Building community in our new political reality
A post-election Penny U update
As it did for many people, the 2016 election sent me on a search to figure out how my life would change, or, more accurately, how I would adapt my life in response to new realities. What can I do?
Immediately after the election, I was grateful to have already planned a post-election Penny U conversation at Town Hall. Pulling the event together gave me a place to direct my energy and a way to feel that my action might be useful to others. It filled a void and gave me a sense of purpose. The large turnout that evening prompted my co-organizer, Edward Wolcher, and me to schedule a follow-up discussion two and a half weeks later.
We organized the second post-election Penny U around the main themes that emerged from the first one, and we also offered participants the chance to add topics not already on our list. Slightly over 100 people attended. We began, as Penny U’s do, with a short introduction giving some background, presenting the topics, and describing specifics of the process this time, which went like this: Topics were assigned to tables around the room. After the opening, everyone headed to the table topic of their choice. If groups got bigger than about 5-6, we encouraged breaking them up into smaller groups at one of the extra tables scattered around. We also asked someone at each table to take notes.
Topics focused on what we, individually and together, can do:
- Hold the media accountable / understand the news we consume (2 groups)
- Protect individual & civil rights / fight racism, sexism, homophobia (3 groups)
- Build understanding & develop conversation with the “other side” (2 groups)
- Review, revise, change the U.S. voting & election process
- Communicate with current legislative bodies (1 group + an advance email)
- Organize to change public policy from outside the current party structure
- Educate ourselves / improve our education system
- Hold face-to-face conversations within & between specific actions
- Help coordinate many different efforts and a more cohesive movement
- Resist cultural normalization of the way language has changed (added)
As after the November Penny U, we collected a substantial pile of notes. I continue to be impressed by how carefully and clearly most of the notes are prepared. In both Penny U sessions, my own were definitely the messiest notes and the hardest to decipher. This time, rather than try to summarize the wide range of topics and conversations, I’ve simply transcribed the notes “as is,” with a few minor adjustments for clarity.
You can find the complete set here. Because of its length you might want to just zero in on the topics that interest you the most.
So, what do we do next?
After I’d sent the notes to participants and now that I’ve posted them here, I’m thrown back to the question I faced immediately after the election, the one postponed by my focus on organizing the two Penny U’s. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Paul Krugman expressed a dilemma that feels real to my experience:
Personally, I’m still figuring out how to keep my anger simmering — letting it boil over won’t do any good, but it shouldn’t be allowed to cool. This election was an outrage, and we should never forget it.” — Paul Krugman1
Opportunities to engage, to protest, express our anger and dissent, resist policy changes, and change our own behavior pour in every day, through email, the news, personal conversations and observations. In fact, so many come that they often feel overwhelming. Given that none of us can do everything, even though that’s my initial instinct, I ask myself again, “What can I best offer given who I am? What’s my piece of the puzzle?”
The next steps for Penny U are still unclear. The focus that Edward and I gave the two post-election conversations responded to the circumstances of the moment. How could it now respond most effectively to current or future circumstances?
For guidance, I’ve paid close attention to responses we’ve received after the second Penny U. A friend, Warren Wilkins, wrote, thanking us for the platform “provided for those of us who were floundering around in our several states of incredulity/depression/etc. I suspect we’ll all head off on our own trajectories now.” But, he added, “I would guess your platform has shortened the launch window for many. It certainly did for me.” This reinforced my sense that Penny U isn’t itself a natural action-oriented organizing body, but might be a place where someone could find a specific way to engage their energy and their skills.
Mary Holscher, another participant, made this point even more clearly. She wrote:
I was in group 3, ‘Protect individual & civil rights / fight racism, sexism, homophobia.’ I came away from the afternoon feeling disturbed and agitated – so many ideas, so much to do, what next??? I found the conversation quite fragmented and not that enjoyable. I came out of it, though, knowing I didn’t want to just stay in my Phinney Ridge neighborhood, which is mostly progressive but also mostly white and middle class.
“That night (evidently as I slept) something seemed to have resolved itself, and I woke up with a clear sense of priorities and direction, clearly inspired by the comments in our group on working with immigrants and Muslims, on being proactive, rather than simply reactive; on assessing one’s own strengths. I chose to sign up as a volunteer for Young Women Empowered (Y-We),2 which I’d been considering in the very back of my mind for a few months but hadn’t taken any action on. A big reservation I’d had was that it was at El Centro de la Raza, which seemed too far away. Knowing that I need to get out of my mostly white neighborhood spurred me to action.
“Even though I found the afternoon quite agitating and wasn’t sure if it was helpful, I do think it spurred me to both clarity and action about my own direction. So thank you! Even if I never come to another Penny University, I’m very glad I came to this one.”
Mary’s story was satisfying for an organizer who badly wanted the conversations to be useful. But her message also guides and inspires me as I wrestle with this part of my original what-can-I-do? question: How can Penny U best serve as a forum in the future?
A initial thought follows in the next post, “A bigger choir, a countervailing force.” Your suggestions, comments, and stories are welcome!
1 Paul Krugman, “The Tainted Election,” The New York Times, op-ed, December 12, 2016.
2 Mary Holscher also wrote: “What draws me to Y-We is that it is multi-generational, multi-racial, focused on young women’s empowerment, and has a joyful spirit (a joyful spirit turns out to be imperative for me right now).” And she shared a few excerpts from the organization’s website: youngwomenempowered.org:
“Y-We empowers young women from diverse backgrounds to step up as leaders in their schools, communities and the world. We do this through intergenerational mentorship, intercultural collaboration, and creative programs that equip girls with the confidence, resiliency, and leadership skills needed to achieve their goals and improve their communities.”
“We serve young women ages 13-18. Our youth and mentors come from of a wide range of backgrounds representing diversity in family, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, politics, and education. Currently, 70% of our youth are first generation immigrants to the US and 80% of the youth and 50% of the adults are women of color.”