“Power is the combined force of a multitude of voices joined together…”
Junior year in my high school US History class we held a presidential-election-tournament-deal, where everyone represented at least one US president whom has ever existed. I drew Ronald Reagan.
That was five years ago now, so the exact details are fuzzy, but when it was my turn to debate with the quieter, more reserved student portraying Franklin D. Roosevelt, I won. Method of victory: slander.
Years of viewing politics from only an outsiders’ perspective, it seemed to be the correct way. Louder, more boisterous and arguably funnier than my opponent, I barraged him with unfavorable facts about FDR; facts that were totally irrelevant to the true meaning of politics, but would nonetheless allow me to win (as many actual presidents before me) in a landslide.
At the time, my teacher was completely shocked that I, Reagan, had won the class vote—especially over FDR. While we were learning the politics of campaign work, we were not learning how to ‘do’ effective politics.
It was not until four years later when I decided to take part in the Inequality in America off-campus study program here in the Twin Cities that I truly learned what ‘doing politics’ meant. I was interning as a community organizer for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, while in the class was learning about organizing people to create social change. Not only did my course delve into community organizing through labor movements, but we also learned how to lobby for policies, and what that entails. This was a very transformative and empowering experience because I had never been told that my voice as a citizen and community member could create change—that my voice could, should and would be heard.
In Ken Burns PBS series Wynton Marsalis likens democracy to jazz, “In American life, you have all these different agendas. You have conflict. And we’re attempting to achieve harmony through conflict…that’s what jazz music is. It’s exactly like democracy… The real power of jazz is that a group of people can come together and improvise…negotiate their agendas with each other” (Boyte 2001).
I like this definition of politics. It represents how as a democracy our collective voices are heard and harmonize to create effective policies. Unfortunately, in our day and age I feel that this view of our democracy has been lost. The only voices heard, are those loud enough to speak over others, usually with their dollars.
In high school I perpetuated this skewed political paradigm and took on the role of the only voice heard by trampling over my quieter opponent. If anything this victory could be likened to the victory of Reagan himself; a rich television actor who “fit” the role of president to a tee. How could he not win? His voice was extremely loud as a wealthy celebrity. But did his popular voice mean he was politically experienced and knowledgeable? Not exactly. Did it mean he knew what the people of this country wanted or needed? I’m not sold. But like in my high school, the silent masses simply went with my overpowering singular voice.
Having learned more of the political and everyday context around Reagan over time, I now see why my teacher was so shocked that I beat FDR. Personally, I am ashamed of my own pride in winning this debate. Looking back on this experience, I wonder how my teacher could have ever let that happen.
Now, don’t think that it was my history teachers fault that I was not an active citizen at that time—it was a variety of aspects made up by my entire environment growing up. If anything, I would consider this teacher one of the most influential women I had met up until that point in my life. She was my first glimpse at feminism and the level of inequality in our political system. Every day my actions and beliefs are shaped by the classes I took with her in high school. At that time though, my 16-year-old self could not grasp the ubiquitous concept of ‘isms’ because I was too wrapped up in my sports, volunteer work, school work, and student clubs to fully confront my own perceptions of inequality in our world.
This Rethink History project is important to me because I believe everyone should be empowered to use their voice in creation of a more equitable world. Especially in our world today where wealth influences our government and major power structures in place, not all voices are heard. Youth are taught not to value our place in this democracy as much we are pushed to get the best test scores. There is no way around the conflict of interest in our political world today, but at least through a rise of cohesive improvisation of all ideas brought to the table we can create a more inclusive view of our countries history and present tense.
Boyte, H. (2001). A tale of two playgrounds: Young people and politics. Retrieved from http://inside.augsburg.edu/publicachievement/files/2012/12/A-tale-of-two-playgrounds.pdf