SAPAAC member and Stanford alumna Mimi Gan ('79 Social Sciences) recently spent a weekend canvassing and registering voters in Wisconsin. Here are her reflections about getting involved in the political process and empowering everyday citizens to go out and vote. The reflection is written as a letter to friends.
I just came back from canvassing and registering voters in the "purple" state of Wisconsin with 15 Seattle volunteers. The entire experience was incredibly humbling and eye-opening, and I wanted to share what I observed and learned because it's given me a better understanding of Middle America—and myself.
Our group of volunteers was part of Common Purpose, a grassroots organization started up by University of Washington communications professor and social justice activist David Domke, to create community and mobilize voter engagement across Washington and nine other states prior to the 2018 mid-term elections. About 200 of us overall are participating in its activities.
Why me? After the 2016 election, I became so disillusioned by the new administration’s policies and politics that I turned into what the NY Times has coined an “MSNBC Mom” and Twitter-addict (to my husband's dismay). I decided that instead of simply grumbling about the news all day, I would turn my anger into activism. After researching various avenues of resistance, I decided to put my energies into fighting voter suppression and helping to GOTV—Get Out The Vote. Common Purpose offered the perfect opportunity.
Why Wisconsin? I had never been to the Badger state and found its racial, socio-economic demographics, politics and voting statistics both interesting and troubling. For example:
- In Milwaukee, black/white population is essentially equal but segregated: 45% White; 40% African American; 15% Latino/Hispanic/Other
- A quarter (25%) of WI citizens of voting age are NOT registered to vote (1.3 million potential voters)
- Of those 25% unregistered, almost half are African American/Latino/Hispanic
Why the disenfranchisement? Possible reasons are a strict voter ID law, neighborhood segregation, income inequality, excessive incarceration, among other factors. Other notable points:
- The cities of Milwaukee and Racine are in the "Top 5 of worst cities for African Americans (USA Today)
- In Racine, African Americans earn 35 cents to every 1 dollar whites earn.
- In Milwaukee County, almost HALF of all African American males in their 30’s and 40’s have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.
Our strategy: We worked alongside of and trained with the RIC (Racine Interfaith Coalition), a non-partisan group of 25 congregations/organizations working together for social justice. We registered voters across the city—in diverse neighborhoods, from laundromats to churches. While in Milwaukee, we also canvassed for U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin’s re-election campaign. Her aunt, Sarah Baldwin of Seattle was part of our traveling WA Common Purpose group.
The experience was truly eye-opening: Milwaukee and Racine residents never hesitated to open their doors or voice their concerns about what matters to them -- from crime, healthcare to the border policy. Surprisingly, many of the unregistered voters we talked to understood the issues and had strong opinions about WI Governor Walker and President Trump. Yet, these same folks never felt compelled to vote. “It won’t make a difference,” said a few.
We were also taken aback by the number of felons we met who were very open about their status. In Wisconsin, felons are not eligible to vote unless they are "off paper"—they have served and fulfilled their obligations to the state. We met two "off paper" felons who did not think they could vote and we registered them on the spot. It was so gratifying.
Unexpected highlights of the experience: Getting to know 14 new Seattle compatriots and now friends; enjoying a delicious sloppy-joe lunch prepared by loving "church ladies" after a morning of canvassing, and attending a packed Town Hall featuring Parkland shooting survivors on their #RoadToChange tour, joined by Milwaukee/Chicago teens who expressed so passionately the need for better guns laws and young voter turnout. After hearing from them, I’m convinced the young people will win!
Gratitude: Huge thanks to our inspirational team leader Charles Douglas (a Starbucks Corporate manager and young leader to watch) for his organizing and patience and to my dear friend and role model, Virginia Anderson for connecting us to Racine. Special thanks to the folks at RIC, who were the most dedicated and organized group of peaceful activists I’ve ever met—all with big open hearts. We have a great deal to learn from them, including tolerance and compassion.
Reflecting on the event: I can happily report that our group registered dozens of new voters, including 18-year olds, African Americans, Latinos, retirees, "off paper" felons, and others. We used the state's new voter registration app, which had its hiccups, but we muscled through.
Our very civil one-on-one conversations were honest, open, and memorable. We listened. We learned. And hopefully, we helped convince a few that their vote/voice matters.
Traveling to Wisconsin also made me realize how fortunate we are to live in "the Seattle bubble." But I’m so glad I burst out, even for just five days. I learned so much about life in the Midwest, humanity and myself—including my own unconscious biases. Best of all, meeting Wisconsinites renewed my faith in the inherent goodness of people of all faiths, races, and ages, despite the divisions raging around us.
I remain hopeful, optimistic and even more engaged!
Friends—if you care about the future of our democracy, please consider taking action. I believe small acts make a big difference:
- Call your legislator
- Sign a petition
- Donate $5 to a favorite politician or cause
- Encourage a young millennial, friend or neighbor to VOTE
Or, get involved with Common Purpose for "Wave 2" this fall in Washington, in Wisconsin or in another state. Please join us!
In closing, we love these words of inspiration, courtesy of the Racine Interfaith Coalition:
"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And, if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. For the future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."
—Howard Zinn, Historian & Writer
Here's to small, marvelous victories!
Note: Mimi also produced the video "History of Asians & Asian Americans at Stanford" video for the Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Summit, which you can view here: https://vimeo.com/218315703