Why despair in the age of Trump means we need to know more, not less

Here’s what surprised me the most during Donald Trump’s first month in office – a period I prefer to think of as my first month with the Shadow Cabinet.

During each of the past four weeks, I’ve interviewed one remarkable woman: an immigration lawyer in New Mexico, a public-education advocate in Alaska, a business owner who promotes activism through art in Pennsylvania, and a Washington, D.C. innovator who made congressional pressure as easy as sending a text.

Before each chat, I was nervous, and not just because these women are powerful and extraordinary. I was nervous because they know so much about the problems facing our country, and are so in tune with populations and institutions at risk. I expected to learn terrible truths and come away the way I generally come away from the news: depressed and feeling helpless.

Instead, every time, I hung up the phone and practically ran up the walls with excitement. Allegra, Alyse, Maryam and Laura replaced my despair with energy.

I’m not saying they don’t experience the lowest of lows. We even discussed that, in some cases. But what they’re giving off is action, movement, progress, intensity.

Why? Here’s my theory: there’s a despair/engagement curve.

If you could magically know nothing about what’s going on the world, you might be happiest, sure – ignorance is bliss. That’s the origin on the despair/engagement axis. As you start reading the news, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, having superficial and gloomy conversations at work or in a taxi, your despair grows. Even as you make donations and calls and give back, you feel these are just drops in the bucket (and they are, even though enough drops will eventually fill it up).

But when get so involved that you actually have an impact, when you find your groove and your community, despair drops off again, at least sometimes. You are too busy, first of all, but I have a hunch it’s more than that. I think it’s because your mind is filled not just with issues, but also with people.

When Betsy DeVos got confirmed, all I saw was her face, but Laura Moser and Alyse Surratt Galvin saw the friends and friendly strangers who had come together to oppose her. When Maryam Pugh sees racism in the headlines day after day, she also sees the artists and writers she has helped bring together to combat it. When Allegra Love sees anti-immigrant sentiment – well, she in particular probably doesn’t even give it the time of day, because she has so many immigrants to help. I wish I could send her fifty lawyers and a year’s supply of toner.

Of course, these personal connections make what’s happening in the world that much more painful. That’s what love does: it raises the stakes. But it also drives out despair.

Depth of knowledge and a grasp of history can have a similar effect. It’s a heavy burden, a but that weight keeps a person steady: more cautious when others are euphoric, more thoughtful when others are devastated.

So when despair strikes, don’t step back. Step forward. Learn more, not less. Learning, more than anything else, was the common thread across all four interviews. Learn more about the legislative process. Learn more about your senator’s interns who answer the phone every day. Learn more about the odds facing an undocumented immigrant. Learn more about the history you missed and the writers who should have been on your bookshelf all along.

Am I walking that walk? Not really. I’ll be honest. I’m still struggling to make my Daily Action phone call an actually daily occurrence, for example. But with these four women as my inspiration, I’ve started taking myself back to school. I’m not a churchgoer, and in this age of Trump, facts might just become my religion, so I’m taking time every Sunday – not the length of a church service, mind you, more like the time I’d spend eating lemon squares at coffee hour – to sit down with a crumpled notebook and reading material that didn’t come off my Facebook feed. Alice Walker on womanism. The life story of Ida B. Wells. Gerrymandering. Housing rights. How a bill becomes a law. (More on ignorance in a future post, because, well, just get me to a confessional.)

Isn’t it unbelievably arrogant to think I can do any good just by studying? Why does it matter what’s between my ears? That question has held me back in the past, especially during a campaign year. Why know more, when the candidates are so far apart? Why know more, when it’s unimaginable that I’d support anyone across the aisle?

It matters because our country sure as hell has a lot to learn, and the only way for that to happen is for everyone in it to learn. It matters because our kids are growing up inside a mess and will need to be wiser than we are – which will only happen if we are at least as wise as our parents. In my case, I’ve got a long way to go on that score.

It matters even when we’re not sure what we’re going to do with it. Even when we feel foolish. Especially then.

We do it because that’s how a movement is built: one brain cell at a time, flicking on out of darkness.

Shadow Cabinet, a series of weekly interviews with women leaders and activists, is not just about telling stories, but also becoming a better citizen. After each month of interviews, I’ll pause to ponder how I can put each woman’s advice and example to work in my own life – and I’d love to hear what you’re thinking and learning about, too. Stay tuned for a new interview next Tuesday!


Our Interviews So Far…


Jan. 31, Immigration: Allegra Love, founder of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project – ‘Before you say you want to help, say you want to learn.’ Hear Love’s insights into how we can do a better job of supporting great local nonprofits without overwhelming them.


Feb. 7, Education: Alyse Surratt Galvin, Co-Founder of Great Alaska Schools – ‘This is grassroots, just authentic.’ Learn how she turned 19 pies into $16 million and infuses fun and creativity into her public-school advocacy.


Feb. 14, Arts and Activism: Maryam Pugh, founder of Philadelphia Printworks – ‘Can we bridge this gap?’ We talked about the divided nature of feminism, how activism meets art, and how the shirt on your back can spark a conversation.

laura-moser-1Feb. 21, Congressional Oversight: Laura Moser, the founder of Daily Action – ‘Making calls is the gateway drug to political involvement.’ The creator of a congressional calling service that helps hundreds of thousands of people keep the pressure on their elected officials chatted with Shadow Cabinet about newfound optimism, finding our voice, and her $30,000 phone bill.

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