Winter 2005: Far From Home
Last October, at the Licking County Democratic Headquarters in Newark, Ohio, I organized the stuffing and the distributing of about 20,000 blue plastic bags—the kind your newspapers come in— with fliers about local and national Democratic candidates.
More than 30 of us worked in a gray, nondescript room in an old and virtually deserted arcade, with a dirty carpet, three computers on loan, some folding tables and chairs, an old steel desk with jammed drawers, stacks of empty pizza boxes, a coffee pot and Styrofoam cups, a table full of buttons, bumper stickers and fliers, volunteer sign-up sheets, a wall of cartoons and news, and seven telephones whose cords snaked around tables and chairs, a tangled mess you had to be careful not to trip over. The phones, used every evening from Sunday to Thursday for polling, rang constantly during the day: People called to volunteer, wanting a new yard sign because the old one was stolen, asking where they were supposed to vote.
What was I doing there? I had chosen to spend a month of my sabbatical working for the Kerry campaign in a county where I used to live, believing that Ohio would be crucial in the election—and it was. I had never before done grassroots political work, and I volunteered because I wanted to play a role, however small, in electoral politics and the process that is so crucial to our country. I made use of this sabbatical time to volunteer as a private citizen, not as a college president.
I wanted to see, and be part of, American democracy in action. I was stunned to discover how many people—cutting across so wide a swath—felt just as I did. Who else was in that Ohio room? Esther, an environmental lawyer, who spent every day and evening at headquarters; her husband, Bill, who came almost nightly to escort the female volunteers to their cars; Andrea and Kelley, who were there daily to recruit volunteers; Kathleen, a young Gulf War vet who is now a maintenance worker at MacDonald’s. There was Dave, an Air Force retiree who works at Sears, and there was Max, who, at 3, labored intensely to color a big Kerry sign with red and blue markers. Active and retired professors, a librarian, a college admissions officer: They all worked with a passion that revealed their belief in this election as a defining moment for our country. Those 20,000 bags we stuffed were later distributed all over the county by local volunteers, 26 Sarah Lawrence students and two Sarah Lawrence faculty members.
I was in awe of these new colleagues. I shared their values, and that’s why I was there with them, canvassing neighborhoods, talking to thousands of people on the phone, making sure that people who registered to vote would get rides to the polls if they needed them. It was an experience I will never regret.
There is, however, a real issue when a college president gets publicly involved in political work. No matter how clear you are that your action is that of a private citizen, speaking not on behalf of an institution, but for yourself, many people don’t see it that way. How much does it stifle those students at Sarah Lawrence, I wondered, who do not share my beliefs? Will they feel less a part of the institution? Less welcome? Do they feel the weight of a perceived political orthodoxy? Some conservative students, and some for whom their faith is important, already do not feel embraced by a college where the majority of students and faculty are liberal, and where the campus culture reflects a long tradition of secularism.
On the other hand, Sarah Lawrence has a long, powerful history of activism that values and encourages personal engagement in the issues of the day. Perhaps it is not a bad thing to model such involvement for students. Those who came to Ohio over their fall break to work with me said they were excited that their president was involved in grassroots work. We emphasized that the trip was open to students of all political parties, and I had made arrangements with local Republican volunteers to host and work with students who came to volunteer at the Republican headquarters. None did. Did my party affiliation discourage students on the other side of the debate?
That is the danger, isn’t it? The College welcomes students of all views, all persuasions, all beliefs. If a particular position seems privileged by an official of the College, does it make it harder to work there for the students, faculty and staff who do not share her views? Does it eventually erode a sense of affiliation to the College for those alumnae/i of a different political persuasion?
I haven’t quite decided yet whether and how I will continue my political involvement. The reality of time limitations, given the demands of my work, may make the whole issue moot. I hope, however, there is room for someone in my position to be politically active in a responsible manner. I welcome your views on this issue.-Michele Tolela Myers