My First Political Act: Clipped from the Pages of the Local Newspaper

I have a reputation as a bit of a rabble-rouser. I’d like to think I am a more measured and thoughtful version of this but my family photo album has too many stories suggesting that I come from a long line of people willing to make a lot of noise when a lot of noise needs to be made.

My grandmother “makes the scene” at Union Carbide in 1970

When I found this photo of my grandmother, I was told a perfect complement to it exists on another page of our local newspaper. A photo shared a few years later shows a small 4 or 5 year-old girl holding a sign on the picket line, “Share with the Little People.” I’m sure I didn’t make the sign I was holding. Countless other childhood stories suggest I rarely ever thought of myself as little.

There’s also a note about my great grandfather, George McNeilly, written in my grandmother’s handwriting. She was describing her dad’s efforts to expose the corruption of a newly-independent government in Grenada by writing for the local newspaper. This story has one of my all-time favorite endings…

“The government couldn’t shut him up so they burned down the newspaper.”

With this history, there’s no denying that I come from a politically active family. I knew what it meant to stand up and do your part for your community. But the first political act I remember taking up as my own was a quiet and careful move to connect with people I had never met. Whatever I had learned on the picket lines or canvassing door-to-door for my dad’s city council campaign, I instead draped my 7 year-old self in all the symbolism and solemnity I had only seen matched during Sunday services.

I was cutting something out of the newspaper and wanted the lines to be the straightest I had ever cut. An older version of myself has accepted that straight lines are not in my skill set. But this kid still believed what the adults had told her. Just slow down.

Maybe it would work just this once.

Take your time…

The clipping was an American flag printed on a half page in the local newspaper, The Review Times. All the houses in our small town would have this same flag taped to the window and I wanted to be a part of it. We were trying to send a message to Iran, especially to the 52 American citizens that had been taken hostage in November 1979.

This was the first time I had turned my attention to connecting with a shared community beyond my family, our neighbors and our church. This wasn’t about decorating the house; It was about connecting with the community and the whole world beyond it. And it was the flag that connected us.

As I placed the clipping in the front window, I wanted it to hang precisely in the right place so everyone driving by would see it. I temporarily taped it to one position and then another while running outside each time to see if it measured up to the grand statement I had imagined making. The flag communicated that we were all one people. That the hostages could be me or my family. That the very principles we held as the mark of a free people had made us targets. A terrifying realization but a powerful one.

There are a dozen questions embedded in that realization. What about the American proposition was so threatening? What about us and what we represented was so dangerous that it was worth fighting over and killing for? Whatever it was, did I understand it and believe it so much that I could endure being held hostage for its sake? Could I be an American like them?

And that was another significant understanding for a political animal coming into her own: reciprocity. The hostages were Americans like me. The faded newspaper clipping that yellowed quickly in the window was my signal to the world that we were one people. That I understood this about the American people and that I was fully committed to doing my part.

Decades later, I still sometimes struggle to understand what it means to do my part. I can get into heated exchanges over the suggestion that it’s all about voting. You either do your part by casting a ballot or you lose your right to complain. The idea that the privilege of being an American culminates in this right to complain seems absurd to me.

The privilege of being an American is having the freedom to search for the causes that compel you and to find the actions that resound with the impact you imagine making. Sometimes it’s about cutting straight lines and getting the symbolism right. Sometimes it’s about voting and recruiting others to do the same.

And, sometimes, it’s still about making a ruckus.

Shellee (left) in New Hampshire for the 2004 Presidential Primary

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