Civics Without Borders

Written by Anna Waggener. Follow her at @AnnaWaggener.

My parents grew up 9,000 miles apart.

They met in letters, sticking stamps to envelopes filled with photographs and stories, learning the tenor of one another’s voices without talking on the phone. My mother’s voice has always been a strong one. Brash, begging no apologies. She was the community organizer who fought for rights and humane treatment in Bangkok’s slums, who joined the Southeast Asian chorus of Yankees go home during the Vietnam war.

The first time my mother received a letter from my father, she said to her friends, “But he’s an American.”

My father’s voice is quieter, more methodical. He’s the Yankee social worker, the one-time journalist with thousands of books. The one who sees the nuances in every argument and worries over them.

My parents connected over politics—over war, over inequality, over the environment, over the way people build bridges or talk past one another. They each had strong opinions which were shaped by their relationship, and which certainly shaped me.

The author with her mother.

The author with her mother.

This is the family that raised me. I grew up believing in the value of community service and the power of protest without truly understanding the political world both were rooted in. I was raised to be political, but not necessarily to work within the system. I had protest posters on my walls and books on organic farming in my bookshelf, but these pieces of my identity—like being Thai or being American—felt assigned, not earned.

In high school, I began to develop my own viewpoints through government classes and debate activities. In a world so full of opinions, elections became a straightforward and private way to express my own feelings on social and economic issues. I followed races I wasn’t old enough to vote in, and I studied both sides until an interest in current events and politics became part of my identity in and of itself.

The author with her father.

The author with her father.

As I learned which issues truly resonated with me, I began to view voting in a different light. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, and no matter how engaged you are in your community or in current events in daily life, casting a ballot is a way to check in with yourself and recalibrate your moral compass. At its best, Election Day is an expression of collective internal soul-searching.

When I vote, I make a statement to myself about what matters to me. It’s a statement without pretense: no one else can know what I put on that ballot. As I tick off the boxes, I fill in the gaps of my identity. I allow myself to be the child of two people with strong political opinions. I allow myself to be a citizen of a nation with 319 million voices. I allow myself to take part in shaping the future of my country.