"The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts"
By Scott Smith
It is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of broad, sweeping challenges facing us all. There is an insatiable sense of catharsis to be gained from shouting at your television (or Facebook feed) or arguing with pundits (or high school classmates) about the nebulous dilemmas facing millions of Americans. But, if you are anything like me, once you’ve huffed and puffed and blown the house down, it is easy to slip back into a vegetative state of disillusion. I am the first to admit that arguing semantics and having one-sided conversations in an echo chamber are easier than actually getting involved, especially when the things you can take part in seem small compared to the overall picture.
Wars are won battle by battle, not in one fell swoop. Change is slow and plodding, an aggregation of seemingly small acts cumulatively creating robust progress. Targeting your local community, through myriad channels, is a way to feel involved, make proactive change in your backyard, and, step-by-step, tackle national issues.
Take, for example, the case of Obergefell v. Kasich. John Arthur and James Obergefell were a lawfully-recognized married couple in the state of Maryland, but their home state of Ohio did not recognize this union. This posed a problem because John had ALS and Ohio forbade James to be listed as an official spouse on the death certificate. Without this it would be very difficult for James to obtain any of the post-death rights and benefits their heterosexual peers received perfunctorily. John and James didn’t take this lying down, instead filling suit in federal court to demand the same rights as their peers in Ohio. To make a very long story short, this case was consolidated with similar cases around the country and presented to the Supreme Court as Obergefell v. Hodges. This is the landmark case that solidified the fundamental right to marriage for same-sex couples under the Fourteenth Amendment. This case, amplified by years of struggle, protest, and activism, solidified a fundamental human right for millions of Americans. A relatively small, personal struggle reverberated across a nation and across the world.
But even without the resources, time, and opportunity to pit a major legal battle against outdated bigotry, you can be more involved in every aspect of your community. A close friend has been the standard-bearer in my eyes for what true community action can look like. She has created a local women’s empowerment group to continuously promote equality and action in the local community with the aim of driving true action at all levels. This is a remarkable thing, but even prior to this she was doing something even more novel for my demographic: actually participating in a local community group. As part of a community watch group in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, she was an advocate for those within the community that didn’t necessarily fit within the gentrified neighborhood’s new standards. When minority individuals were accused, without evidence, of package theft in the neighborhood, she was the one that articulated the need for understanding and to not jump to conclusions. In that moment, and many others, she has personified one of Barack Obama’s last sentiments: “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.”
Finally, we all simply need to vote. Every single time. Trump’s rise to the Presidency was paved by years of concerted efforts on the part of the GOP to target local and state governments. After the November 2016 election, Republicans now control 32 state houses, 33 governorships, and, to complete the trifecta, have complete control in 25 states (yes, half). Control at this level dictates everything from voter suppression to gerrymandering. Policies created at lower levels of government continue to reverberate at the national level. If you oppose policies like this, the best and most accessible way to get involved is to take the fight to them in the ballot box. The problem is that my demographic is woeful at coming out for races outside of presidential election years. Only 13% of voters in 2014 were 18-29, down from 19% in 2012 (2016 was also 19%). Meanwhile, the 45-64 age demographic, which voted in a majority for Trump, actually dipped slightly from 43% in 2014 to 40% in 2016. This discrepancy is consistently represented election after election. Until young voters turn out in the masses that older voters do during “off” years, we will continue to struggle at seeing progressive change at the state and local level, thus leaving ourselves at a distinct disadvantage to drive real, progressive change nationally.
There are countless other ways to get involved and make an impact. Lead a young women’s basketball team for at-risk youth, becoming more mentor and role model than coach. Participate in protests, letting your voice be physically heard. Stand up for a stranger dealing with unwanted advances. Volunteer at local legal defense group for immigrants and refugees. The options are innumerable.
Just remember, when it comes to driving change, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.