Speech: Activism in the Modern Age

Peace Week 2018 – Valencia Winter Park Campus

Hi, everyone! My name is Laura Worrell. I am a student, soon to be graduate, of Valencia as well as an employee here in on the Winter Park campus. But I was asked to speak not because of either of those titles. It is actually because I am a candidate for Casselberry Commission. The election was supposed to have ended on August 28th, so this would have been done as a reflection, but that just isn’t how the cards fell.

That said, before we get started, a couple quick disclaimers. First, I am a local candidate that will appear on the ballot November 6th, but this is not about my campaign. This is about sharing my experience in breaking the mold in hopes of fostering activism in my generation and change in my lifetime. Second, most the questions I ask are not rhetorical- this is a talk and a discussion, not a lecture. Third, this will NOT devolve into a political argument. We are here to talk about getting involved.

So. The fun stuff. When I say the word, ‘politician,’ what do you picture? When I typed ‘politician’ into Google Images, these are literally the first ten images that popped up.

That’s probably at least in part because of the current demographics of Congress. It is the OLDEST Congress ever- and this is number 115. I want you to really listen to these stats. The average American is 20 years younger than their representatives at the federal level. Despite record numbers of women and minorities, nearly 80% of Congress is male and nearly 80% of Congress is white.

Fortunately, I am part of a wave- one I did not know existed until a month into the campaign. There are more women running for office on November 6th than ever before! AND there is a wave of young people not only taking to the polls, but as candidates themselves. Extreme example. Vermont had a 14-year-old run for governor! We could argue for days on the reason for such influxes, but I don’t want to host a political debate.

What I do want to do is inspire. See, this whole thing started with a class here at Valencia. I had to take a state and local government course and ended up taking it online. In short, the course itself was nothing more than a GPA booster, but the final paper prompt had unforeseen consequences. We were told to examine a local issue and detail the government’s response. I chose a very grassroots movement- Skate 32707. A local father had been advocating for years for a skatepark in Casselberry and had just started another major push for it. So I began attending commission meetings regularly, meeting the people in City Hall, researching both the support and opposition of the skatepark. In that, I learned that my city commission functioned like a board of directors for a business: they don’t generate the topics, they just vote yay or nay on making them happen. Basically, the conclusion I came to was that the City Commission just wasn’t listening all that well anymore. People would speak to them, proposals would be made, and even staff was reluctant to respond.

Side note- since then, I have learned it is even more two sided than that with bad blood from decades ago and, of course, the very slow pace government must maintain. Also the Sunshine Laws play a major part in the communication barrier.

Regardless, this campaign has been an invaluable experience. I will never interact with my government, local or otherwise, the same way. Knowing how things work from both sides of the fence has given me a unique perspective on how to tackle the major issues like identity and communication and collaboration. I have also had to learn to ask for help. But it also transformed Casselberry from the place I lived into my hometown. I have seen more of Casselberry, good and bad, than I even knew existed. I have made connections across Central Florida, and even across the country, and have the opportunity to hopefully inspire and help others become involved in how our neighborhoods, cities, and country are run. In short, it embodies what the Once-ler says in Dr. Suess’s ‘The Lorax:’

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

But why me? And why you?  What changes can we really make on our own? We all see areas that need improvement, but why does it have to be us who pushes for change when we already have so much on our plate? We are nobodies with no power. Even if we vote, it doesn’t make one lick of difference. Instead, we content ourselves by complaining to each other about the general state of affairs over coffee while in cushy chairs in the corner of Starbucks.

Let’s put things into perspective. How do you think Susan B Anthony started her push for women’s right to vote? More than likely, her first fellow activists were first her friends who supported her passions perhaps when discussed over afternoon tea or something. Let’s go even further back- how do you think the Second Continental Congress- the body of men who had the balls to mail the king of England a Declaration of Independence- really started talking about independence? It wasn’t on the floor of the House, I’m sure. More likely over beers at the bar across the street! And some of the Founding Fathers were not the old farts we all picture them as:

  • Benjamin Franklin was 70
  • George Washington was 44
  • John Adams was 40
  • Thomas Jefferson was 33
  • James Madison was 25
  • Alexander Hamilton was 21
  • James Monroe was 18

Imagine being 18 and having the guts to say, “I’m done waiting. I want to change the world.”

But, I digress. Back to our corner of Starbucks. Technically you are right in your doubts. What can we really accomplish on our own? Little, if anything. But the key word here is “OWN.” No man is an island, there is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ so on and so forth. Movements, changes, marches, take hundreds or thousands of people. It takes commitment- sometimes that of a lifetime. But it is not a singular entity; it is a chorus of voices rallying around an individual. For instance, as a candidate, I represent the voices of my supporters in Casselberry and the hopes for all those who have supported my campaign. A hope for a better tomorrow through honest and dedicated leadership with a focus on the long road, not the short term. WE can make a difference in our school, in our city, in our country, in our reality. <zoom out slide?>

Now the real question isn’t why we should be involved. The question we should ask how.

A quick note on voting as that is typically considered the easiest way to ‘be an activist.’ One of the most common excuses I have heard for why people don’t vote is that it doesn’t matter. What can my single vote do? Keep in mind that our electoral system is primarily based on supermajorities meaning you have to have 50% + 1. Single. Vote. Just please take a moment to look over your sample ballot before you fill in random bubbles.

I became an activist by accident. While I am opinionated, I love learning. It doesn’t even really matter the topic, so long as it presents new facts. And I am also the kind of person to act, not on impulse, but quickly. When I see something wrong, I compulsively try to fix it. I have a knack for this collecting of information, but also a skill for relaying that information. My father is actually the inspiration behind my career choice. He is a geneticist at the National Institute of Health right outside Washington, DC. He is an intelligent scientist and a brilliant man. But he literally cannot dum down biology enough to explain it to someone without a science background. I can. Hence why I have become an activist. I stand for science. I stand for communication. I stand for the average citizen because i have learned to straddle worlds.

But my path very definitely followed a line of progression, an experience that has been shared by many “accidental activists.”

First step: find something you believe in. For me, it was originally my love of science. That is the reason for my chosen career path in Science Communications. But I am also 100% passionate about communication. I believe most of our problems on a societal level stem from and could be solved with better communication and better education on the issues. The deficit of both in Casselberry is why I am running. So what do you believe in?

Second step: find someone to back, even if it is yourself. A great message is all well and good, but accomplishes nothing without a voice. Or a multitude of voices. My voice is backed by research and commitment and has grown in weight because of the 1,100 people who voted for me in August. With the power I have been given, even as just a candidate, I can make changes in the world around me; I can literally alter our reality. This is how changes are made; this is why grassroots movements can be so effective if applied correctly. And, when picking someone or something to support, think long term. Yes, shelters can provide housing for the homeless for a few nights, but how does that help them get off the street? Telling a teacher you sympathize with their plight and hate how much they have to spend on their own classroom may make them feel better, but it doesn’t change the situation in the schools or their bank accounts. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a poignant quote in one of his earlier sermons,

“I admire the good samaritan, but I don’t want to be one. I don’t want to spend my life picking up people by the side of the road after they have been beaten up and robbed. I want to change the Jericho road, so that everybody has an opportunity for a job, education, security, health.”

So think about that passion of yours. Those are grand ideas, but what can you do to change reality, not just today?

The third step is what I consider the hardest. Many people have their passions and know how to reach out. But step three is to actually do it. And this doesn’t mean you have to run out and become a politician. It doesn’t mean you have to refuse to give up your seat on the bus. You just have to show up.