When I set out for Washington, DC to participate in the Women’s March this past January, I intended to return to campus and write an article about the wonderful, life-changing experience of joining a global movement for equality, solidarity and change. It was wonderful, and it was life-changing and I would love to spend the next 700-odd words reliving the empowerment and inspiration of it all. That said, nothing I could say about the experience could convert the critics and naysayers, and I would essentially be wasting this allotted space by reminiscing on an event that is now in the past. Instead, I would like to share my experience of spending inauguration weekend in the political capitol of the United States and what I learned about how we can move forward after a divisive presidential election.
I walked the streets surrounding the National Mall on the afternoon of Trump’s inauguration. I walked those same streets 24 hours later as part of the Women’s March, and I witnessed them transform. Chants of “Build the Wall” evolved into, “No hate, no fear: immigrants are welcome here” overnight. Bright red “Make America Great Again” caps were replaced by pink, knitted feline headwear. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that between Friday and Saturday, I had traveled to a different world.
Between Inauguration Day and the Women’s March, I saw first-hand the chasms that divide our country – they are deep and they are raw. On Friday, I witnessed the tension between the supporters and protesters of the new president as they threw insults, threats and personal attacks across the streets of downtown Washington. The following afternoon, I marched alongside tens of thousands of individuals who were angry and afraid because they could no longer trust a government that is supposed to protect its citizens, yet were nonetheless hopeful for change. Washington DC, a microcosm of the United States, was split in two: half were celebrating the victory of their candidate and half were mourning the loss of a nation they thought they once knew.
After an overwhelming weekend, I returned to Minnesota, confounded by the daunting task that lay ahead. I needed to find some sort of tangible solution to combat the hate and fear that I had watched preying upon our country’s people and politics. The Women’s March was a remarkable experience, but I didn’t want to settle back into busy college life and forget the incredible passion and empowerment it had filled me with. I didn’t want to throw out my quippy protest sign and my pink pussy hat and rid myself of the reasons that I decided to march in the first place.
But there is no simple answer to the question of where to begin. I am only one person, and I cannot repair a rigid, bipartisan system that seems to push itself further apart each day. However, I also recognize that what occurred over the course of this past election cycle serves as proof that our nation’s problems cannot be labelled as solely political: they’re interpersonal and they’re happening around us all the time. They are destroying the sense of shared humanity and national pride that United States has always boasted about.
If we are going to bridge divides on a national level (and, after recent student demonstrations on campus, I believe that this is a common goal among the student body) we must begin by building common ground over the next four years to use as a foundation for change. This means resisting the urge to turn a classmate into “the enemy” based on who they voted for, where they were born or what they post on Facebook. It means remembering that, regardless of how a neighbor identifies themselves, they are just as human as you. It means participating in real conversations – a term that we all know and love – instead of judging, unfollowing or attacking others for their seemingly opposing views. It means actively refusing to accept hateful rhetoric, vandalism, racism, misogyny and sexual assault as representations of who we collectively are as a college, and it means holding others accountable to do the same.
We are lucky to live and work within a community that encourages mutual respect and acceptance for individual differences, but we don’t always embody that expectation as students. We have both the obligation and the opportunity to foster a community that cares for and acknowledges the inherent worth of each of its members and celebrates its diversity, yet we repeatedly fall short of the ideals that we came here to live out. I have profound respect and pride for this student body and its passion to bring forward important problems and make change, but if we want our actions to have poignant positive effects in the “real world,” we must stop undermining ourselves by perpetuating the intolerance that we should be resisting.
There is work to be done. There are repairs to be made and wounds to heal, and if we want that to happen in government, we have to begin with the people. If there is one thing that I learned from my weekend in Washington it is that there is still hope, but the only way to move forward is by unearthing the empathy, acceptance and civility that somehow got buried under a mountain of hateful political rhetoric. Even if our country is the most divided that it has been in decades, there is still potential for change and amends, and that process can begin a lot closer to home than we might think.
Emily Cardinal ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Young America, Minn. She majors in theater.