This Is What #MyDemocracy Looks Like

by Annie Leonard

March 28, 2016

I’m starting to think of our democracy like learning a language. You’ve got to use it or lose it! Here's how I've been trying to stay in practice.

© Greenpeace / Michael Nagle

Exercising our democratic right to free speech has been important in my family for as long as I can remember. I was raised by a public school nurse. Every election season would see the teachers and school nurses defending funding to provide high quality education and care for public school students. On many elections, I remember joining the teachers and nurses holding signs urging voters to support schools at the ballot.  

Looking back I guess it’s no surprise that I find activism so gratifying; it’s been a common thread throughout the different phases of my life, and one that connected me with others.

I was at college during the apartheid era of South Africa. Disgusted by the two tier system in South Africa which sanctioned privilege for some and the abuse of others, I joined with fellow students at my college to demand that our administration divest from any South African investments. We blockaded key university buildings, taking turns  sleeping in front of the doors for weeks. When Nelson Mandela was finally freed, it felt good to have taken a stand against apartheid and to feel even a small connection to that historic moment.  

When my daughter was just 4 months old, I took her to her first big protest – the 1999 opposition to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in my hometown of Seattle – which turned out to be one of the biggest moments so far in the history of the anti-globalization movement. It was an incredible, diverse gathering of more than 70,000 people, holding teach-ins, strategy sessions and art builds which led to some unexpected but effective alliances like the “Teamsters and turtles” – a blue-green collaboration between the Teamsters (trade unions) and environmentalists. On the day of the biggest planned WTO protest march, I did ultimately stay at home with my baby after hearing rumors of possible police brutality. We watched the events on TV, knowing this wouldn’t be the last time we’d take action together.

Activism feeds the soul and contributes to psychological well being.

I find that the best antidote to despair is getting involved with others to make change. Social scientists have studied the factors that most contribute to happiness and emotional well being; the things that rank highest are having a sense of purpose or meaning in life, working with others towards shared goals and having strong social networks and community. Activism provides all these things!

I’ve been in the privileged position to take action alongside and on behalf others – whether that’s blocking toxic discharge pipes in the Mississippi River or marching with the women of Bhopal – without having to worry for my own physical safety. On average 2 people are killed each week protecting the environment, like the shocking assassination of Berta Càceres just a few weeks ago. Every minute I protest I am aware that I don’t face those risks, which makes me want to use and defend our political space even more.

I truly believe that activism is good for our democracy. It’s not only America’s physical infrastructure – our roads and bridges – that are in decay from neglect, but our democratic ones too.

We need to resuscitate our democracy and protect our democratic space by using it. The more we protest, lobby, march, advocate, and participate in collective civic activities, the more we shift the scale from a corporate controlled democracy to a people-powered one.

So I’m starting to think of our democracy like learning a language. You’ve got to use it or lose it! That’s why I’ll be at the Democracy Awakening on the weekend of April 16-18. I hope you will be too. [click here to register].


Annie Leonard

By Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard is the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. Leonard began her career at Greenpeace in 1988 and has returned to help the organization inspire and mobilize millions of people to take action to create a more sustainable future together. She is based in San Francisco.

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