellow voters was feeling very...American.

Only one man visibly ignored me at the door as he sat on the couch and watched TV. My neighbors who were home took time to talk with me. I heard a few enthusiastic endorsements of the proposition. I directed the undecideds to sources of more information. I spoke with twentysomethings, couples, agemates, and senior citizens.

I gained the most, however, from the dissenters I met.

I heard from a small business owner, longtime resident, and product of neighborhood private schools that this economy almost lost him his house. He had to take in a roommate to pay his bills. My neighbor politely but firmly informed me that he resented public employees for their pensions and time off as he struggled to make ends meet. He was a man, by all appearances, who should be looking forward to retirement, and who was working harder than ever.

Another woman vowed not to vote for any spending measure until Sacramento got its act together, and no amount of my explaining that parcel tax funds would remain local was going to change her mind. We agreed to disagree. I admired her flower beds; she wished me well.

I walked down her steps thankful I am a citizen of a country where I am safe to knock on strangers' doors (Hey, look at me! Not so scary after all!), where I am free to engage those strangers in political discussion, and where I am treated kindly and respectfully (at least, regarding this issue...).

But while I believe in the importance of supporting our schools from our own pockets in this time of budget shortfall and believe it behooves all of us to have great schools and well-educated children in our neighborhoods, I understand and appreciate the views of those with seemingly little to gain from spending more. I understand and appreciate that I have chosen a career with long vacations, strong union support, and a healthy retirement plan.

I also understand there are a lot of things broken, and there's a lot that needs fixing, and there are a lot of people buried under broken pieces. Proposition J is only one local solution to one problem, and we need to do much, much more.

So perhaps tonight it was less important that I believed more in my cause, and more important that I engaged more with my neighbors and believed more in this political process we're part of, as convoluted and backwards and frustrating as it may seem. We can, as the song says, make laws and defy them. We can propose to fix the broken parts, bit by bit, and urge our neighbors to get on board.

Or we can simply answer the door when our neighbors knock, and agree to disagree. If this land is your land, after all, then we are required to have a supermajority vote in agreement to tax your parcel.

The rest of this land is made for you and me.

1 comment:

Ms. F said...

Good for you -- I made phone calls once, and even that was incredibly intimidating and nerve-wracking (and disheartening when 90% of the people I called hung up on me!). I admire your efforts greatly...