I was at my laptop writing when a friend texted with the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Six-plus months into a mass-killing pandemic that never had to happen, in a nation convulsed by a racist backlash against the simple statement that Black Lives Matter, with wildfire smoke singeing each inhale, I didn’t know how to carry this terrible, most recent news. How much more will our hearts be forced to break, I thought, crying. I wept as much for Ginsburg, and how hard she’d tried to stay alive, as for a country abruptly even more capable of plunging further into fascism than it already has.
But that same night, I looked at my phone and saw an invitation from my friend Andy Sean Greer: he’d been text-banking with an organization called Field Team 6 to register swing-state voters as Democrats. He planned to text-bank again for a couple of hours the following day, Saturday, while on a video call with a few friends, and did I want to join him?
I wasn’t sure what to say; as I wept, panic-addled, it was hard to believe that texting a few voters would make a difference. What with widespread voter suppression, a racist president’s efforts to incapacitate the postal service upon which much of our voting would depend, and a Supreme Court now poised to swing further to the extreme right, toward plutocracy, theocracy, and hatred, what could I, a novelist, do? Still, I didn’t want to let down my friend. It would just be a couple of hours. I might as well pretend I could live up to my friend’s hopes, I thought, and I said I’d join him.
On Saturday morning, having cried through the night, I pulled myself together enough to attend the video call. While we texted potential voters and waited for responses, we joked and talked; soon, to my surprise, I was smiling. I laughed, even.
The next day, I signed up on my own to text more potential voters. In a little over two hours, I texted almost a thousand Texas college students, and received responses from quite a few of them. Most replies ranged from polite to enthusiastic. I gave people voter-registration information; I helped those who’d moved and needed to change their address; I asked if they were eligible to vote by mail; I encouraged registered voters to cast their ballots early, and told them how. In the end, I gave voting information to at least 30 people. It was satisfying. It was energizing. For the first time in a long while, I felt almost upbeat: a miracle, really.
This wasn’t was my first foray into activism, into community work: It’s been central to my life as a writer and novelist to lift up, amplify, and support the work and art of marginalized voices. And since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, I’d made it a more explicit priority to take part daily in the most widespread fight against injustice and racism I’ve seen in the U.S. in my life. But I hadn’t done much election-related work, aside from donating money, signal-boosting calls to register to vote, writing a handful of letters, and talking with family members. In part, it was fatigue; in part, it was the distance between Biden’s principles and mine; in part, I wasn’t convinced I could change anything through electoral action.
Once I started sharing my enthusiasm about helping register voters, though, I noticed I was, in fact, making a difference. I talked with friends, many of whom also felt newly or further roused to do more, to give more; I posted on social media that I’d intensely enjoyed text-banking potential voters. To a remarkable extent, it had lifted my spirits, I said. Friends, colleagues, and total strangers told me they’d signed up for text-banking or phone-banking slots because I’d posted or told them about it. I kept receiving notifications that a new person had volunteered for a text-banking slot using a link I’d provided; some signed up for several slots, even half a dozen slots. Startled, heartened, I asked Field Team 6 if I could more substantially be of help.
Now, I’ve teamed up with the writer Ayelet Waldman to organize large-scale text-banking events for Field Team 6 with well-known writers, actors, showrunners, and musicians. (Our next event, featuring Soraya Chemaly, Mira Jacob, Lisa Lucas, and more is Wednesday, October 21—sign up here). At these events, we’ve recruited hundreds of volunteers, sent hundreds of thousands of texts, raised money, and helped register a lot of swing-state voters. We’ve pulled in still more friends, colleagues, and total strangers. I tell them the truth—a truth that activists and organizers have known a long while—that action itself can be powerfully inspiring, and that in working to help our communities, we also help ourselves.
It’s possible I should have figured this out earlier than I did, for acting as if has been a guiding principle of my life. It was how I wrote my first novel: I worked on it almost every day for 10 years despite having no real sign that the book could have a life in the world. The novel is inspired by my own experience of having grown up deeply Christian; I’ve since left the faith, but while I still believed, anytime I felt low on faith, I tried regardless to act like the Christian I thought I could be. I prayed, I worshipped, I served. I inhabited the child of God I longed to be, and weirdly, beautifully, the action itself would beget hope, beget faith, until it could be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the person I wanted to be and the person I had become.
The activist and organizer Mariame Kaba has said that hope is a discipline, and I believe this. Hope is not just a feeling; like love, it is a practice. It is a verb. It is action. It can also be hard work, especially at first. But now, with 14 days to go until Election Day—and given the wild swing I’ve undergone in just the past few weeks from the depths of grief to life, activity—I know I’m capable of doing a lot more than I have. In addition, hopeful action often births more hopeful action: at my last count, 600-some people have signed up for text-banking slots because I talked, posted about, or organized such opportunities. Our events have inspired others to organize still more text-banking events with the cast of Scandal, with a slate of thriller writers for the night of Halloween, and so on.
Meanwhile, the updates flying in from friends and strangers about what they’ve been doing help push me toward further action.
I know that for some people, electoral politics have failed them too often, and they’re putting civic energy instead into protesting, mutual aid, abolitionist work, and community organizing. It's true that there are many Americans struggling today who will still be struggling on November 4th no matter who is elected. But for those who haven’t yet put energy into community work, electoral work, or both, but might want to, I’d say that, in the moments when I can’t find the wherewithal to fight for myself, I can still fight for those I love, and for my communities. I can find it in me to fight for the strangers who have fought, and are fighting, for the rest of us. Even with the President explicitly—and terrifyingly—threatening not to leave office, there are any number of examples of countries where the roar of expressed popular will did help oust a lawless tyrant.
As others have said, the fact that Ginsburg’s death could so radically weaken our basic rights is further proof that our country’s governing structures are fragile, unequal, fundamentally broken. But it’s also true that her life, her actions, meaningfully helped improve the lives of the many mourning her departure. These are such desperate times, too desperate, I think, to let the realities of our imperfect system prevent us from trying to improve the lives stuck within it. We have 14 days before the most consequential election I’ve encountered in my lifetime. I’ve at times wondered what kind of person I’d have been if I lived in 1930s Germany, Japan, Italy. It’s possible that who I might have been then could also be, terribly and marvelously, a version of the person I can try to be now.
It’s at least who I’m trying to impersonate, even when I don’t feel I can inhabit the person I’d rather be. Until and beyond the elections, I intend and hope to continue acting as if I can help make a difference to our faltering nation. So many already are.
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