Photos from Alabama by Iris Schneider. More Alabama images.
So many people have asked about my recent expedition into the deep South to work on the Doug Jones campaign, that I thought it might be helpful to put together my primer on self-preservation via political action. My adventure began about a week before the Alabama election as I listened to the news and felt myself sinking further and further down the rabbit hole of desperation and depression. I could not take any more bad news about the state of our country, any more travesties of justice, any more commiserating on Facebook. I decided I had to go knock on some doors and try to do my part to make sure Roy Moore did not get elected.
I did not think I knew anyone going to Alabama or living there. And my decision was so last-minute I did not even ask anyone to come along. But I could use my airline miles for a cheap flight and afford a rental car. Then I checked on Facebook for the one acquaintance who I thought lived somewhere in the South. Bingo! Kerry lived in Birmingham. It was a sign! I messaged her that I wanted to come Alabama to knock on doors and asked if I could stay with her. Turns out she had a place for me, and was leaving for LA the morning I was to arrive. She had been working on the Jones campaign and was sad to have to leave for a work commitment in LA. So she passed the baton to me, loaned me her house and her car, and left a list of activist women and names to contact. Everything was coming together and I was getting excited.
Having been a journalist for many years, my helicopter skills helped me hit the ground running. And the best part was that, not being a full-time newspaper employee anymore, I was free to talk to any and everyone I met about our democracy, the state of our country, my hopes for the election and why it mattered to cast a vote. My life as a journalist was so fulfilling, but it was time for me to come out from under my cloak of objectivity, stop documenting other people's activism and speak out for what I felt was important.
Once in Birmingham I was raring to go. My first Uber ride was a rude awakening. I talked to my young black driver, father of a one-year old. I asked him if he was ready for the election. He said he was not registered to vote and hadn't really focused on the candidates, more concerned about his son's upcoming first birthday and whether the snow was going to put a damper on his birthday celebration. The next morning, just a few doors down from Jones' campaign headquarters, I talked to the black woman behind the counter at the luncheonette. She was undecided about her candidate. I felt punched in the gut. How could anyone be undecided about who was the better candidate at this point, especially any black voters? I headed into Doug Jones' campaign office to get an assignment and some guidance on what to do next.
I walked into a swirl of activity at the campaign office, stepping into the vortex of volunteerism. In a back room I met my trainer Toni, a white woman from the South, whose wisdom and calm demeanor would be a reassuring presence over the next four days. I found myself going into that back room repeatedly, just to sit and gather my thoughts, surrounded by committed, capable and like-minded souls on a mission to do good. I asked Toni my question: "How can anyone be undecided in a race like this?" She explained that the people we would be meeting were not political junkies like us, who read the news incessantly and followed every blip in the campaign. For the most part, she said, they were struggling to survive each day, often working two jobs, or taking care of kids and trying to make ends meet. And our jobs were not to convince anyone who to vote for, but rather to talk about Jones' qualifications, and make sure all the registered Democrats we came into contact with had a plan for voting, or would tell us if they needed a ride to the polls.
Her insights carried me through the next few days as I knocked on doors of so many strangers and had meaningful conversations about big issues. Some of my friends in LA worried that people in Alabama would resent outsiders coming in and telling them what to do about their election. On the contrary, I told everyone I met that I cared so much about the election, I came all the way from California to encourage people to get out and vote. Everyone thanked me for my help. One man expressed his thanks and said, "Now let me shake YOUR hand!"
There was no need to fear going it alone. As soon as you walk through headquarters' door, there are many possible partners. I wanted to go canvassing, and you could turn in any direction and find someone to pair up with. I met people from all over Alabama and the United States. I canvassed with an Alabama woman a little younger than me who was afraid to tell me that she had voted for Trump — for economic reasons. By the time the election was over, she found me at the victory party to specifically tell me that she'd be voting Democrat in future elections. I met people from as far away as Hawaii, New York, Chicago, Tennessee, Florida and other Californians. Everyone working together for a common goal. It was inspiring, reassuring and uplifting. Even if the outcome had been different, I think it would have felt great to know we were working together because we all cared so deeply about our country.
But, happily, the outcome was not different. Alabama sent a message to the world and I'm hoping it's a turning point for our country. I met so many women working for change in Alabama. I met suburban Democrats who are saying, "It's time we came out of hiding." I met young students of color ready to fight for change. I met black women who are fed up with the current policies and tenor of the campaign and candidates. After many conversations with voters in many neighborhoods, I think many Alabamans hit the voting booth to do what the parking lot attendant in Birmingham told me after the victory party, "We finally stood up for what's right."
As for me, I learned a very valuable lesson. Doing something matters. It can sometimes feel you are speaking out by posting a message on social media. But nothing beats getting up from your computer and out into the world, and speaking face to face with people about what matters to you. About what you love about America. About how every voice needs to be heard. I made friends with strangers because we care about our country. And for one moment in time, on December 12, as I hugged and cried with the strangers nearby, I had hope for the future.