I remember the first election I voted in. It was 1996 in Green Bay. I went to the Labor Council Hall after class one day to see the candidates. It was inspiring, to be able to walk through the room and talk to the people who had the potential to make real change -and I’m not just talking about the candidates. From State Assembly candidates to congressional candidates, to the other citizens in the room, everyone was passionate and full of ideas to make Wisconsin better. I registered to vote the very next day. After I cast that first ballot, I was surprised by the sense of power, the optimism, and the energy I got from wearing that little “I voted” sticker around for the rest of the day. From then on I get that same feeling every time I vote.
Since that first ballot in my UWGB days, my wife Abby and I have worked hard to stay active citizens. Voting has always been one way to do that, but we’ve also been lucky enough to work with great organizations that are enabling civic engagement in a million different ways. One of the best experiences I had was working with Filipino Advocates for Justice, an organization created to build a strong empowered Filipino community through organization, leadership development, and advocating for social justice. I was able to apply the marketing skills I use in my career to help them communicate their mission in a way that attracts new members (They’re still doing amazing work, check them out here). I believe each of us has the opportunity to ask “what am I good at” and “how can I help”. And throughout my life, I’ve seen there’s always more work to be done.
Let’s be honest, civic engagement is an integral part of our country’s story, but not everyone experiences that civic engagement equally. The power of America’s unique civic engagement is only truly powerful if everyone can participate.
How do we ensure every individual and family can make the decisions that affect their community? In Wisconsin, wages are stagnant, but the price of living keeps growing, and time to be engaged slips away. So let’s create good-paying meaningful work because when you know your family is taken care of, you have time to focus on the community. All Wisconsinites should have the capacity to not only take care of themselves, but also their family, and ultimately, their community. When people have the capacity to engage in the decision making of their own communities, it makes them and all of us stronger.
People having the capacity to engage is only half of the solution. We need to make sure every citizen of Wisconsin can make their voice heard. And right now, that’s not our reality. In the 2016 election, we saw the results of the newly implemented voter ID laws. Approximately 17,000 registered voters were kept from the polls. Our voting districts seem more like a jigsaw puzzle than a coherent map. Early voting and absentee ballots are shrouded in confusion. People feel discouraged, underrepresented, and left out. And that needs to change. We need to hold our elected leaders accountable for the decisions only they can make. Our communities aren’t framed by lines that can be stretched, distorted, and redrawn to keep people in power. Access to voting must be protected, encouraged, and opened. One vote repressed from being cast is one too many.
Standing on the precipice of our 2018 election, that 1996 election on the UWGB campus seems a million years away. But the truth is, we have an opportunity, the way we do with every election, every town hall meeting, and every neighborhood cleanup, to make our voices heard. We must hold our leaders to their word, and hopefully, have the same sense of optimism that I did almost twenty years ago.