Politics Should Be About Change
I wasn’t really interested in politics until my junior year of high school. The first book we were assigned in AP Gov was Hardball by Chris Matthews. In it, Matthews defines hardball as “clean, aggressive, Machiavellian politics. It is the discipline of gaining and holding power, useful to any profession or undertaking, but practiced most openly and unashamedly in the world of public affairs” (Matthews 13). Before reading this, my only reference point for politics was really just Barack Obama and his “hopey, changey stuff.” I thought (and still think) that the political process is ultimately supposed to be about creating actual change for the better and helping people; I recieved a bit of a wake up call later that year.
I met Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy on our junior trip to Washington D.C. . I’ve written about this encounter in almost every application I’ve completed since then. From my Georgetown application:
“Our AP Government class culminated in a Model Congress project with the entire junior class. We all wrote full length bills based on weeks of research, created profiles as Congresswomen, and finally wrote a speech to advocate for the passage of our bills. I spent the last weeks of that course intensely researching human trafficking, an issue that was a hot topic in Congress at the time. Human trafficking tied together the potential passage of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (the JVTA) with contention over both the Hyde Amendment and the overtly partisan delay of the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as Attorney General. I got very into the politics involved with this issue, even engaging with politicians on Twitter and gaining new followers, including Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN, one of the original co-sponsors of the JVTA) and the Connecticut Democratic party. I was able to actually talk to my newly elected Senator and ask him well thought out, educated questions about the JVTA and my topic. The responses I got were belittling; there were “political reasons” why this important issue was taking a backseat to the partisan politics that consume Washington. What frustrated me the most then was that there were real issues being debated, ones that had the potential to drastically change lives, issues that I had studied and cared about, that were being twisted and treated almost trivially at the hands of (mostly male) politicians. I took this passion and frustration at the end of the year to write my mentorship proposal about studying the gender gap in elected politics.”
Pause. Fast forward a year and a half. I am about to leave for Georgetown to study government and gender studies and next week is my last week interning at Eden House, a home for eight women who have been victims of trafficking. Eight women who are sometimes strong, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, sometimes fragile, sometimes funny, and always changing the way I see the world. In my time at Eden House, we have gotten one new resident, who I’ll call “J.” J arrived a little after I had and quickly became one of the residents I was closest with. I helped her move into her room. I helped her pick out clothes from our donations closet. I went with her on walks around the neighborhood and to the convenience store. I introduced J to Hamilton: An American Musical and was planning on buying her the cast album for her birthday. She was amazed by it and in love with it because of the incredible writing and the fact that the cast was mostly actors and actresses of color. She did theatre in high school but hadn’t been involved since she started working on the streets. I was so excited to see her excited about it; even on her bad days I could bring it up and she’d brighten up a little. And then this morning, about two months after J began the program, she was asked to leave.
J had broken some rules of the program that had been reason for expulsion for other residents, so she too was asked to leave. I talked to J this morning after I found out what had happened and it was probably the last time I will ever see her. She was quieter than usual, but matter-of-factly explained how she had been put in touch with a trauma counselor and would be going to a homeless shelter the next day. She said she hoped she would be lucky enough to get a bed. She said she missed her baby daddy. The same man who had abused and trafficked her.
My heart broke for J in that moment. She was about to leave behind one of the few wonderful opportunities that exist in our city to support women like her to go to a homeless shelter, and there was nothing either of us could have done. She broke the rules because of the seemingly inescapable habits of her past, and as a consequence had nowhere to go. I thought back to that day in Senator Cassidy’s extravagant office, when he smiled and told me that the Hyde Amendment in the JVTA was going to “help women” and that the Democrats were selfish in tangling the Loretta Lynch issue up in the bill. The Hyde Amendment would not have helped J. Passage of that bill would’ve helped J. The JVTA would’ve taken funds from fining men like her pimp and other traffickers and given them to programs to help victims of trafficking. But the bill never became law. Partisan squabbling took precedence over people’s lives. Hardball, right?
There is certainly an element of personal responsibility to J’s story; she will bounce back and forth between programs, likely go back to the unthinkable situation of her past, and eventually realize that her way of life is not sustainable. It is nearly impossible to help people who cannot help themselves. But if I am supposed to tolerate another politician preaching change and “helping people,” I want to see some change first, and we CAN change the world that makes J’s situation about as inescapable as a black hole. I want to see actual support programs for women and men like J who have been sent across state lines to do the slave work of others. I want to see people like J’s “baby daddy” paying for J’s recovery. I want to create a world where women like J are not so far gone that their recovery seems impossible. To Senator Cassidy, Senator McConnell, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the rest of you: it’s your move.