Hawley: Active involvement in local politics can teach importance of civic engagement

Rachel Hawley, Op-Ed Contributor

On the night of April 4, I found myself in a room full of well-dressed, nervous-looking adults who gathered with bated breath as I repeatedly hit refresh on a laptop connected to a large projector screen. Online election trackers showed what seemed impossible: with 47 of 50 precincts reporting and approximately 17,500 ballots cast, Steve Hagerty was trailing Mark Tendam in the Evanston mayoral election by only eight votes.

And as I hit refresh for what might have been the 100th time, a sudden cry of joy broke out around me.

By now, you probably know that Steve Hagerty claimed victory in the mayoral race Tuesday by 159 votes. I was fully prepared for a competitive general election race and potentially tight results, but I never could have expected it would be this close.

Three weeks after Donald Trump won the presidential election, I decided to join Northwestern Students for Steve Hagerty feeling scared, helpless and overwhelmed by the urge to do something constructive for my community in the wake of national upheaval. When I first signed up to volunteer, I took a chance on Steve, uncertain if he was truly the best candidate to be Evanston’s mayor. In meeting Hagerty and his team, however, I quickly became enraptured by their dedication to effecting positive change in Evanston. Throughout our strategy sessions and rides to the campaign office, I started visualizing a path forward for my own political engagement in the Trump era: one defined by positivity, genuineness and dedication to serving the community, even amid a backdrop of fear and uncertainty in Washington, D.C.

Students for Steve Hagerty has recently become infamous across campus for our unrelenting enthusiasm about municipal politics. We’ve taped down way too many ground flyers, endured frigid weather to hand out hot chocolate, pestered people at The Arch day after day and sent out endless series of emails. As a group, we are intensely passionate about local politics, a subject that can all too often seem trivial and inconsequential.

The truth is, most individuals are often affected by their local government far more than state or federal governments. Throughout the United States, cities like Evanston face issues — including homelessness, fair housing, police accountability, racial equality and youth empowerment — each and every day. And solutions only begin with effective local government that can actively engage with all citizens, including NU students.

Through spending long days on the campaign trail, I learned it’s much easier to dismiss these concerns rather than discuss them. And remaining complacent or finding reasons to ignore important problems is much less difficult than truly leaning in, considering them sincerely and caring even when caring means making hard choices.

Throughout my life, I have frequently been offered a choice between passionately engaging in a way that leaves me vulnerable to criticism and shrouding myself in a protective layer of cynicism. I’ve often chosen the latter because disapproval and mockery hurts. I can’t say getting hung up on while phone banking, receiving rude emails and hearing criticism of Steve Hagerty and our group’s dedication to him didn’t sting. What I can say, however, is that every genuine and passionate conversation I’ve had about working to solve Evanston’s issues has filled me with a feeling of hope and determination that makes enduring all the challenges more than worth it.

I want to be stupidly, absurdly excited about municipal government for the rest of my life. I’m inspired by the idea that we can break through the hatred and fear-mongering that has consumed the national political arena and create governmental change that actually has the potential to affect people’s lives for the better — one phone call and admittedly annoying poster at a time. That sense of purpose is the gift that Students for Steve Hagerty has given to me.

Rachel Hawley is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.