Today’s voters can be tomorrow’s leaders, explain Michigan activists. All it takes is turning political activation into political action.
MICHIGAN—Voting is a powerful act. It is a way to anonymously state your values, and join in a chorus of link-minded people as they attempt to win the right to use the power of government to pursue those values. But voting isn’t the end of the process of having your voice heard.
It’s the beginning.
In Michigan, more than 5 million people cast ballots in the 2020 election. That turnout demolished previous records. Thousands of those Michiganders registered to vote the same day they cast their ballots. Across the state, people were engaged, protesting, celebrating, making their voices heard.
The 2020 election activated people, politically, in a way they hadn’t been in a long time. And that activation can become activism, said Port Huron activist Alphonso Amos.
“I would encourage people who are feeling politically active for the first time to keep that same energy in the off season of the elections and begin to understand the power each elected office holds,” he told The ‘Gander.
Amos organizes demonstrations against police violence, and does so in Michigan’s largely rural Thumb. And he’s been successful translating political activation to political activism even in Port Huron.
And Amos has a pitch for newly political Michiganders, and it comes in a few key steps along a simple roadmap.
Get a Feel for Your Community
There’s an old saying: All politics is local. Though that’s become less true in the half-century since it was said, it remains a core piece of American politics in a way that’s often ignored.
Local governments have a lot of impact on communities. When Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature resisted nondiscrimination policies that would’ve protected LGBTQ Michiganders efforts to pass local ordinances to provide employment and housing protections flourished.
“Research the issues your community face and learn how each elected plays a part in impacting those issues,” said Amos.
There are always things going on in a city either caused by local leaders or that local leaders aren’t addressing, explained William Garcia. Garcia is an activist in Adrian working to fight an ordinance the city passed in September effectively criminalizing homelessness.
“Find something terrible going on in your community and put up a protest on Facebook,” Garcia said. “And it’s seriously not that hard to find terrible things going on in your community. Your municipal government is probably doing something absurd right now, and if they aren’t, your police department or zoning commission or school district is. Some elderly person is probably getting evicted. Some landlord is giving families unfit housing. If all else fails, the rent is too damn high.”
Once you have an idea of what needs your community has and where your passions overlap with those needs, it’s time to see who is—or isn’t—doing something about it.
Meet Your Local Leaders
Joe Biden wasn’t the only person elected Nov. 3. From re-elected leaders like Kyra Harris Bolden to newcomers to the Michigan House of Representatives like Abraham Aiyash, legislators are well-positioned to carry the needs of their community to the larger stage in Lansing, while mayors like Detroit’s Mike Duggan or Marquette’s Jenna Smith are the figures most inextricably bound to the people of a given city.
But there are other elected officials as well. From clerks and treasurers to local school board members, there are a wide range of elected people serving a community, each with their own scope of responsibilities and role to play in local governance.
Garcia pointed out that a lot of those offices are won by very small numbers of voters each election, and that often they are undervaluing their position, leaving some political influence on the table. Where a small voter turnout and a lot of untapped potential overlap, Garcia sees a chance to strengthen an institution.
“There are so many communities where the voter turnout for municipal races is in the teens or even—I swear I’m not joking—single digits,” Garcia explained.
And those leaders who do effectively use their positions can be a lot of help in accomplishing goals for your community.
Meet One Another
Garcia made it clear that working together with other interested people is essential to any political success. Small, committed groups of people are powerful, and Rep. Aiyash told The ‘Gander that these grassroots groups are an essential part of what he called co-governance.
“I believe in co-governing,” Aiyash told The ‘Gander. “And I think co-governing works best when institutions and activist groups are the link with elected officials. So I think the best way to get power to leverage your elected officials is to absolutely engage an organization.”
That will help you build a community in your community as well, and that’s key to any political success from holding leaders accountable to making changes in your city, state and even country.
“You can get a lot more done with six or eight people who are ideologically compatible than you can with 60-80 people who aren’t,” Garcia said. “After you have that strong base of people who you can trust, who work well together, who have norms and a culture and projects underway, then maybe you can expand a bit.”
And those connections to grassroots groups and close friends will help when the time comes to hold the leaders you met accountable for the issues you’ve seen.
Play the Off-Season
Elections happen more often than every four years. There are, at the local level, multiple elections nearly every year in Michigan. The most notable outside of presidential elections is the midterms, which in Michigan are when the state’s governor is elected. And these elections range from proposing ballot initiatives to electing local officials to running primaries to determine who nominees for high office will be.
Collectively, Amos calls this the off-season.
The off-season includes important elections and proposals, but also is a chance to press local leaders you met to take action on the issues you identified. This can be done by working with activists like Garcia and Amos, or by reaching out directly to politicians like Bolden or Aiyash.
Importantly, the off-season is also when a number of politicians can be held accountable for what they have or haven’t done. State and federal representatives, state senators, the governor, sometimes a federal senator, and most local officials are voted on in off-year elections, and as you get a better feel for what is happening in your community, you’ll be prepared to ensure things are addressed the way that is best for your community.
Run for Office
While Garcia and Amos are both activists, they encouraged Michiganders to look to Aiyash’s example for how to ultimately address those times when a leader has not done what their community needs.
Those positions and institutions not using their influence to its full potential to help Michiganders can, all it takes is the right leadership. And it isn’t as daunting of a thing as it sounds, Amos explained.
“I would encourage people to start getting engaged at the local levels,” he told The ‘Gander. “For those interested in running for office don’t let fear or the feeling of not being good or perfect enough stop you. Run!”
Garcia explained that especially in rural communities like Adrian and Port Huron, running for office can be a lot less intimidating than it sounds and can have a much larger impact than people might think.
“From a municipal perspective, that might look like getting your friends to join planning commissions, or making runs for down ballot offices,” Garcia said. “The current distribution of power at a state and federal level still won’t be conducive to the creation of justice in January of 2021. My advice to progressives would be to take power over local institutions.”
And seeking office can be immensely rewarding, and can allow you to accomplish the goals you are passionate about but haven’t gotten much attention from your current elected officials. Rep. Bolden was a lawyer before running for office, and made the move to politics to make more tangible differences on her profession than she could before.
“I continuously become frustrated with the limits of how I impacted the legal field,” Bolden said in a 2018 campaign interview of her decision to leave her criminal defense career behind to pursue a legislative career. “I’ve seen a lot of things I’d like to change [in my career as an attorney], so I need to have a seat at the table—at the legislature forefront—of these issues.”
Every single person ever elected in Michigan was, at one point, an ordinary voter. Some have had advantages, but no one was born to public office. Every mayor, governor, senator, and president was once a first-time voter. Every journey begins with a single step.
And it’s a step 5 million Michiganders took this November.