How to be an activist in a Republican suburb
Before Alissa Jean Schafer, 35, became a mom, she had imagined living in her twenties and thirties in a hip and bustling city, where she could be surrounded by politically active and like-minded people. But as a single mom, Schafer made the decision to give up on her dreams and move to a quiet South Florida suburb with more affordable housing and living options – and where she knew she could. count on access to good public schools for her daughter.
In recent years, triggered in part by the coronavirus pandemic, suburbs and small towns near major metropolitan areas have seen an influx of new and returning residents, while denser cities have reported a marked decrease. . For many young adults who identify as longtime activists like Schafer, there is a feeling that building a home away from the busy and crowded urban neighborhoods often seen as epicenters of social justice and activism could mean let go of a part of yourself. But in recent years, Schafer, who identifies as an intersectional environmentalist and works in the Broward Soil and Water Conservation District, has realized how much she underestimates the power to advocate for the social change from the suburbs.
“The activism that takes place in the suburbs is less direct – it’s more ‘silent’, but I would say it is just as if not potentially more important and more effective than some of the loudest forms of activism we have. could see in big cities, ”she said.
That’s not to say that the magnetic rallies, demonstrations, or marches that tend to get the most airtime aren’t essential to activism. In fact, Schafer has closely followed protesters blocking the Port of Miami to argue against Haitian deportation and find ways to show solidarity from a distance, whether it looks like supporting bail funds for arrested protesters, to connect. the group to legal representation or to use its network. to collect donations.
These quieter, less glamorous forms of activism – like meeting and challenging your local representatives in town halls or writing an op-ed arguing for fairer school bus routes in the local newspaper – can help shine a light on both issues. large and apparently small.
At the hyperlocal level, Schafer said, you could even vote on something like bus routes or infrastructure and make a change that could impact people’s lives in hours or days.
“It can actually be very encouraging to see the fruits of your labor so quickly as opposed to a massive campaign effort that takes forever,” she said.
Suburban activists Kannan Udayarajan and Zeenat Syed, both of whom were instrumental in mobilizing new South Asian voters in Georgia ahead of the 2020 election, echo this sentiment and have witnessed the magic of the organic activism in the suburbs themselves.
For the past 14 years Udayarajan has made his home in Republican-leaning Forsyth County, Georgia, and although he has always been involved in the community in a professional and voluntary capacity, it was not until the resurgence of the movement. Black Lives Matter in 2020 and the silence of its community leaders on issues of racial justice and police violence that he felt compelled to seek out activists to support the cause. It’s a trend we’ve seen across the country; As racial injustice took center stage in the summer of 2020, organizers stepped up their efforts in the diversifying American suburb.
Udayarajan first joined a small crowd of 10-15 activists in a nearby suburb for a rally organized by the Georgian branch of They See Blue, a progressive grassroots group dedicated to promoting progressive South Asian civic engagement.
It didn’t take long for her to volunteer to host the next rally in Forsyth, where nearly 80 people showed up in the rain waving the Black Lives Matter and Biden-Harris flags. The following weekend, more than 200 more turned up for another rally, including then-Senate candidates Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
“It’s always difficult to have a different point of view or to be openly a Democrat in Forsyth County, but it was something I never expected to happen here,” said Udayarajan, who noted that while the positive response was overwhelming, he and other They See Blue volunteers were certainly concerned for their safety at times – it was not uncommon for counter-protesters to drive by and shout curses like intimidation tactic. But the community support and enduring visuals of a 200-person rally for Black Lives Matter in a place like Forsyth County, gave it the momentum to keep going.
Much of Syed’s experience with activism in the suburbs, she said, is discovering and supporting other marginalized groups. She and her fellow They See Blue members, for example, have not shied away from publicly defending Black Lives Matter, celebrating Indigenous peoples, or showing solidarity with trans women.
Syed, also a volunteer for the organization and a long-time resident of Forsyth, joined her fellow South Asian activists in the suburbs for phone banking and voter registration as well as postcard writing, hoping that his marginalized neighbors might recognize his name.
“I myself received postcards and remember how good I felt to know that there were other people around me who thought like me,” she said. “It only reinforces the fact that you’re not really alone in the Georgia suburbs anymore, whereas in previous years it was just really alone. You didn’t know who was like you.
It took a long time for Syed to overcome the fear of becoming politically active in his historically conservative community, where it is rare to see or hear activists physically in the city. She was particularly nervous about knocking on doors. A buddy system – and formal canvassing training – she said, was essential to feeling safe and prepared. Most of the time, the experiences have been positive.
“For a very long time, I thought that living in the suburbs, I couldn’t have an impact on change,” said Syed. “I don’t feel like that anymore.”
How to get started as an activist in the suburbs
- Find your strengths. For some, it may be writing; for others, it may be public speaking, Schafer says. Think about how you can apply your unique strengths to the topics that matter to you.
- Use your own networks to find opportunities. Syed and Schafer both recommend harnessing the power of your own networks, whether that’s connecting with other PTA parents or asking your social circles if they have any contacts in mind.
- To arrive. Get involved with your local neighborhood associations and councils by showing up at virtual meetings / town halls or in person to voice your concerns, Schafer adds. These opportunities also give you access to your elected and appointed local leaders – and the ability to challenge them on their commitments.
- Get involved every day. Remember, activism is about changing the way people think, Udayarajan says. It can be difficult to embrace a calmer, slower type of activism, but lasting change doesn’t happen overnight. He urges new activists to remember that activism is not to be equated with being combative, and that will mean getting involved and being an active member of your community day in and day out.