Why Getting Involved in Local Politics is More Important Than You Think
The pure privilege of not waking up all-the-way politically until 2016 is not lost on me.
Until about nine or ten months before last year’s election, I had the common political media habits of a young white person living in the city: I’d pay attention to the news leisurely; keep my finger loosely on the pulse of what was going on. There were issues that concerned me (women’s healthcare, gay marriage) and injustices that made me so mad I could puke (routine police shootings of black men and women) but there was a certain ‘taking for granted’ I was allowed growing up under Obama. It made me feel safe and retrospectively more apathetic than I’m comfortable with now. I’ve never shied away from having uncomfortable political conversations with family and friends (lol just ask them) but I was apathetically only participating in the “bigger picture,” voting once every four years for the president.
And then… November 7, 2016, happened and it felt like a punch in the face. I realized that the echo chambers of our actions are hard to break from when you’re not paying close enough attention, I then spent the end of 2017 in self-reflection thinking about how I need to get more involved, and before I could even blink, January 20, 2017, came and my dad I mean President Barack Obama said some words that stuck with me.
He said, “[Our democracy] needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
Step up and make a difference, yes sir, Barack sir, I will. Which is why I vowed to myself that this year and from every year forward I would step up and do the work, and that means concerning myself with what’s happening at a local level.
I talked with two women in my city of Minneapolis who are stepping all the way up and running for local office for the first time: Jillia Pessenda for Minneapolis City Council Ward 1 and Meggie Wittorf for State Representative in District 61B. We chatted about GETTING THE FRICK OUT TO VOTE in your local elections and why women need to be more fearless than ever.
LIZ: Tell me about how you two decided to get involved in local policy here in Minneapolis. How did you decide what you were going to run for?
JILLIA: The way that we can affect change and be visionaries starts from the bottom up, not the top down, which is why I’m most excited and passionate about the local level and made the decision to run for local city council. That is essentially what they do: they’re creating policies and managing a budget for the city of Minneapolis. I never thought I’d run for office. I wasn’t the kid who was like, “One day I’m going to be president of the United States!” but when I started working on my friend Ilhan Omar’s campaign [interviewer note: Omar is the first Somali-American Muslim person to become a legislator] and I was seeing how she was organizing an election at a local level in a different way. She was bringing more people to the table and it totally inspired me and gave me the confidence to run. That experience changed my life. Ilhan really strongly supported me stepping up and running and that’s exactly what we need; women not only stepping up and encouraging us to run for office but then also having our back once we do that.
MEGGIE: Jillia has a history of that, bringing people together. That’s her wheelhouse and form of leadership.
LIZ: How do you decide it’s time to take the elected official roll versus the community organizing roll?
MEGGIE: People should get involved in whatever way interests them; that doesn’t necessarily mean running for office, though we do need more women running and at the table! People are tied to their communities and want to make sure their voice is heard. There’s a lot of attention at the federal level because we frequently read headlines about legislation or executive order that target vulnerable communities. It’s important to reflect on if that’s happening in your own community. We saw similar sentiment presented in our Minnesota legislature; from attacks on women’s health care to our right to protest. That is why I am passionate about local government and decided to run. We are at the lowest point of women in our state legislature in the past ten years. I would like to see more women, people of color, any intersection that is not adequately represented in the rooms where decisions are made. We need to hear more voices.
JILLIA: I think it’s intimidating for a lot of women to think about the process of running being outside of our experience, so we just feel like it’s something that other folks should do but the truth is we all have experience, we all have struggles, we all have obstacles to overcome and we all bring knowledge to the work that we do and running for office is just bringing that with you.
LIZ: It’s not really any secret that it can be hard to get people to care about issues that don’t affect them personally, whether that’s at a national or local level, and that’s clearly having an influence on the number of people we are getting to the polls. How do we get people to care? If not now, when?
JILLIA: In my ward, some folks are doing fine, and some are really struggling. What our campaign is committed to is having those hard conversations around the challenges the people in our community are facing. Having conversations around economic justice and racial justice. Sharing these stories so other people have an understanding of the humanity behind people they’re living in their community with.
LIZ: And that’s something I hope we’re all doing. We need to all be having these conversations with our parents and uncles and friends about empathy because it just seems like complacency is winning every time. Sometimes, regarding “women’s issues” it just feels like, “Okay, will women have to have every single one of their rights taken away for people to give a shit?”
JILLIA: We can’t give up. We can’t not have those conversations. Even if folks seem apathetic or complacent, we still need to keep having those conversations, challenging narratives, and elevating these people’s stories.
LIZ: And then November 7th actually getting people to the polls.
