Remaining Hopeful When Stormclouds Gather: A Primer on Post-Election Design Activism
On the night of the election, I watched his speech from a flat screen TV in my expensive apartment lobby. I’d gone to a party, first, and then to a friend’s house, thinking that the returns would come in and the election would be called in a way that was different from the way things seemed to be going, but then I couldn’t bear to watch anymore. I watched John Podesta send the Hillary supporters home from a house up in the Berkeley Hills, and then I drove twenty minutes down the Thirteen to my building. By the time I’d parked the car in our stacked garage matrix, my candidate had conceded.
“How do I teach tomorrow?” I tweeted, rhetorically. Or maybe it wasn’t rhetorically. I was scheduled to teach the next morning at 8 a.m., the same way I’d taught every Monday and Wednesday ever since my freshman writing seminar had started at the end of August.
The class was about Zaha Hadid. I called it “Forms, Function, Figures.” I liked the alliteration; it made it seem serious. We started the seminar by talking generally about architecture, looking at pictures of Dame Hadid, at her paintings, her models, renderings, photographs. Comparing pictures of her to pictures of, say, Frank Gehry, or Norman Foster. The third week of class, I asked my students to raise their hands if they were feminists. Almost all of their arms shot up, but one student only half-raised her hand. “I’m just not sure what that word means,” she said.
So we talked about what it means. We decided that feminism means paying attention to the work that women do as much as we pay attention to their Issey Miyake capes. (The fact that I remember that Hadid wore Issey Miyake capes is a sign that I need more feminism). That it meant pursuing our interests, even if these were interests in things like engineering or diplomacy, that had somehow been seen as male. That it meant not smiling and getting out of the way just because a man was walking towards us. That it meant listening to women as much as we listen to men.
In class, I drew direct parallels between Zaha Hadid and Hillary Clinton. My students often referred to Dame Hadid as Zaha and Secretary Clinton as Hillary. Should we refer to Gehry as Frank and he-who-shall-not-be-named as Donald? I tried to get them to, but some habits are deeper than pedagogy.
I tried to be neutral, at first. But as the election came closer, my personal leanings became more apparent. Do not be concerned: I am already on the Professor Watchlist; I added myself when the American Association of University Professors requested that names be added in overt protest. In class, I drew direct parallels between Zaha Hadid and Hillary Clinton. My students often referred to Dame Hadid as Zaha and Secretary Clinton as Hillary. Should we refer to Gehry as Frank and he-who-shall-not-be-named as Donald? I tried to get them to, but some habits are deeper than pedagogy.
I encouraged them to vote. “Do what you feel in your hearts is right,” I would say. And then in the next breath, “and I’ll remind you that we’re studying a strong woman.” It seemed like they would all vote for Hillary, at least the ones who could vote. There was one who was too young. Another who wasn’t a citizen.
The night of the election, my friend, who is also a teacher, told me to go to sleep. “They need you tomorrow.” I had Muslim students. I had female students. How would I tell them that I would protect them, that I would fight for them?
I wore all black on Wednesday, November 9th, but I also wore my ass-kicking sneakers and a wonder woman t-shirt that I’d bought in Albuquerque during an ill-advised desert stint two years ago. One of my favorite students was also wearing all black. “Is your all-black on purpose?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, and then showed her the superheros shirt.
Most of them were crying. Usually I stand, in class, but his time I sat. And I told them a story.
I told them a story about a time that I had been afraid, but I had realized that maybe it was more important to be afraid and do a thing than be afraid and not do a thing. I told them a story about a time that I had wanted someone else to take care of something that I knew was wrong, but I had realized that maybe that someone else had to be me. I told them a story about how important I believed their right to an education was, and what I was willing to do to fight for it.
