Welcome to this month’s edition of the Why I’m Political series. Don’t run off! I know the word “politics” can be scary and conjure up images of never-ending presidential debates. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about thoughtful women from both sides of the political aisle sharing what motivated them to take the leap into writing publicly about issues important to them — and what they’re focused on as we enter the 2012 election season.
Some of the women in this series are contributors to my recent book, Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (Bright Sky Press) , which explores the rise of women’s voices online.
This month, I interviewed Jaelithe Judy from The State of Discontent and MOMocrats about her essay, “Cynthia Davis is Right: Hunger is a Motivator,” which is about her experiences with childhood hunger. She was prompted to write that essay when Davis, then a Missouri State Representative, advocated that Missouri programs to help feed hungry children in the summer should be shut down to save money, suggesting that kids could just get a job at McDonald’s where they would get free food as employees.
Not surprisingly, Jaelithe had a few things to say about that, in her always thoughtful and eloquent style. Her post is extremely moving. I read an excerpt from her essay at a recent conference where I was speaking on a panel about storytelling, and I saw at least one person crying as I read Jaelithe’s words about the difference between being hungry and going hungry.
Jaelithe, who I have the honor of knowing through our work at MOMocrats, was very gracious about taking time out of her already overloaded schedule to chat:
What motivated you to become political and/or go public with your political views? Were you afraid of what your readers would think?
I’ve been interested in politics since I was old enough to begin to understand it. I was just a freshman in high school when I won a school-wide essay contest with a piece on the value of cultural diversity in schools.
As the child of a working-class, divorced teenage mother, growing up in one of the most dangerous and economically segregated cities in the country, I had a lot of school of hard knocks lessons early in life on just how personal politics can get. I know I was incredibly lucky to rise from those circumstances to the position I enjoy today as a college-educated, middle class person, and I also know that even though I worked like hell to get myself here I could not have done it without help — from neighbors, teachers, family and my country.
So I feel a responsibility to speak up about politics. I feel compelled to speak out on behalf of other Americans who have not had the same opportunities I’ve had to make my voice heard.
Of course I was scared of how the people who read my work would react. I still get scared all the time. But it’s scary to write about anything that’s important. If I’m not scaring myself now and again as a writer, I’m not working hard enough.
What are the issues you’re most focused on now going into the 2012 campaign season? What issue do you think is important that the candidates aren’t talking about?
Obviously, if you ask random Americans off the street what the most important campaign issue is right now, the answer you’ll hear again and again is, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Which of course is true. But it drives me absolutely bonkers when politicians say, “I’m going to create two million jobs in my first year in office,” and then do not elaborate in any meaningful way as to how they plan to do such a thing.
I view our struggling economy as a symptom of a whole set of bigger systemic problems. The economy is tied up with environmental and energy policy. I live in a state that’s been hard hit lately by natural disasters fueled by climate change, and you can bet that has not helped the economy. The economy is tied up with education. Our public education system is a disgrace, and it’s failing to produce good doctors, scientists, and entrepreneurs. There are more honors students in India right now than there are students, period, in the
United States. Is it any wonder that our jobs are being shipped overseas?
But of course the biggest reason our economy crashed so dramatically in 2008 is that there just wasn’t enough government oversight of financial institutions. You know, I don’t want onerous regulations that make it hard to do business. But I do think that corporations should be required to play fairly with consumers. If I swindled one of my neighbors the way some people have been swindled by banks in the past few years, I could be prosecuted for theft or fraud. Why should a bank get away with things a citizen can’t?
How do you connect your political views or activism with your role as a mother? Did your views/approach to the political world change after you had children?
Motherhood absolutely and permanently revoked my privilege to give up on the world in despair. The future is no longer an abstract place to me. It’s a real world my son will live in someday — hopefully for a long time after I’m gone. Becoming a mother made me so much braver about speaking up for what I believe in, because I simply have to be. Come what may, one day, when my son is an adult, I want to be able to tell him truthfully that I tried to make the world a better place.
I think a solid commitment to protecting the future is something mothers across the political spectrum have in common, actually, and I hope that gives mothers a special talent for finding common political ground.
Describe your additional writing that you’d call “political” since you wrote your incredibly moving essay about politics and hunger.
Lately I’ve been writing a lot about food policy at Care2.com. The way we eat is connected to so many very important political issues. Choosing a salad over a cheeseburger can change your carbon footprint. The cocoa in your hot chocolate may have been sustainably harvested, or it may have been doused in pesticides and picked by a starving child laborer who earns 40 cents a day. What kids are served in a school lunch program can affect their standardized test scores. Food choices matter, a lot more than many people consider, and I’m trying to illuminate some of the ways that those choices matter.
How have your political views impacted your relationships with your friends and family, if at all?
I have absolutely lost friends over politics. When I started writing for MOMocrats back in 2007, there were definitely a few other bloggers who just stopped talking to me. It makes me sad because I myself appreciate diversity in thought; I like listening to other people’s points of view — as long as they are well thought out, educated points of view. So I don’t generally want to stop being friends with someone just because we think differently on a political issue.
Some of my in-laws just don’t read much of what I write, on purpose, so they won’t get annoyed with me. But my mother absolutely approves. She even wrote a guest post for MOMocrats once! She’s never explicitly said so (gee, thanks, mom) but I think she’s really proud of me for growing up to be a bit of a professional rabblerouser. I definitely learned rabblerousing from her.
Would you ever run for office? If so, which one?
I think I would make a terrible politician. I was never the popular kid in school — I’m a major nerd, on purpose — and the idea of being famous sort of terrifies me.
I would also have a really hard time toeing a party line. I’ve always been much more interested in the policy part of politics than the partisan part. I care more about outcomes than who gets something done. When I was just a kid I had this sudden revelation that a typical partisan’s support of a political party bears an uncanny resemblance to a sports’ fan’s support of a favorite team, and that just seems ridiculous to me. Politics is much too important to be treated like a sport. Every time I vote, people’s lives may literally hang in the balance.
Who do you hope will be the first woman elected president of the United States? Why?
Elizabeth Warren. Because I think she’s like me — she cares more about policy than partisanship. And because she’s smart as hell, and willing to stand
up to anyone. She wasn’t afraid to criticize the president after he appointed her. I think that’s fantastic. A good president needs advisers who are willing to say “I think you’re wrong.”
What advice do you have for women online and other bloggers about how not to fear writing about important or controversial issues?
I don’t think there’s any way to totally banish that fear. What I did, personally, is put my fear into context. Am I more afraid of possibly offending someone, or more afraid of what might happen if no one speaks out on an issue that I find to be incredibly important? And really, are political controversies that develop in the blogosphere any worse than other sorts? People will argue for days over the best way to start tomato seedlings, or the merits of cloth diapering. I think we Americans need to get over this silly idea we have that it’s not polite to talk with friends about politics. If we don’t talk rationally to one another about politics, how will we ever get anything done?
Jaelithe Judy, mother of one, is a writer, editor and search engine optimization consultant who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Jaelithe works on SEO at Cool Mom Picks and Cool Mom Tech, writes about sustainable food for Care2.com, is a semi-regular guest on the MOMocrats MOMochat Blog Talk Radio show, and occasionally remembers to write at her personal blog, The State of Discontent. In her spare time, Jaelithe grows far too many tomatoes, writes poetry that she never shows to anyone, and volunteers one day a week as an unofficial librarian at a school for children with special needs.