Plenty of words come to mind when I think about 2017. And if you want to know my unfiltered thoughts on “emails,” “fake news,” “sexism,” or “Russia,” I’ve written about each of those topics at length in my book. (As well as “bully,” “demagogue,” and “creep”!) But when I step back and reflect on the last twelve months — the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the activism and organizing I’ve been proud to support — there’s no shortage of uplifting, encouraging words that capture the spirit of this year. It’s difficult to pick just one.
Resilience was among the first to pop into my head. It’s a word that has meant a lot to me throughout my life, and it’s taken on new meaning in 2017. Resilience doesn’t mean you never get knocked down; it means you get back up when you do. I’ll admit, there were times over the past year when I was tempted to just pull the covers up over my head and shut it all out. Instead, I got back up. At first, I spent time with family and friends, watched HGTV and went into a frenzy of organizing every closet and drawer in my house, did some yoga, and practiced something called “alternate nostril breathing.” I went for long walks in the woods. And yes, I had my fair share of chardonnay.
Then I started a new organization, called Onward Together, to support the grassroots activism and engagement we’re seeing across America. Think of it like an incubator for passionate people in politics who are turning their energy into progress. And last month we saw what a difference that energy can make. In elections across America, hope beat hate — from the Virginia governor’s race, where Ralph Northam soundly defeated an opponent who embodied the worst kind of dark, divisive politics, to local elections for school board and city council.
The results were a resounding affirmation of the values we share. I couldn’t be prouder of the groups Onward Together partnered with in this election who encouraged people to run, supported candidates, knocked on doors, made calls, and won races across the country. These victories give us an important chance to make progress on important issues, from protecting immigrants’ rights to standing up for smarter gun laws. None of that would have ever happened if people had gotten discouraged and decided to give up after the 2016 election.
All of those things, along with the resilience that was all around us in 2017, helped me pick myself back up. The Women’s March was an inspiring global demonstration of resilience. After white supremacists tried to tear their community apart, the city of Charlottesville showed incredible resilience, with people from all walks of life coming together to choose hope and reject hate. Activists, organizers, parents, and kids across the country were a shining example of resilience, rising up again and again to defeat a health care bill that would have hurt hardworking families. But the battles we’ve fought won’t be our last. We need to show that same resilience in defending the Children’s Health Insurance Program and fighting back against the disastrous Republican tax plan. And if that tax plan is passed and signed into law, we’ll need to spend 2018 making sure the American people understand every single provision that will benefit the wealthiest at the expense of working families.
Persist is another word that’s been on my mind these past 12 months. I open What Happened with a quote from Harriet Tubman that has always meant a lot to me: “If you are tired, keep going. If you are scared, keep going. If you are hungry, keep going. If you want to taste freedom, keep going.” One of my biggest fears after the election was that the 65.8 million Americans who supported me would feel so discouraged that they would simply give up. Instead, everywhere I go, I meet people who tell me they started going to school board meetings, because that’s where decisions are made that affect their kids. Or they’re getting their friends together once a week to call their members of Congress about health care, the environment, or the need to get to the bottom of Russian interference in the election. Or they’re signing up for candidate training programs through groups like EMILY’s List, Emerge America, and Run for Something — and, as we saw this year, they’re winning! Here’s a great statistic: The average success rate for first-time candidates is 10 percent. In November 2017, Run for Something’s first-time candidates had a 40 percent success rate. Forty percent! That was only possible because so many people refused to quit fighting for the values we share.
Another incredibly important word for us all — in 2017, 2018, and beyond — is vote. Want to demonstrate resilience in the face of massive and widespread attempts to suppress the voices of students, people of color, and the elderly? Vote. How can you have a say in shaping the future of this country? Vote. Wish our politics reflected empathy and compassion? Vote. Think about the issue you’re most passionate about. I guarantee you, that issue will be on the ballot at some point soon, and if you care, you’ve got to vote. The 2016 election was decided by 78,000 votes in three states: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Don’t ever let anybody tell you your vote doesn’t make a difference. It does — take it from me.
Resilience. Persist. Vote. These are all important words, and I could write at length about any of them. But there’s another word that gets to the heart of all of the rest, and forms the basis of the work we must do together: Empathy.
On all my long walks in the woods and quiet days at home (when I’m not shouting at the television), that’s what I’m contemplating. I believe 2017 was a perfect case study to support the idea that what we need—more than anything at this moment in America—is what you might call “radical empathy.” In a country as diverse as ours, we’re not ever going to agree on absolutely everything. That’s okay; that’s how it should be. But 2017 showed us how important is to try to recapture a sense of common humanity; to try to walk in the shoes of people who don’t see the world the way we do. President Obama summed it up perfectly in his farewell address earlier this year. He said white Americans need to acknowledge “that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment our Founders promised.” And, for people of color, it means understanding the perspective of “the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.” Empathy should not only be at the center of our individual lives, our families, and our communities; it should be at the center of our public life, our policy, and our politics. I know that we don’t always think of politics and empathy as going hand in hand. But they can, and more than that, they must.
At the beginning of 2017, as I sat at my dining room table working on What Happened, I wasn’t sure how opening up about my experiences and feelings about what we need to do to move forward would go. Frankly, it’s something I’ve been hesitant to do in the past. But this year, like never before, I let my guard down. It turned out to be cathartic — not only for me, but for a lot of people.
That’s empathy — relating to each other through our shared experiences. There was the woman I met at a book signing who told me, fighting back tears, that her 90-year-old mother, who had been so excited to cast her vote in 2016, recently passed away. She was there with her daughter and granddaughter — three generations of women proudly carrying on her mother’s legacy. There was the young man I met who told me that What Happened had given him the courage to live his own truth, starting by coming out to his parents. And then there was the unforgettable woman in Montclair, New Jersey, who told me how hard the past couple of years had been for her — so hard that she didn’t know if she wanted to keep on living. “But then,” she said, “I saw everything you were taking on, and I thought to myself, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’” I grabbed her by both hands and told her never to quit on herself. She looked me straight in the eye and promised: “I won’t.”
This hasn’t been an easy year — not by any stretch of the imagination. But more than anything else, it strengthened my belief that in order to move forward, we have got to fill the emotional and spiritual voids that have opened up within communities, families, and even ourselves. Which means reaching out to each other the way so many people have done since the election. I’ve been profoundly moved by the generosity and courage of everyone who has shared their personal experiences — at book signings, town hall meetings, online, in the media, and even in everyday conversation with friends and family. They’re building empathy, forging relationships that bring grace and meaning and a sense of purpose. And even in the darkest times, that can make a world of difference — take it from me.