The art and game of politics isn’t for everyone. But for those of us who are passionate about our communities and who care deeply about social justice - it can be a bit of an addiction for which the only cure is to engage. There are many forms of politics - but it always boils down to one thing: winning an argument. The road to that finish line is often circuitous and long. It takes patience, wits and endurance. And, in today’s society of connectivity and instant gratification, that can seem incredibly frustrating.
The question we want to answer now is how to turn our passion for an issue into a day-job? Like anything else, you have to plan and design what you want. Set a goal and then go for it. I started my journey in school. I knew at a very young age that I loved politics so for me there was never any other option except there were different routes. I also loved communications and I understood that there was a need for legal understanding. I chose neither, instead over time, I realized that what I really understood and loved was policy.
Once Graduate School was over, I started to teach but the itch was still there - I wanted to go to Washington and make my contribution. I started by getting involved locally. I volunteered on small races for people running for Sheriff or County Commissioner. I got involved and started a chapter of a local civil rights organization. I engaged as a community organizer and volunteered for commissions. I also kept my eyes and ears peeled for a job in DC.
That’s when the lessons really began. Just getting the job was my first step into the art of politics. I had to figure out the ins and outs of the organization and who was in charge, make phone calls and basically argue my way in as to why I was the best candidate for this position. It paid off and I wound up in DC as the Director of Policy and Legislation for a Latino civil rights organization. Now, not everybody is that lucky. I had the education and I happened to be female which worked greatly in my favor. I also had the kind of background necessary for working in that type of environment and from my field work as an academic, I had the regional expertise as a border scholar - something nobody was doing when I started. Who knew that my passion for crossing borders into new worlds would become an entire career? The lesson here is you have to take what unique trajectory you already have chosen and translate it into something that people want once you’re ready to make your move.
There are many other more traditional ways of doing things. You could get an internship or a Fellowship in the state capital or in DC. There are many organizations that dedicate themselves to different aspects of politics. And you should explore all of them. Your passion for healthcare or for education does not limit you to that specific field in a traditional sense - it can enlarge into a larger dedication for the how to’s of the system in which those fields are practiced. Everything is regulated on some level and by that I mean there is a role for government. Where you go from there once you have your foot in the door is up to you.
The point is there are many pathways and none of them are wrong. Some folks go to their state party and start volunteering that way. They love building campaigns and talking to people about what they want to see in their elected leaders. Some of us are really interested in changing policies so that they are more beneficial to more people and can help do specific things like raise the minimum wage and address wage inequality; help create a true space for gender equality and reproductive rights; or reform the criminal justice system to stop targeting people of color and build a more balanced society. It’s all interconnected.
Once you understand that, the choice is up to you. Open your own pathways. Talk to people. Explore the possibilities. And don’t forget, where you start is rarely where you finish. Everything you do is but one step to your next one. Manifest your dream and join the fray. There’s a lot to do and the world needs you.
Dr. Lemus is the President of the Progressive Congress’, leading efforts to chart a new vision and strategic direction in close alignment with the vision of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
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