Learning about Democracy, One Phone Call at a Time

Learning about Democracy, One Phone Call at a Time: Why early experiences with civic engagement matter

by Isa Ballard, Finance Manager

Like these people, I phone banked using a cool flip phone.

I stumbled into my first substantive experience with civic engagement. I was a sophomore in college, it was my first presidential election as an eligible voter, and I wanted to get involved but I wasn’t sure how, so I signed up to intern for a political campaign. A few times a week, I took a train, and then a bus, to the campaign office, which was located in an eerie, otherwise abandoned shopping mall in San Bernardino, California — a two-hour commute and a world away from the campus of my liberal arts college.

It was an eye-opening experience in ways I hadn’t expected. I had always been painfully shy, with a particular phobia of calling people on the phone; as a kid, even calling my friends’ houses and asking their parents if so-and-so was available to gossip would send me into paroxysms of panic. I was horrified to discover that on a political campaign, you spend most of your time doing “voter contact,” which means calling hundreds of strangers and inevitably interrupting them during dinner.

At first, I dialed every new phone number half-hoping that no one would pick up. But I had to pretend not to hate phone banking because part of my role was to train and encourage volunteers. And training volunteers was something I really did enjoy; our candidate was cruising toward victory, and it was fascinating to hear why all of these people — who came from all backgrounds and walks of life — had chosen to spend their spare time getting out the vote.

This was also the year of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that overturned same-sex marriage in California. I did a ton of voter contact on Prop 8 in a county that would ultimately vote two to one against marriage equality. It was a shocking, depressing setback for the LGBT rights movement, and it was a weird, lonely time for me to be making phone calls in a crumbling mall. I spent a lot of time thinking through how to channel my sadness and anger.

I was crushed by the passage of Prop 8, but ultimately, I was also motivated by it. Even though we lost, it felt like it mattered that I had made those phone calls, that I had chosen to take action on an issue that meant a lot to me personally. I realized that there was a lot more work to do to than I previously imagined — on gay marriage, and on other issues I cared about — and it was important to me to keep finding ways to do that work, in big and small ways throughout my life. This conviction has impacted a lot of decisions that I’ve made in my life; I even chose to work as a community organizer after graduation. That’s a job that requires a lot of talking to strangers, on the phone and in person, and I found that I had finally vanquished my phobia.

For me, all of this demonstrates the importance of early experiences with civic engagement. Getting involved matters on the larger scale of solving social problems, but it can also transform your individual civic identity, your sense of yourself as a member of your community, and your belief in your own agency to make an impact on the world around you. This was certainly true for me personally, and I think it’s crucial that as many young people as possible have the opportunity to have meaningful civic experiences. This doesn’t have to mean a political campaign, and it also doesn’t have to result in short-term successes; there are many ways to engage, and there’s a lot to learn even when progress is slow and incremental. Ultimately, we live in a country that every one of us can shape through active civic participation. Every young person deserves to understand their power.

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.