In a democracy, citizens have the most important job
During the final three weeks leading up to this year’s presidential election, I spent eight days working in a basement on Edgehill Road in Cleveland Heights. I was part of a four-person team that welcomed volunteers to our staging location, where we trained them, assigned a “turf” and sent them off to knock on doors in our community. Their mission: to urge their fellow citizens to vote.
Each volunteer was given a walk packet identifying 35 to 40 addresses to visit. Some walked in pairs, while others went solo. They gave up beautiful days and private time because democracy matters. They endured rain and cold to reach one more street and a few more households. They presented themselves to strangers, some of whom readily engaged and others who slammed doors or yelled obscenities. They took themselves out of their comfort zones to do something important.
There is nothing glamorous about participating in democracy. In fact, it is often anxiety producing, boring, cold and exhausting. Nonetheless, it is remarkable and wonderful! People reach out to strangers because they care about who is elected and how government functions. Face-to-face communication makes a difference. Perhaps the best part of life in the basement was meeting and greeting the people who were willing to invest themselves in the election.
I am a loyal advocate of Cleveland Heights. I moved here in 1979 because of the city’s diversity and its rich civic culture. Our residents care about issues and get involved. While this makes democracy messy, it also makes for a stronger community and better decisions. There is a vibe that invites engagement, citizen responsibility, a search for a better community and real solutions to issues. I’ve always loved that about living here, and it is the reason this was such a satisfying way to spend my time during a depressing and painful presidential election cycle.
During those stints in the basement, I met the full range of our residents. What I love about our community is its amazing economic, religious and racial mix. We have a unique array of nonprofit organizations and an abundance of artists and academics. Cleveland Heights is home to teachers, social workers, nurses, scientists, planners, laborers, secretaries, food service workers and students. We have young families, grandparents raising young children and a great mix of retired people.
I saw them all. One by one, or in groups, they came to the basement, got their assignment, hit the streets and came back with stories to tell. For many, it was their first campaign experience; for others, it was the latest in a long history of involvement. It was often frustrating to them to reach so few people or at times exhilarating to be well-received. Mixed in with doubts about their impact was pride that they had taken action. They were part of a political campaign. They were helping to shape the future. They did their part. They were empowered. They were fulfilling their responsibility as citizens. They were helping all of us.
For me, the debates and ads do not do justice to the candidates. They are plastic and distant—performances. They don’t do that much for the voters either. To get under the surface you need a chance to talk with people you trust about what matters and what is important about being elected to an office and leading a country. It’s a complex decision, but the process of citizen-to-citizen, face-to-face contact helps that process. There is no substitute for the human touch.
My first adventure knocking on doors for a presidential candidate was in 1968. As a college student in Iowa, I drove to Nebraska to campaign for the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. He lost. The next campaign was for George McGovern. In addition to canvassing for him, I covered the Democratic Convention that year for my hometown newspaper and witnessed the inclusion of a much more diverse population in the party. It was a great victory even if my candidate lost. The Obama candidacy revived my excitement about electoral politics, and I joined the ground game in Cleveland Heights.
I believe that local grassroots activism is the heart and soul of a democratic society. The concerned people who came to the basement to work for their candidate inspired me. They revived my faith in the democratic process. An active and engaged citizenry moves our society forward. It is the only thing that ever has.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.