Every voter in my country has a list of people who are supposed to represent them. People who they can, if they need to, call upon for help with public problems. For efficiency, these elected officials divvy up responsibility for responding to problems by geography and numbers, with those elected by fewer people responsible for more daily problems and those elected by greater numbers of people responsible for more systemic ones.
Public problems range from potholes to Post Office closures, from grandma not getting a visa to uncle being convicted unjustly. They are waking bureaucratic nightmares that consume their victims as the world goes on without them. They are problems that intersect with systems, with policies and with the government. They require collective action and thus are the perfect use of government.
I decided, as an experiment, to make a collective portrait of myself with everyone who represents me. From the King County Council to the President of the United States. Here it is:
The numbers in the portraits are the constituents to whom the pictured official is responsible. When I need to fix a public problem, I have a better chance of getting a response from my state Representatives or Senator, whose responsibilities lie in the range of 100k people, than from my President, who has over 300 million souls to work for.
A composite like this not only reminds me who I vote for and why, but also helps me see if my elected representatives in fact represent me in terms of experience and demographics. I’m proud to have 2 female U.S. Senators and 2 state reps who are LGBTQ. I am less thrilled that so many of the people who represent me are white men, but this is a problem that time and work can fix.
Seeing their photos makes their potential to influence my life and my feelings of ownership over their actions in my community more real. I think I am not the only person who needs this reminder, that elected officials can and often do serve the public in the individual unit and not just the collective.
I’ve called about 500 voters in the past week on behalf of a Congressional campaign. Most of those went straight to voicemails or the modem-esque squeals of an out-of-service number, but some were exciting and fruitful conversations. They reminded me of the things people hope for when they send a politician to Washington or Olympia or Town Hall; roads that won’t wreck our bike wheels and police that won’t beat our friends; safe water and treated sewage, non-discrimination clauses, and pet shelters. Those all require systems.
But sometimes, people don’t just need hope: they need specific help for a specific hurt. I didn’t realize how much of the work of governing is case management and personal advocacy until I interned for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco Office.
Like most elected officials, Senator Feinstein had staff whose time was dedicated in whole or in part with helping constituents (37 million of them at the time) interface with the government. This is the ground-floor of policy. People wrote for help–in summer 2008 often about their underwater mortgages–and case managers would track their issues through constructed systems, placing calls to contacts at federal agencies, following up and reporting out. It was exactly the type of work I would see case workers serving survivors of human trafficking do at Polaris 6 years later: social work.
The beauty of the current system is that elected representatives have staffs that do this social work, engage in this kind of retail politics, and then turn around to use those experiences to remold policy. The 2 roles are reinforcing. In the best cases, policies change to fit the ways people use the government and at the same time the ways people use the government change to fit policies.
I may pull together a few more of these portraits, since friends from Lancaster, PA to Mountain View, CA to Fairfax, VA have shown interest in me doing so. But whether I do or not, this project has helped to remind me of why politicians matter to their communities, and why the upcoming election will change lives.
I’m sure you were planning to, but remember to vote: it’s about more than ideas, it’s about getting the right people in office to impact people’s lives by representing them to their democratically elected government.
“Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” ― Alice Walker