Two years ago I traveled with a small group of Vineyard women to the first Massachusetts conference of Indivisible.Org. Afterward, I wrote an essay for this paper about my experience. At the time, not only was I new to writing essays, I was new to the groundswell of grassroots activism happening in our country. I was upset, disappointed, and mad as hell about the 2016 election, and I knew inaction wasn’t working for me. I had been to the Boston Women’s March months before, but I found myself constantly agitated, asking myself, Now what? Through the advice of a friend, I joined our local Indivisible chapter, and began my activism. I referred to it as my “medicine,” and I still do. Some days I find myself needing to up the dose by educating myself through accredited, well-written books, political actions, or just a much-needed conversation with a like-minded friend.
Friday, Dec. 6, I traveled again to the same Indivisible conference with the same group of Vineyard women. Not only have we continued our activism together, we have “10-folded” it in many ways. I should mention here a peeve of mine. It is when one bestows an unearned title upon oneself. I believe you must work for it to be the real deal. My friend Carla, founder of MVY Indivisible, is the real deal. She has printed on her business card, “Carla Cooper — Activist,” and that lady has earned it.
So we real-deals driving up to this year’s Indivisible conference were looking forward to hearing keynote speaker Ayanna Pressley, and being surrounded and inspired by 500 of our fellow activists — men and women who for the past three years have worked tirelessly, organizing hundreds of thousands of citizens around the country in becoming active. These people, hands down, were instrumental in the results of our historic 2018 elections. Privately, I wondered, would we be doing this again had we not won the House, and more important, would there even be a second conference taking place? The answer to that, fortunately, we will never know.
On this trip, we had newcomer Caroline Miller with us. We knew we had a winner, a real-deal, when she plowed ahead after a miscommunicated text from us. We thought she meant see you “there” as being there at the hotel in Worcester, not the ferry terminal in Woods Hole, which is what she thought “there” meant. When we realized this mistake, we were already an hour out from Woods Hole. Having never met Caroline, I thought she would say, “Oh well, I tried, see you when you get back,” but not this woman. She had quickly bought herself a bus ticket to Boston, and was on her way. But it just so happened the Cape Cod Indivisibles going to the conference were heading toward the Bourne Bridge at the same time. So from our car, Carla text-piloted their hookup at the bridge, and well, all’s well that ends well. We three in the car were quite impressed with our newbie, and discussed whether we would have had that kind of determination ourselves. Since we weren’t personally put to the test, we quickly changed the subject!
“You know it never has been easy/ Whether you do or you do not resign/ Whether you travel the breadth of extremities/ Or stick to some straighter line.” –Joni Mitchell, “Hejira,” 1977
At the beginning of the trip, while sitting at the table on the ferry, I thought — What is the source, what is the fuel for this passion, this “fire in the belly” that one must keep burning to go on? What is it that compels a person to not only contemplate activism or run for office, but to actually step up to the plate and do it? Is it learned; is it in your family’s DNA? Was there someone who stepped in your path one day and planted this life-altering seed with words that eventually ignited the flame? Personally, I think it is just essentially who you are, and you have never been one to be deflated by the self-defeating thought of, Who the hell am I to be doing this? And neither are you one who becomes paralyzed with inaction or spiritually wounded by the words spoken from critical minds that say, Who do you think you are to be doing this? I say this because I have been asked this very question. And I say, We are the ones whose straight line points directly to the goal line, the prize, oblivious to any and all of the naysayer noise.
Being curious about this characteristic, I asked each woman on our trip what personally fires them up, keeps them motivated. Holly McKenzie, chairperson for the M.V. Dems, who describes herself as a community organizer, says what fires her up is the future, the future for everyone, not just her children and her grandchildren. She thinks of the day when she is bouncing her grandchildren on her lap, and they ask, “Grandma, what did you do when our country and the planet’s future was at risk?” She wants to honestly be able to say, “Everything humanly possible, kiddo, I fought like hell for you, for everyone.” An honorable legacy for anyone to be working toward, I’d say.
Kathy Laskoski, our driver once again, said in her home while growing up, she saw her parents doing acts of kindness for people who had less than they did, not that they had much themselves. This stayed with her — the fight for the underdog. She says now with her children being grown, she has much more time to devote to different groups, MVY Indivisible being one. And what she finds personally rewarding is working with similar people on meaningful causes. What inspires and motivates her? It’s the friendships she has formed through her activism. And quoting her husband, “Things don’t change themselves, people change things,” she says she wants to be a part of that — people changing things.
Carla Cooper’s first recollection of a “fire in the belly” moment was back in grade school in the 1970s. She decided to buck the school’s “girls could not wear shorts but the boys could” dress code. Though she wasn’t a fan of shorts wearing herself, this infuriated her. She convinced two other brave souls to wear shorts with her one day, which of course landed the three of them in the principal’s office. The principal asked who was the ringleader (I remember hearing that question a few times myself). Both of the other girls head turned in her direction. She remembers this being the first time the word “leader” was used in reference to her. So after the 2016 elections, when that same little girl’s outrage and fearlessness reared its head again, she went into action. She says it was the same feeling as the “great shorts revolt” she had in her youth. Carla says she gets up every morning determined to be one snowflake in a blizzard of resisters fighting for fairness and equal justice.
The fuel for my fire in the belly? It’s simple: I am a hopeless animal lover, so I fight for our planet and the innocent creatures being affected by climate change. Whom do I fight for? It’s simple too: I fight for Nathan Hale. That brave young man, 243 years ago, gave his life for our liberty, not this abomination. So Nathan and all you lions, and tigers and bears out there, I do this for you; you are my inspiration.
The challenges the majority of us are facing every day can be distracting, depressing, and exhausting. But everyone needs to know there are many things they can contribute, no matter how small. Personally I cannot do the things Holly, Kathy, and Carla can do, so I do what I can. And the important takeaway for me from both conferences is this: There are millions of us contributing our unique talents, and collectively it has added up to make one powerful movement. And on the days when I feel overwhelmed by our country’s crisis, this knowledge helps soothes those feelings, along with the fact that there are countless men and women in nooks and crannies all over this country working together, buoyed by one another’s strengths and talents, all in lockstep, putting one constitutional foot in front of the other, all knowing it never has been easy — and it never will.