A week after the election, I read Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark. It was written during the beginning of the Bush Administration, when I was in college and completely myopic in my attentions, and felt that politics was a thing that happened but to other people. I went to Princeton. My parents will never let me starve. And yet, things happened. I graduated and didn’t have a job and so I didn’t have health insurance. It was just understood that the only way to get health insurance was to have a job. To have no pre-existing conditions. My friends told me to be careful what I admitted to; that anything could become a pre-existing condition. One day, sitting at my benefits-free publishing internship, I noticed a red mark on my leg. There seemed to be a red line traveling up my leg towards my groin, below the skin. A college friend had once had a similar red line that had traveled up her arm. She’d gone to the doctor and the doctor had said, “Thank god you came in because that was an infection going to your heart.”
I walked out and found a doctor’s office, and went in, and told the receptionist that I didn’t have insurance but I was so worried about the line going up my leg. The doctor agreed to see me. I cannot think why he would do this. He said that he could see me, but he couldn’t touch me, because that wasn’t allowed, because I wasn’t insured, because he wasn’t my doctor. So he stood on the other side of his office and I lifted my pant leg and showed him the line, and he said, “That’s OK, you’re fine,” and I sobbed from desperation, from not having a doctor, from not having care, from feeling alone, from feeling like all I wanted was someone else to take care of things.
I joined the freelancer’s union, which required a lot of complicated faxing, but then I got health insurance.
The morning after the election, I told my students, “I survived eight years of Bush; we can do this,” but I didn’t believe it, not really, and besides, what a selfish thought: There were so many who didn’t survive eight years of Bush.
Hope in the Dark is a book of linked essays about how to have hope when times seem horrible. Solnit takes the long view. Her basic argument is that good things happen at the same time as bad things happen, and that revolution is long and slow.
Hope in the Dark is a book of linked essays about how to have hope when times seem horrible. Solnit takes the long view. Her basic argument is that good things happen at the same time as bad things happen, and that revolution is long and slow. She also argues that we often don’t know where the seeds of revolution and change are planted, that it happens so subtly and over such a long period of time that we can’t see when we start where we will end up. She urges us to try and do the things anyway, because we are fundamentally good and the actions we take fundamentally matter.
I became a yoga teacher this year. I did the training just to see if I could, and I did, and now I’m a yoga teacher and I can look at a body and tell where it hurts. Maybe I could do that before; now I just have a reason. Because of what I’d learned in teacher training, I took two minutes of meditation to set an intent every day of class. In the beginning, the intent was to breathe into nervousness and turn it into excitement. What was our intent the day after the election? To be together.
Since the election, there have been so many posts and memes and calls to action. I’ve signed up for all of them. I did everything. I called the Department of Justice; I called my senators. I sent Mike Pence a message about my period, and then about getting an IUD, and then about getting it out. I tweeted at Paul Ryan telling him that I couldn’t possibly have had enough of a nest egg to pay for the $90,000 brain surgery that followed my $80,000 hospitalization and preceded my $90,000 heart surgery and my two $60,000 ovarian surgeries. I am a walking pre-existing condition. It is a miracle I am walking.
I told my students that I would fight for them. And they reminded me that they are fighting for me.
Sometimes I feel like my role now is to be a person who’s been through terrible things, on a microcosmic scale, but terrible things, and to say that it can be done. I know how to life with terror, and fear, and grief.
Hope in the Dark is about the tiny changes that add to something bigger and greater than we could ever have imagined. Sometimes I feel like my role now is to be a person who’s been through terrible things, on a microcosmic scale, but terrible things, and to say that it can be done. I know how to live with terror, and fear, and grief. I know what it is to feel desperate every waking second (and every sleeping one), for weeks and months on end. I recognize the feeling that I feel now, when I read the news, and when I scroll Twitter, and when I see what’s happening on Facebook.
And yet I have hope. I have hope because of the way that my students were. Because of the way that they are. Every single one came to class, and brought her best self. The men brought their best selves too. They cried. They listened while I cried. And to them I say, you are the seeds. You are the hope. We are in the dark now, but we are together.
There will be times where I want someone else to do this for us. There will be times when someone else has to. But there will also be times, maybe more than we thought possible, when it’s our turn. I believe that we can take them.
Featured image via the-world-is-my-cloister.com.