Section I: Election Essays
Written Before Election Day, 2016:
Every day in our interactions with other people, we move between moments of connection and disconnection. This essay attempts to capture that movement that my father and I have engaged in over time. We connected over New York cheesecake; we disconnected when both of us simply stopped calling. Underpinning this essay’s snapshot of our movement between connection and disconnection is a look at the impact the election had on our relationship, forcing us into a space somewhere in between the two where we still live, trying to find our way back to a connection that has only ever been tenuous. Another layer to this essay resides in the fact that our relationships with our parents are incredibly complex, and how strong they are has a direct impact on who we become. Tracing the moments in this essay all the way back to the beginning, I can start to see the outline of my own identity.
Most obviously a commentary about the widespread hatred Clinton faced during the election, this essay is more subtly about the ways in which the political landscape affects our own personal realities. Many of the things I felt during the drawn-out election process were not my own; they were instead generated by the media, my peers, and the geographic regions I lived in. We don’t often talk about the personal impact of politics and elections, but for many of us these things shape our understanding of the world in addition to our deepest, most internal thoughts, feelings, and fears. The hatred I felt for Hillary Clinton was the most extreme hatred I’ve ever felt, and it didn’t come from within me. It came from outside. Our mental and emotional well-being is often tightly linked to what’s happening in the larger world, even if we often ignore this connection.
This essay documents a number of behavioral patterns Trump enacts, all of which involve harboring power over other people—in these cases, women. What these examples of “power over” culminate in is a culture that condones violence against women. In saying that no one respects women more than he does, Trump effectively redefines what it means to be respectful to women. We already live in a culture where violence against women is so common it’s invisible. In sending the message to young folks across the country that respecting women is akin to acting abusively and aggressively toward them, Trump may be sowing the seeds for a new wave of sexual and domestic violence that no prevention campaigns or sexual violence organizations would be able to easily combat.
During the election, Donald Trump said that the whole process was rigged, but only if he lost. His reasons for believing that the election was rigged were wrong, but the premise itself was not. This essay takes an in-depth look at the specific ways in which our democracy is rigged. At its core, this essay is about how government has become something that puts a wall up between itself and ordinary people. To read the Constitution is to believe that this was never the purpose, even if our country was designed to encourage corporate influence and the continued election of only a privileged class of people. Trump, the very face of corporate influence and privilege, is a great example of just how far we’ve gotten away from our founding idea of government for the people, by the people.
I never liked Hillary Clinton’s politics, but I tried so hard in the final month before the election to convince myself that she was a candidate worth voting for. I adamantly welcomed ideas that mirrored my own and shut out those that challenged me. I, along with so many others both on the left and the right fell for the trap of confirmation bias. We all feel righteous and powerful when surrounded by so many people who mirror our beliefs, but it’s an illusory power. It blinds us from the true political landscape that we live in, and helps us build ideological and literal walls between us. Emotional connections are key to bridging these divides, but in order to make them, we must leave our ideological bubbles. If we don’t, we risk losing the common humanity that threads us all together.
We live our lives in the shadow of judgment. This essays tackles those judgments that we make about others and that others make about us through the lens of the single stories that were told about Hillary Clinton during the election. Sometimes, other people’s ideas of who we are speak more loudly than the words we say or the decisions we make. Sometimes stereotypes convince others that they understand who we are when, in reality, they only see an incomplete picture. Our perception of how others see us is one of the most powerful forces in our lives, persuading us to act in ways that will convince people to see us more favorably. And when we fail to convince others that we are not who they believe us to be, as in Hillary Clinton’s case, it can be enough to change the course of history.
To be a woman is to run up against limits all the time. This essay explores the lived reality of some of those limits and what it means to push back on them. Because women are marginalized, silenced, belittled, and ignored, this piece is written almost entirely between parenthesis; it seems more natural to write about being a woman within the limits of curved punctuation marks than to write outside of them. That would represent a liberation we have yet to experience. Like most women, the majority of spaces that I occupy are not mine. This includes my own body. But this essay is a space I’ve claimed for myself. On this page, no one can hurt or violate me. No one can tell me what choices I can make. No one can tell me I’m not who I’m supposed to be. In claiming this space, I’m pushing against the limits that try to define who I can be.
The campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” suggests that America was once great. But MAGA is more than a campaign slogan; it’s a four-word story of the power that white people have had over people of color throughout the history of America. It’s a feverish desire to expand that control now that diversity as a movement is finding its voice. It’s a rallying cry of the supposedly dispossessed who have never known true dispossession. It’s not unlike the power implied by the white hoods and burning crosses of the KKK that wielded fear and violence as weapons to keep America white. There is no making America great again, because that would imply that America has been great at some point in its history. As this essay shows, America has never been great.
Written After Election Day, 2016:
Never before this election had I ever experienced such a visceral, forceful pain caused by something so far outside myself. But it didn’t feel far away. This election happened within the walls of my bedroom, under the sheets of my bed, down in the pores of my skin. When I wrote this essay—more of a raw journal entry—the election results were still brand new. No one on the left had accepted them yet; no one had even stopped crying. Now, many months have passed. Even though I swore I wouldn’t accept this new reality, it feels like I have, not by choice but by the very nature of our way of life. We simply keep going, day after day. The challenge for any resistance movement going forward is to figure out how to harness the fire reflected in these pages and keep stoking it even as life presses on.
