Overcoming Fear of Feeling the Bern

Some people will read my account of attending three Bernie Sanders events and think I have a long way to go before I’m able to call myself “politically involved”. I agree, but I wanted to share my experience with taking the first steps toward active involvement. Before embarking on this journey, I was incredibly nervous about showing up to volunteer at campaign events because of the classic millennial fear of awkwardness. I thought there’d be no way I would be able to hold my own in political conversations with the type of people who’d be volunteering for Bernie Sanders on a Saturday. I imagined a bunch of over-achievers around the same age as me spouting off fact-checked tidbits about income inequality and making me feel l was an outcast among activists.

Before the first event I participated in, I was terrified. As I walked towards a voter registration event in New York City, on 112th street and Broadway at Columbia University—right outside Tom’s Diner from Seinfeld—I almost turned back multiple times. I was alone, after asking numerous friends to come with me and finding that even my fellow Bernie supporters were too nervous, busy, or both, to accompany me. It was about a month and a half before the New York primary, volunteers approached people on the street to ask if they were registered to vote. The idea is simple enough, but the thought of approaching strangers in the middle of the street added an extra layer to the fears I had about the dynamics between the other volunteers.

I walked to a table decked out in Bernie signs and saw a few older volunteers handing out forms and clip boards. There was not one person my age in sight, certainly a disappointment (why weren’t 20-somethings coming out to these events) though the reasons revealed themselves. Oddly, I also found comfort because these older volunteers seemed enthusiastic about guiding me through the process. My fears were eased as I realized that a sort of passing of the torch was taking place among the main organizer, a man named Steve Max, and some of the other volunteers.

Next to conquer was the hurdle of taking my clipboard and voter registration form, situating myself outside of the New York Public Library, and asking passers by if they were registered to vote. Volunteers with their clipboards were scattered up and down the block, so at least I had some cushion as pedestrians passed by and were approached by my fellow Bernie supporters. Eventually I started to recite a refrain of, “Hi, are you registered to vote?” Almost everybody responded, “Yes.” Or a polite (and somewhat timid) “No, thank you.”

Eventually I got some more engaged responses, like “Woo-hoo! Feel the Bern!” Or, “Sorry, I’m voting for Hilary.” I fell into a rhythm with the people passing by and it became painless, because of the very thing that makes New York City so great—you’ll never see these people again.

Back at the table, I talked to Steve Max about his involvement in the Bernie campaign and found out that he was a lifelong activist, which fascinated me. I was so focused on my notion of campaigning and getting involved as scary and overwhelming, so it was refreshing to hear the point of view of someone for whom this seemed to be second nature.

“You probably won’t believe this, but I can remember campaigning for Franklin Roosevelt at the age of four,” he told me. “We’ve done everything. We started in September just signing up volunteers to build up the list. We built that up to about 425 people. We’re trying to keep it local. You know, in the same neighborhood all the time. Then we went to petitioning. We were the highest group except for one upstate in terms of getting the greatest number of petitions.”

He pretty much sticks to organizing events around the Upper West Side, which I think is great because it builds a sense of community, everything an idealistic Bernie supporter dreams of. By the time I left voter registration that day, I frankly felt great about myself and the world, although that didn’t totally stop me from nervously anticipating the next event, a primary results viewing party in the East Village.

This one was more passive, just a bunch of people at a restaurant watching the results of the Arizona primary and the caucuses in Idaho and Utah, but it was clear that there was a sense of community among those in attendance. Many of them told me they came to events regularly, and pointed me in the direction of the organizer Jessica Stokey.

Unlike Max, Stokey was new to political organizing, but wanted to get involved because of her fierce support for Bernie. “I just knew I wanted to volunteer,” she said. “I actually even signed the petition for him asking him to run. So I was following him from the beginning and trying to get involved and trying to volunteer before they even had a sign up to volunteer. Then the first thing that they were having people do was to organize events. And I’m actually kind of good at that, so I was like, ‘Perfect.’ It was sort of a no-brainer for me.”

The watch party event had a much more diverse range of people in attendance, and Stokey told me she thinks many volunteers are, in fact, getting involved for the first time. I shared with her my own nervousness about volunteering and my pleasant surprise at how rewarding and nice it was. “In terms of the experience overall, I actually want to write how working on the Bernie Sander’s campaign has made me a better person,” she told me. “It’s enriched me in ways I never expected. I wasn’t looking for personal growth. I was looking to support Bernie. It has literally changed my life.”

It might sound over the top, but I totally got what she was saying. These community-organized, grassroots volunteering events make you feel like you are really part of something. The people you meet all share a common view, based in appreciating that we are all different. It reminds you of all of the other humans around you on this earth and the fact that we all have a unique story. “My heart is open, my mind is open and I’ve been meeting the most incredible people and we are forming these friendships and alliances in ways that I think I was living in more of my own little bubble. My whole life has opened up,” said Stokey.

The third event I went to, which I am confident will not be my last, was canvassing. Although by this point I felt like I had legs to stand on, I was probably most nervous about this because all I knew was that canvassing entailed knocking on people’s doors, which seems like one step more awkward than approaching people on the street. That day, I learned that volunteers only knock on the doors of registered democrats, ask if they will be voting in the New York primary, and ask if they have decided who they will be voting for. If they have decided who they will vote for, but do not volunteer which candidate, the volunteer can delicately ask if they are leaning towards one candidate or the other. The answers to these questions are then recorded on a form.

Since starting this journey, I’ve had people say positive things to me. Friends seem to look at it as admirable or revolutionary. That would be great, even flattering, except for the fact that they are rarely able or willing to join in. Now, maybe deep down they’re all a bunch of Trump supporters and don’t want to tell me—but somehow I doubt that’s it. I think they share my initial feelings of anxiety toward awkwardness. A fear that political activism is for someone else, some other group that doesn’t include them. For a generation that has infinite knowledge in the palm of our hands, We seem to use the excuse that we “don’t know enough to get involved” quite often, but I found getting physically involved the best way to learn. Meeting individuals from different walks of life who shared my basic beliefs and thought process was emotional, validating and inspiring. When I first set out to get involved, I probably would have told you my job would be done by the time the primary rolled around, but now I realize that being a concerned citizen never ends. I’ll be voting on April 19, but there is so much more to devote my time and attention to – I’ll have to go beyond that. I hope others are willing to take those scary first steps as well.