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Activist origins 

Last week I had the kind of experience that inspires me to persist against the forces that seem monolithically intent on the anti-democratic accrual of power and the destruction of the planet.

I spent a Zoom hour with Elena, a 36-year-old nurse and mom who has never been political. When a Republican friend challenged her to prove that Trump is a racist, Elena found herself tongue-tied and in tears. Despite her upwelling passion, she admits she's in the early throes of political awareness.

"I can't stop thinking about my friend Rocky in the small Arizona mining town where I grew up. He was the only person I ever heard talk about saving the environment, the only person I knew who drove two hours to recycle," she said. "But he planted a seed in me."

Elena came to realize that "there was a world outside of our little bubble." Then COVID-19 and Back Lives Matter made Elena see the inequities faced by low-income families and people of color.

"I'm coming to understand we do have power with our voices," she said.

Elena's first step was to volunteer with the SLO County Democratic Party. She is one of the 100 or so community members I've helped train to make calls as part of the get out the vote effort.

Phone banking is not particularly comfortable: It's not easy interrupting strangers to urge them to vote and support Democratic candidates. While some volunteers have had experience with political advocacy, a great many have never done this type of campaigning. They signed on because they felt compelled to do something about the Trump GOP's attack on equality, health care, and the planet—not to mention the perversion of both truth and norms of civil decency.

What makes any of us take the step into activism?

In talking with fellow activists, I discovered a shared sense of urgency in this moment, a collective and personal reckoning founded on a love of humanity.

Atascadero Democrat Bill Alexander told me, "My tipping point became this: Would I stand on the sidelines forever, and let other people do the heavy lifting trying to improve and safeguard our democracy?" Wanting to be able to "look himself in the mirror," Alexander found that activism improves not only his community but his sanity.

For many activists, our political origin story begins in our heart and soul, as Allene Villa, an Oceano Community Services District board member, puts it. A Latina socialized to accept the status quo, Villa asserted, "I'm an activist because of the pain of injustice, which I have lived with all my life. You know in your soul that it's not right, and if I get killed because I stand up for justice, so be it."

Villa's America is in crisis: Breonna Taylor is wrongfully dead, and her killers are scot-free. The ice caps are calving, and the president wants to wipe out hard-won clean water and air protections.

"Even if Trump wins," Villa promises, "I will go on using my voice because he has woken us up to the racism in America; he has, ironically, woken us up to see that we can be better."

Soft-spoken retiree Ronda McKible became an activist three years ago when she learned that Phillips 66 was trying to deliver crude oil by train across her "back yard" on the Nipomo Mesa.

That's when she met Jimmy Paulding, who ran a close race against Supervisor Lynn Compton in 2018. McKible thought, "Gee, he's got good ideas and he's on the side of right, maybe I can help. The next thing I know, I'm the field organizer for his campaign, pushing me way outside my comfort zone."

Activists inhabit hope—and no more so than the young people who have taken up the mantle of progressive change.

Cheyanne Holliday, a senior at Paso Robles High School, founded Activists Coalition for Tomorrow (ACT) club, which has sponsored a climate strike, a Coming Out Day, and a Black Lives Matter chalk-art action.

"I'm 17," she said. "It's not fair that I have to think about my beautiful planet dying. But the reality is that adults and our government are not doing enough, so we as student activists feel compelled to take action. We may not have the right to vote, but that doesn't mean we don't have a voice!"

Like Elena, Holliday is creating a space to fight for justice. She reminds me how I felt 45 years ago admiring long-committed community warriors who led early demonstrations against eco-ruinous power companies.

As then, the fight is not lost.

While the nation's president claims Black Americans are treated no differently than their fellow citizens, that Nazis can be good people, that climate change is a hoax, that the despotic Russian president hasn't influenced American democracy, that international quid pro quo bribery is the executive's right, etc., etc., well, we would all do well to remember that armies of Americans are rising up to challenge.

The time is now that these good citizens inspire us all to seize the word at the heart of their identity: that is, to act. And the first, most critical action is to vote.

"I want to be a 90-year-old at a Women's March!" Holliday said. "But if we unite now, maybe we won't need one." Δ

Amy Hewes is a grassroots activist. Send comments through the editor at [email protected].

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