JILLIA: Totally. Historically in Minnesota, we’ve had very low voter turnout in local elections, especially in low-income communities and communities with high-density of people of color. This year we have people running who reflect those communities. We’re bringing more voices to the table so that we have that power.
MEGGIE: And it’s getting people to care early in the process too. Yes, we need to get people to the polls in November but it’s getting people motivated to have a say as to what their ballot in November even looks like. If you want to have a say, and you want a candidate who reflects your values to have a seat at the table, we need to be talking about getting involved earlier in the process as well. It can be intimidating to get involved, I totally understand that. Right now there are so few people participating early in the process, which means their voice isn’t being heard. Let’s change that!
LIZ: Oh I would be shocked if even a quarter of the friends I consider “politically woke” voted in local elections. It’s a terrible kind of hypocrisy to be outraged by what’s going on and then at the same time not stepping up when it matters.
JILLIA: Part of low voter turnout blame is on the candidate. There are a lot of people in elected office who just no longer run grassroots campaigns. So part of it is on folks running, stepping up to run, and part of it is on incumbents continuing to do this grassroots organizing. That means door to door that means having conversations on the phone, that doesn’t mean just a mail piece.
LIZ: So that brings me to this problem I’m sensing with reaching people. There’s this shift with how people throughout generations interact, and how they like to interact. And while my parents and generations above that are very comfortable with door knocking and these old-school ways of grassroots organizing, we’re clearly living in a more digitized age. My generation is ready to call the cops when someone leaves us a voicemail and fall down to the floor to pretend we’re not home if someone rings the doorbell. How will this affect what you guys are trying to do right now and how will this evolve in future campaigns?
MEGGIE: Digital isn’t all bad. It does wonders for raising awareness. I mean, people are as informed as they are because of social media. That said, we need to use it also to drive action.
JILLIA: I look at social media as a way for me to talk to voters. It’s another tool that I have. More campaigns are utilizing technology to be able to engage differently. We’ll be using a texting program to engage with younger voters. A lot of students in my district who have traditionally been left out of local elections engage in text messaging and are super excited about that.
LIZ: It’s just wild to think about how quickly this will continue to evolve from a social and digital perspective.
JILLIA: Oh I know. My 13-year-old niece just said to me recently, “Auntie, only old people are on Facebook.”
MEGGIE: Local government is the level where people either feel like their government is working with them or it is an obstacle for them. When we see headlines like “Travel Ban,” we need to understand how it impacts our communities; how you or your neighbors day-to-day or next month is going to change. Then, show up or reach out to your elected officials. The reality of local politics is if you’re somebody who ever wants to get involved, candidates, campaigns, or organizers are like “YES, WE DEFINITELY HAVE A POSITION FOR YOU.” It can be pretty instantaneous. Sometimes people think they need to have this certain skill set and experience, but truthfully, showing up is so valuable. More than any perfect resume.
JILLIA: Meggie literally just showed up at my house one day. [They both laugh] But search your local candidates, find one you like, someone who makes you excited and reach out, ask for a meeting. They always need help stuffing envelopes or door knocking.
MEGGIE: And don’t be intimidated to ask for a meeting thinking you need to talk policy. Talk about your values; what you care about. That is always what’s going to make for the best policies and actions coming out of a campaign.
JILLIA: Exactly! Politics are visceral. What are you experiencing? What are you excited or scared about? What challenges are you facing?
MEGGIE: That’s how we’ll come up with meaningful and creative policy and legislation. Hearing people’s stories and understanding how they feel based on things they’ve experienced. That’s how all of this works.
JILLIA: I worked on the Occupy Homes Movement during the recession when there were so many people being unjustly foreclosed on. I started organizing with neighbors and that evolved into more direct participation with Occupy Homes and pretty soon I was sitting on a coalition table to pass a Minnesota Homeowner Bill of Rights.
MEGGIE: And that started from having conversations with neighbors.
JILLIA: Exactly. I mean, we were in the middle of the greatest depression since The Great Depression and our neighbors were losing their homes, big banks were getting bailed out and we just started organizing.
LIZ: Where do you START?
JILLIA: I found out about a neighbor’s situation, I found out about a local occupy meeting and I went. I just showed up one day.
MEGGIE: Just show up.
JILLIA: And ask a friend to join you!
LIZ: How do people know what they’ll be voting for this year, next year, what district they’re in, etc.?
MEGGIE: Use the secretary of state website to find all voting information every year. For state politics in Minnesota, you can literally google “Who represents me?” You just enter your address and it’ll tell you the different people and offices that represent you. And just a tip: if you’re ever renewing your driver’s license, make sure you’re registered to vote. In Minnesota, you can do it there. One stop shop.
