In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’d never done before then writing about it. This is week 28.
I’d never been to the Oregon State Capitol. In fact, I’d never done anything more than drive past Salem on my way somewhere else. For most of my life, civic duty meant voting in every election and trying to stay informed about the issues, maybe sending an email to my rep once in a while. My mother was active with the League of Women Voters for a long time and before her retirement, she worked on the staff of a Massachusetts state senator for many years. Even from the sidelines, the world of bills, committees, lobbyists and constituents looked confusing and overwhelming. It felt like a separate world that had nothing to do with me.
I now see that my lack of interest was a luxury. We all know that inside the domed and marble buildings of our capitols, people are making decisions that have direct effects on our lives. But most of us want to believe that influencing that realm is either impossible or is somebody else’s problem. I know I did. While the power of political money has distorted everything, it’s also true that we as citizens have become too passive. The tides may be starting to shift a bit now that democracy itself feels threatened on a daily basis. My personal tide has at least.
That’s why I found myself driving to Salem yesterday on a rare sunny morning to participate in a lobby day with Partnership for Safety and Justice. I didn’t want to go. I thought about skipping out like a coward with no excuse. I thought about skipping out with the excuse that getting a direct dose of vitamin D was more important for me than anything I’d do that day. Every time my stomach cringed, I thought about turning the car around and driving home. It feels like a cringe when it’s something I’m nervous and doubtful about. When it’s something I’m nervous and excited about it’s a thrilling buzz. My brain slaps on the label of good nervous or bad nervous, but the sensation is the same. I breathed into the tension at the low arc of my ribs, over and over and pretended I was about to have fun.
We gathered in a windowless room with dozens of very smart, very caring people and spent the morning learning about the Safety and Saving Act. The bill had several components including realigning sentencing requirements for drug and property crimes that disproportionately affect women. This would keep us from having to spend 21 million on opening a second women’s prison and continuing down the destructive path of the prison industrial complex. It also addressed how to keep people out of prison, keep women with their children, keep funding for addiction programs and other alternatives to prison time as well as maintaining essential funding for victim services.
In the afternoon we broke into groups and got on with the lobbying. My little group of four was led by a very sharp and personable woman who, I found out later, had been a state rep. She walked through the busy halls of the capitol with authority and ease, shaking hands and patting backs. We went to meet with both my senator and my rep, though, unfortunately, neither of them were available. Instead, we met with their assistants, both smart, genial women. Our leader laid out the basics of the bill as well as drilling the assistants for information on other bills and other actions that might be taken.
While I didn’t enjoy the awkward, stumbling minutes where I had to say who I was and why I was there to support the bill, everything else about the day was fascinating. The capitol is it’s own special machine with so many cogs it was impossible for me to grasp much of it, but I could feel the movement of it, the way everyone was working so hard. I loved listening to the public defender who gave me tips about what aspects of the bill might appeal to my senator and watching the way my group leader processed multilayered streams of information all the while smiling and laughing and patiently explaining what she could to the newbie. All around me, I could feel people thinking about their next move.
I expected to be confused. And I was. I expected to be overwhelmed. And I was. But I didn’t expect to be so impressed. I didn’t expect to feel so distinctly that I was a part of this complex system and that my involvement, ALL OUR INVOLVEMENT, is essential to making it work properly. Everywhere you look there are groups of smart people trying to do good, smart things. I recommend picking one and joining in.