There are a lot of reasons I didn’t want Donald J. Trump to be our next president, but there is one reason (and probably only one) that I’m glad he won.
The night of the election, I went to a watch party hosted at The Downtown Farm Stand. (Can you get more liberal than drinking organic beer and eating organic free-range, potato chips with your GMO-free friends? Probably not.) Like everyone else we expected to watch the election of the first female president. I can’t say I was a vigorous supporter of Hillary Clinton (there’s something rather unappealing about political dynasties), but earlier that day when I cast a vote for her I did get the “feels.” I have a daughter and if her fascination with burping and farting ever goes away, I’d like to think she could have any job, including President of the United States.
At the party, I thought, “If Trump did happen to win by some miracle, I’ll be more inspired than ever to get busy on my personal work and my work with The Facing Project connecting people through stories to strengthen community.”
At 9:30 PM it was obvious that Clinton was in trouble. The myth of the “silent Trump” voter was a reality. I stayed up until 3AM. I watched President-elect Trump’s victory speech. I felt like someone had died.
I had solid reasons to feel this way:
Since I’m a freelance troublemaker, we get our insurance through the ACA healthcare exchange. I have an autistic son who receives more than $100K of therapy each year. If/when President Trump repeals Obamacare, will a private insurance company outside the exchange insure us with Griffin’s “preexisting condition?” Or will we have to end therapy altogether?
Then there is this…
Did I mention I have a son with disabilities.
There’s the rhetoric of hate, fear, and misogyny. But I don’t want to write about all the reasons President Trump scares the shit out of me and makes me disappointed for our country, and how I feel for anyone that’s been labeled an outsider or other by the creepy nationalistic vibe that he represents. I want to write about how his being elected has inspired me more than ever to build empathy through stories.
On Wednesday I mourned. I skipped my morning workout and zombie-like drove Griffin to preschool. As I moved through the day, I’d see people and speculate that they voted for Trump on the smallest detail–what they wore, what they drove, facial hair. I was prejudging everyone and once I determined that they were a Trump voter, I hated them. I hated them because they voted for a man who I despised because of his hate speech. I hated hate so I hated and hated myself for hating.
On Thursday I was giving a talk at Northern Kentucky University. First year students at NKU read Where Am I Eating? as a common read. I had decided to make the talk entirely about the election and not mention our election once.
I told the story of a family who lived in the Mathare Valley slum in Nairobi Kenya. After a disputed election in 2008, violence spilled out across Kenya. The losing party was protesting the results of the election in which a candidate of the Luo tribe lost to a candidate from the Kikuyu tribe. Luo protestors went door-to-door in Mathare Valley and asked questions in their native tongue. If their questions couldn’t be answered, they killed all those inside. Thomas, the middle brother of the family, spoke both languages. He gathered up his neighbors and hid them inside his shanty. He answered the questions. He saved the lives of his neighbors.
“How many houses, dorm rooms, apartments, do you have to go from your home until you don’t know the names of the people who live there?” I asked the students and myself.
I shared a story about standing outside of a mosque in Bangladesh while men in prayer robes poured out. This was 2007, and, as much as I liked to think that the constant barrage of “fear the muslims” in our media and society hadn’t sunk in, it had. My heart beat faster. I was nervous that if they knew I were an American, they wouldn’t like me. I was afraid. But then I spent then next month hanging out with people…people who were muslim. They were amazing.
Here’s one of them.
“How can we fear people who we’ve never met?” I asked the students and myself.
I shared Amilcar’s story. Amilcar left his job as a garment worker in Honduras and risked his life to come to the United States where he works today supporting his family in a way he couldn’t if he were actually with them. No matter where you are on the immigration debate, you can appreciate the sacrifice Amilcar made for his family and the courage it took to make his journey.
“When we start with stories instead of politics and ideology, we can have a conversation with anyone regardless of what political team they are on or who they voted for,” I told the students and myself.
I talked about knowing our neighbors, listening to them, not fearing people we don’t know, and about the responsibility we all have to use our own privilege and opportunity to help others.
It felt so damn good not to hate. It felt good to take positive action to make a difference instead of complaining about things I couldn’t control.
On Saturday, the Facing Racism in Muncie project shared 38 stories of people in our community who had a racism story to be told. The event sold out in a matter of days. I’m the co-founder of The Facing Project, a nationwide nonprofit storytelling initiative that seeks to build empathy, and I was also a writer and a part of the planning committee for the project. The stories reminded us all how far we’ve come as a society, yet how very far we have to go. To collect the stories, volunteer writers sat with volunteer storytellers to listen and collaborate on each story, and actors brought the stories to life. Well over 100 people were involved in the project.
The participants and the audience reminded me that there are people who are willing to sit and listen to difficult subjects. There are people who are willing to connect with people who are different than them.
After the election, we didn’t wake up in a different country. This is our country. If you were surprised by the results like I was, we obviously weren’t listening to other people enough. We let our politics and our politicians divide us. We need to connect and seek to understand those who have different opinions than us.
Universities, bless their souls, are providing safe places for students to mourn the election results. I’ll give you Wednesday. Wednesday I needed a safe place to just not do Wednesday, so I stayed home as much as possible. But Thursday? We don’t need quiet places to be alone, we need to be meeting people, getting engaged with all parts of our community and not just people who look, think, and act like us.
I will make this important caveat though: I understand why certain people are afraid of a Trump presidency. They are afraid of being deported, having a loved one being deported, being rounded up into an internment camp, of being unmarried to a loved one, of not being able to afford health insurance. Those of us who are less impacted by the possibilities listed above need to be there for the groups of people who feel like they may lose rights or be discriminated against. We need to listen to them and stand with them.
We also need to listen to the people who voted for Trump. I have loved ones who I believe are some of the best damn people on the planet and they voted for Trump. I side with Jon Stewart on this. Here’s what he had to say to Charlie Rose recently:
“I thought Donald Trump disqualified himself at numerous points. But there is now this idea that anyone who voted for him has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric. Like, there are guys in my neighborhood that I love, that I respect, that I think have incredible qualities who are not afraid of Mexicans, and not afraid of Muslims, and not afraid of blacks. They’re afraid of their insurance premiums. In the liberal community, you hate this idea of creating people as a monolith. Don’t look at Muslims as a monolith. They are the individuals and it would be ignorance. But everybody who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist. That hypocrisy is also real in our country.”
We fear what we don’t know. When we don’t know our neighbors, we fear them.
We all need to listen to each other and have empathy for one another. This election has reminded me of that and that the work that I do and the work of The Facing Project is more important than ever. I hope you have similar work to pour yourself into that isn’t just a Facebook post, or a Change.org petition, or protesting. Those things are fine, but if you really want to make an impact, you need to go beyond being against things and work on the things you are for. You need to become part of the community out your actual front door.
If you aren’t sure what to do and want to build empathy story by story, The Facing Project needs volunteer coaches and editors. We also need resources–you can donate here to the Building Empathy Story by Story campaign.
Since the election, I’ve completed the first draft of a book proposal–another global quest–and feel absolutely reinvigorated and as passionate as ever toward my work with The Facing Project.
And for that I’m thankful. It’s not a new world. It’s the same world and this election has been a reminder we still have a lot of work to do.