This Is What Democracy Looks Like to Me

On Saturday, January 20, 2018 I went to Reno to participate in a Women’s March, a sister march to the main event in Las Vegas this year. Last year’s event sparked a worldwide movement which I choose to see as a message of global solidarity. Those of us who marched were in the streets for a wide diversity of reasons, and this year was no exception. In Reno I walked peacefully with thousands of people, a rainbow of skin colors, a rainbow of statements on signs, a rainbow of reasons for being elbow to elbow. The late morning was sunny, but in the shade of the buildings the air chilled the skin, and many of us skipped out of the long line of marchers to dash to Starbucks for hot coffee. As we marched, we chanted, our voices echoing off the windows all around us, and people from all walks of life moved as one. I saw men with pussy hats, children in strollers, elderly women with walkers, and disabled folks in wheelchairs. Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, young and old, men and women and all manner of genders in between. We arrived at the plaza at the end of the march, where a stage was set up for the speakers.

Before the speeches, we bowed our heads for a blessing from a Native American woman, and we were regaled with a traditional song performed to the throaty beating of the massive drum in front of the stage. Several women currently serving in a variety of governmental positions took the stage one after another, all offering a similar refrain: get out and vote. Not surprisingly, a translator for Sign Language stood on the stage for the entire event. What truly floors me about this movement most of all is that every march, regardless of where it happens, is marked with the same ambiance of compassionate, kind, humanistic love for all people of all ages and backgrounds. All are welcome, and the consistent atmosphere of working cooperatively, respecting the beliefs of all people, and making decisions which benefit everyone (not just a few squeaky wheels) gives me hope that our planet can come together peacefully. Let me digress for a moment.

No matter what we believe individually, we live in a country which is meant to be a democracy. That means we all deserve to be heard, to love whomever we wish, to eat whatever we want, to go to any doctor we please, to walk on any street, to live in any neighborhood, and to enjoy what our land has to offer. We all deserve to have a say in what our leaders do, as they are meant to serve the people, not the other way around. What I believe about our country is not the vitriol of the news agencies or what people tweet or post in social media in anger, but that most people want the same rights to be able to live in comfort and safety. This is not an unreasonable request, nor is it impossible to achieve.

If all eligible voters hit the polls whenever the opportunity to vote arises, I believe we would find that our democracy will work just fine to ensure our basic rights remain, or are reinstated to those who have lost them unfairly. Despite the fact that certain groups of radicals on either end of the spectrum of beliefs may have run amok within our governing bodies, we can trust that most people in our country hold true to fairly moderate ideals. If all of us vote, the leaders we elect are more likely to look like most Americans, especially if we make clear to those running what we hope to see them do when elected. If that person does not keep his or her promises, we have the right to vote that person out of office. It really is that simple, and it really can work if we all participate.

No matter how bad things may look at the moment to some people, this country can turn around everything with which we don’t agree. We can change the laws. We can make the choice to take care of people, instead of leaving people to sleep on streets or die without health care. That is what democracy is supposed to be about, not giving tax breaks to the wealthy, allowing oil companies more freedom to destroy protected land, nor giving the government more freedom to spy on its people. Democracy means the people decide how we want to be governed, and what services we want the government to provide. Having the government provide social services to ensure basic human needs like shelter, food, health care, and clothing does not mean the government is meddling in our lives. It only means we, as citizens, recognize that human rights are part of government’s duty to individuals. If we make decisions out of love instead of hate, we will be guided to achieve greater things. Hate and fear divide us and weaken our ability to make sound decisions. Apathy—such as avoiding elections out of the belief our vote doesn’t matter—is even worse.

Instead, if we trust that our vote represents our voices as individuals, and that every individual voice will combine to create a fair and equitable picture as a whole, then we realize our votes are not meaningless: they help make up the entire fabric of our collective identities. Each of us matters. The news can be frightening when we hear about people being deported in the dark of night, or snatched away from their businesses during work hours. It’s sickening to hear stories of people of color being shot for traffic violations, and young children being handcuffed by police without just cause. I see homeless people here in the Carson Valley all the time, standing listlessly by the side of the road with signs written on cardboard, asking for food and money. So many people are struggling to pay bills on several minimum wage jobs, and too many people are losing hope and turning to heroin or Oxycontin or some other opioid. All these problems can be solved, and many of them only require a slightly different perspective from people in leadership, people who have compassion. This may sound biased, since I am a woman, but I do believe more women in positions of power might help balance the scales of justice and offer more reasonable legislation to restore social welfare for all.

Regardless of who is running for office, I hope the entire nation rises up for election day. In my home state of New York, I hope we can move the legislation to extend voting hours to allow for more people the time to vote. New York has a low turnout for elections. With the Big Apple as our anchor for population, this should not be the case. Even if the legislation doesn’t shift, I hope New Yorkers will turn out anyway and do their best to be heard. We know the history of voting rights. We all learn it in school, even if we get the dried-up vanilla version of the truth. We know people fought and died for the right to vote, protesting for years, getting jailed, suffering brutal beatings, being black-balled for employment, and had their reputations smeared in vicious campaigns. Those days are done, and now that women and people of color have their voices, I believe we have a duty to honor those who died for us to have this precious right. If we remain apathetic, we may lose our democracy entirely. Our planet is dying before our eyes. Our oceans and waterways are poisoned. Our people are suffering needlessly. We can fix it, but we all need to participate. Democracy only works if we all do the work together, one vote at a time, one voice at a time.

This message came through loud and clear across the air waves, across the country, and across the world over the weekend. Power to the Polls, Rock the Vote, whatever you want to call it. We heard it loud and clear. And then, at the end of the event, the MC asked the marchers to look around the plaza for any trash so we could “leave no trace.” Of all the final words, that felt most appropriate to me as a backpacker—this is the philosophy of those who walk the trails. Leave no trace, so that those who come after you may also enjoy the beauty of the surroundings, unmarred by anything other than your footprints. May we all learn to walk gently on the earth, talk gently to each other, and be thoughtful of our intentions.