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Waking Up to What We Really Need to Do


Like more than half of Americans, I am ecstatic, grateful, and relieved that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will now lead our nation. I don't think I even knew how much lighter I would feel until I saw how close the election actually was. A few weeks ago, I thought that I knew this would be a contentious event, but I had no idea what that meant until I started watching the results on Tuesday night. Long ago in Trump’s presidency, I said that I would live someplace else for the next four years if he were elected again. It never occurred to me in a million years that I might actually have to consider my vow until the early results started coming in.

I was born in 1951. The next year, Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, and my parents, who were devout Democrats, were not happy. Of course, I was too young to know any better, but by the time the next presidential campaign rolled around, I was well-aware of JFK. I was also totally taken in by the lovely stories in my social studies textbooks about America being the land of the free and the home of the brave. Even as a scared, closeted gay girl, I believed that this is the place people come to find freedom and opportunity. By the time I was nearing the end of high school, and boys I knew were already dying in Vietnam, the edges of that romantic picture were beginning to fray. I became active, in the anti-war movement, the women’s movement and the gay rights movement, and I found a career in public education where our work is focused on helping people move forward in their lives.

Like so much in my life these days, this election was a wake-up call to me.

It’s clear that I have lived most of my life surrounded by people who believe what I believe. That doesn’t mean that I thought the world was filled with people who shared my commitment to equity and human rights. It means that, prior to this election, I had no idea how many people don’t see things as I do—and in fact will do everything they can to keep me, my beliefs, and people like me from being heard. As we’ve endured the last four years, I pretended that more people than not were suffering from an irrational, hate-filled, egocentric leader. And yet, even though Trump has not been re-elected, the fact remains that many, many people are clearly happy to be racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. They have no interest in "giving up" what they have--or may someday have--for anyone else. People in areas suffering from COVID voted for Trump. Racist white people who have no interest in “sharing” what they believe they own with people of color voted for him. People who care about their pocketbooks more than the environment marked an X next to his name. Fifty-five percent of women voted for him, too. All of this makes me sadder and angrier than practically anything I can think of. I felt that pain when I went to bed Tuesday night.

When I woke up Wednesday morning, and realized the results were better than I'd thought they were going to be, I knew I had to commit myself to doing more. I know I’m one person and my actions are meaningless in the bigger picture. But I remembered me as an 11-year-old, and all of today’s 11-year-olds and 35-year-olds and black kids and gay kids and still-in-the-closet adults. I thought about how those schoolbooks with idyllic drawings of Native Americans eating Thanksgiving dinner with pilgrims were just a crock designed to win over naïve white kids. And I thought about how those grammar school lessons depicting an America that gives everyone a chance to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" conveniently omitted some important information: Not everyone gets bootstraps in the first place, and some who do are ignored anyway.

But I know other stuff, too.

I know that there are lots of people like me who believe we can make some kind of difference. I saw them on Saturday night, tearfully cheering on Joe and Kamala. We can stand up and tell the truth and learn more truth. We can share our comforts, our struggles, our peace, and our hearts. Like so much in my life these days, this election was a wake-up call to me. I can’t be lazy about my place in the world or about anyone else’s. In every way possible, my job as a human is to stand in the way of disdain and hatred whenever I can. And that is really the very least I can do.