We live in a time fraught with bad news. From the toll of violence and poverty to the escalating march of climate change, every week brings temptations to despair. Hope may actually be more beleaguered in the wake of a president who won the office in part by branding himself with it. Many have concluded that political participation has become a futile game.
For myself, I deal with potential despair by finding ways to act. And remembering that the doors to social change are never irrevocably closed, even in unimaginably difficult situations. Think of Nelson Mandela and his compatriots being told they would rot and die on Robben Island. Denied newspapers as a way of isolating them, they’d see a guard discard a newspaper he’d used to wrap his sandwich, and one of the prisoners would retrieve it, smuggle it under their shirt, and in a tiny coded script on toilet paper (the only paper they had), would circulate a story or headline that would give their compatriots courage.
The political challenges most of us face are more humble. But it’s easy to create self-fulfilling responses where we withdraw and leave the field to those who are only too happy to buy what remains of our democracy. And our actions do matter, including on Election Day. In 2004, I spent that day canvassing in Seattle, speaking with three people who’d have stayed home had I not contacted them: One forgot there was an election that day. Another couldn’t figure out how to still submit his absentee ballot. The third needed a ride to the polls. After three recounts, my gubernatorial candidate won by 133 votes. If my side had just a few less volunteers, or the other side a few more, Washington State would have had a different governor.
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I’ve carried the lessons of that day while traveling to campuses to lecture on citizen engagement, and founding the national nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project in 2008. The project helps colleges and universities nationwide to assist their students in registering to vote, educating themselves on issues and candidates, and showing up at the polls. I’d hoped it would make a modest impact, but we had no guarantees, and encountered plenty of obstacles. Yet by 2012, 750 campuses with a combined enrollment of 5.5 million students were engaging with our resources—a far greater reach than I’d ever anticipated.
After working solely in presidential years in 2008 and 2012, we’re now engaging students in midterm elections, where their participation drops precipitously. Between the 2008 and 2010 elections, student participation in Ohio, for instance, dropped from 70% to 22%, in Florida from 61% to 19%, in Wisconsin from 66% to 19%. So we ask schools we work with to take institutional responsibility for helping their students participate, whoever they choose to vote for. We pull together the best nonpartisan practices from schools throughout the country: Central Michigan University football players holding up registration cards at halftime while the Jumbotron flashes a registration link; students at Virginia Commonwealth University working with the tenant’s union of a nearby public housing project to register voters, help restore rights to former felons, and arrange rides to the polls; Young Republicans and Young Democrats teaming up to engage their campuses, allowing them to discover that their opponents don’t always have horns. After distributing these examples and others, we challenge administrators and faculty to collaborate, break out of their academic silos, and recognize that student electoral participation may be in their hands. We also remind them that if students vote when they’re young, they’re far more likely to continue, so their actions affect the future as well.
You can feel the tangible difference on the campuses. In 2010, I visited schools in Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all within a month of Election Day. Students barely knew it was coming. The election might as well have been on the moon. In 2013, when we did our first non-presidential pilot in Virginia, the campuses I visited were energized and engaged. Student coordinators ran volunteer nonpartisan teams to register voters, catalyze discussions, distribute information on voting requirements, and arrange transportation to the polls. On Election Day they organized flash mob singing and theater events. Students became engaged in ways they can build on for the rest of their lives.
We live in a contradictory world. Dispiriting events coincide with progress for human dignity. Bombs fall on children. The gay rights movement makes unimaginable gains. But when change occurs, it’s because people find ways to act even in demoralizing times or when all the doors seem closed, and open up new possibilities by doing so. We don’t know whether we’ll prevail in any given situation. But by acting as if our actions can matter, even if the deck seems stacked, they often do. My friend Mary Pipher didn’t know what to do when the Keystone XL pipeline was coming through Nebraska, where she lives. So she held a potluck and with a handful of others, including a Republican rancher who looked like John Wayne, helped create a movement that seems ever more likely to block it. A young Egyptian woman I interviewed risked her life to help overthrow Mubarak at a moment when most of the world considered his continued rule inevitable. “People like us didn’t matter to the people who were ruling this country,” she said. “They only cared about their power. But we were the ones who gave them that power and we were the ones who were going to take it back.” She said her generation had already overthrown two dictatorships and would overthrow a third if necessary.
Our contexts for acting may be more mundane, but we’d do well to cultivate a similar sense of engaged hope, which as Vaclav Havel reminds us, “is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” It’s that hope which allows people to make change time and again, even when all possibilities seem foreclosed.