LIZ: In 2016, we had a person with arguably the most political experience ever run for president versus someone who literally couldn’t have had less experience. The former a woman, the latter a man. When Hillary lost, I felt a very specific kind of defeat that I had never felt before in my life. I would be lying if I said I immediately felt inspired. I felt small and lesser. What would you say to women who also felt fully discouraged and were reminded of every time they’ve been passed up for a job or a promotion over a man with less experience?
MEGGIE: It clearly has nothing to do with experience, that’s the honest truth. The good news is? There are ways to fix this. If we don’t want to see that again, we need to encourage women to run. Support them. Vote for them.
JILLIA: So many of us were devastated by the 2016 election. It was a really interesting moment to have that election and then step up myself to run as a woman in a district that has never elected a woman to this seat. My only opponents have been men. To see what I had just witnessed and watched over the past year start to happen to me. Having questions asked of me that were not asked of my male opponents. I had more experience than them and they weren’t asked those questions that I was. My experience was being dismissed as hashtags or slogans by my opponents. That’s hard when I have the experience and I’m bringing so much to this work. But we can change that narrative.
LIZ: It’s such a whirlwind when we’re trying to even the playing field politically and you have all of these men kind of, blocking the areas we want to step up into even though they support us? Does that make sense?
MEGGIE: It’s difficult because many times you share values with your opponents and a desire for equality, which is ideal. Right now, we’re reading and hearing about people asking others to create space for more voices; that can be a hard question to ask or be asked. When that happens, it’s important to reflect, “Do I have influence in my current capacity?” Or, “Is my voice heard?” I will say, I think women live in this internal dialogue.
JILLIA: I’m not running because I’m a woman, I’m running because I have experience and I bring a lot to this work and I will bring a lot more voices to the table and I will work to address the challenges we face in this city. I’m also a queer woman who believes representation does matter and it matters that we have openly LGBTQ women at the table, especially for our young folks. You can’t be what you can’t see. I literally grew up not knowing I could be who I am, I had no one who was like me reflected in my life or reflected in leadership around me. But now that I’m here I’m going to be out and proud and I’m bringing all of that with me.
LIZ: I completely agree that you can’t be what you can’t see. What would you say to a young girl who has these aspirations but has these nagging weights of thought that maybe that won’t be a possibility for her?
MEGGIE: I actually just found out that when my parent’s attended parent-teacher conferences they would always hear about how “bossy” I was. And it was actually my dad who said to my mom, “We’re not going to change her.” So I enjoyed growing up in this household with two sisters, all being able to have a voice. And I just assumed that’s how it is everywhere, until it was clear that’s not accurate. I would tell young girls, or any woman, your voice is valuable. And the ones that already use their voice, you’re probably going to wonder if you’re offending anyone or polarizing anyone by showing up and speaking up, but just keep going. Keep going. You don’t have to over-analyze every time you use your voice.
LIZ: The “be quiet” micro-aggressions you indoctrinate within yourself to think that you’re being too opinionated or too loud or too controversial are ubiquitous.
MEGGIE: That feeling exists with so many groups that go unheard. We all need to be a champion for one another and create spaces for each other. I have privilege being a white woman and I have to be aware that even though we’re talking about women right now and I want to be heard, space needs to be created and respected for everyone.
JILLIA: Yes. How do we step up but also step back.
MEGGIE: I love that. Step up and step back.
LIZ: Because while we’re working to get all these women in the door, what we don’t want to happen is then women of color get left behind. We can’t let that happen.
JILLIA: I think white women need to start having conversations with each other around privilege around race and class and how we also elevate the leadership of women of color and queer women of color and step back ourselves.
MEGGIE: Step up and step back.
JILLIA: But back to your original question about what I would say to a younger woman. I would tell them to be loud and proud. And if she’s afraid? Be fearless and do it anyway. We need you. Step up.
Something tells me that if there are young Meggies and young Jillias waiting in the wings to do just that, I think we’re going to be just fine.
Minnesotans! You can check to make sure you’re registered to vote for local elections on November 7th here, but just in case: we do have same-day registration. For my people outside of Minnesota, I really like Head Count for voter info of all kinds (registration status and info, who’s running in your state this year, polling locations, etc.).
Photos via: 2nd Truth Photography
Liz Welle is a professional feelings feeler but gets paid to do social and digital stuff for brands in Minneapolis while occasionally food styling on the side. She lives in Uptown with her boyfriend and their thirteen plants. She is doing her best.