A polished version of This Is What Devastation Feels Like, this essay focuses heavily on the power of collective denial, which was widespread on the left in the months leading up to the election. Everyone in the media was so sure that Hillary Clinton would win that even Trump’s campaign team thought he was going to lose. In thinking Clinton was a certainty, we all walked right into the collective denial that delivered a sucker punch come the morning of November 9, 2016. Hillary Clinton’s own campaign team fell for it, purposely bypassing Wisconsin—usually a strong blue state—because they figured it was an easy win. On the left, we got cocky. We felt righteous in the rightness of our own beliefs, and we couldn’t fathom that enough people could disagree with us to elect Donald Trump. Not when we held the moral high-ground. Turns out we played ourselves.
To understand what’s happening in U.S. politics, you have to return to the Civil War. The muskets have long ceased to fire, but the war’s legacy resounds like the echo of cannon balls through the years. The division among us isn’t unsettling because it’s new; it’s unsettling because it’s old. The Civil War, largely fought over the issue of federal vs. state power, is the same battle being fought between Democrats and Republicans. “It’s the Big Man telling the little man what to do,” a Confederate re-enactor told Terry Tempest Williams while she visited Gettysburg National Military Park. In looking to the future, we must always understand the power that our past has over us even as we forget the details. The legacy of the Civil War has shaped all of what modern America has become, and Donald Trump is an outcome of a nation divided along political and personal lines.
A continuation of Rigged, this essay explores the flaws in our democracy in even more detail by diving into neoliberalism, the very ideology that underpins Reagan’s “trickle-down economics.” Neoliberalism holds that funneling money upward to the richest Americans will be good for the economy, and many of our policies support this false notion. The problem with neoliberalism is that it concentrates power in a few hands. Those people get to make choices about the curriculum our children learn, transforming schools into spaces of control. They get to pass legislation that cuts the public sector, reducing life-saving services. They also own much of the mainstream media, so they control what we see and hear on the news. In a democracy, the power is supposed to be with the people. In a neoliberal society that gives power only to those who have money and works hard to put all that money in a few hands, democracy cannot exist.
I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until this election that I realized just how much power stories have to shape outcomes. This essay is an analysis of the stories that were told by the media, the American people, and the candidates themselves and how those stories had the power to decide what happened on November 8, 2016. As a nation, we have a literacy problem. We deeply undervalue all forms of art because art tells the truth, and the truth is often ugly. When we turn away from it—the mirror that reflects our flaws—we lose the moral thread that holds our society together. To find our way back to each other, we must find our way back to art. We must tell and read stories, not incomplete and limited ones, but expansive stories, stories about people we’ve never met and struggles that will never be our own.
Gender is arguably the most powerful socializing force in our culture. Before we’re even born, our parents find out our biological sex and assign us a gender identity. We grow up to either perform our gender roles well and get praised for it, or subvert them and face the consequences. Gender roles, however, aren’t natural. We aren’t born knowing how to perform them, and if we didn’t enforce them on each other, they would cease to be culturally relevant. Sexism, or gender discrimination, thrives within the perceived differences between genders, and it works at several levels within our society. We all budge up against the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity, and it’s harmful for all of us. This essay explores the limits of traditional notions of gender and how they played a role in the election.
The beauty of a free society is that its people don’t have to think about politics every single moment. They don’t have to fear that their government will take away their freedoms while their backs are turned. Donald Trump, with his constant bombardment of lies, has changed that. We find ourselves questioning things we always thought we knew to be true, as though Trump is capable of changing the color of the sky. Whoever controls truth in a society controls everything, and right now, Trump is the manipulator-in-chief. Meanwhile, Congress—though designed to be a power check on the executive branch—only holds the president accountable when they are of the opposite party. With deception, lies, and secrecy surrounding the new administration, this essay explores what’s happening in the White House and challenges a Congress that has the power to protect our democracy, but is choosing not to.
Section II: Journalism
When government leaders speak out against sexual violence, instances of violence tend to go down. When the Obamas were in office, they helped start conversations and campaigns that took aim at sexual violence. Joe Biden was the senator who originally introduced the Violence Against Women Act in Congress. But Trump is starting a different conversation altogether—one that involves eliminating the source of funding that keeps many rape crisis centers running across the country. In even suggesting such action, Trump, the owner of a slew of sexual harassment and assault allegations, is minimizing the impact of sexual violence and belittling the trauma that survivors face. Far from going away, the issue of sexual violence in our communities stands to get worse under the Trump Administration. And if it does, there may be fewer and fewer resources for survivors to find the help and support they need.
It amazes me how many mothers let their sons and daughters go off to war, thinking it’s a sacrifice that not only they have to make, but that they should be proud to make. But in sacrificing their bodies, so many Americans—many of them young—are participating in a legacy of civilian death, colonization, and support for dictatorial regimes that repress their own people. Our military has never been above destroying entire countries, leaving power vacuums and broken infrastructures that devastate for generations. We dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, lest we forget. This piece of journalism examines changing modes of warfare and how they raise questions about the usefulness of current military law. But at the center of the piece revolves the question of human rights, which have been shoved aside throughout the War on Terror—and for what?
Adjuncts are quickly taking over higher education because universities no longer want to pay the high salaries and benefits that full-time professors require. I wrote this article after a movement for higher pay swept my college, just as similar labor movements are sweeping many industries. I sided with the adjuncts, many of whom I have personal relationships with. Beyond that, though, there’s a huge wage disparity between the $3,300 per class adjuncts make and what top administrators make, which is between $100,000 and $1,000,000+ annually. The adjuncts had to fight hard to achieve even a small increase in wages, and many are on food stamps to make up the difference. It’s disheartening that this battle for living wages is one we must continue fighting.
I wrote this article shortly after I spent five days running around trying to get birth control pills. I felt powerless, being denied the simple ability to make choices about my body. Meanwhile, journalists were out purchasing semi-automatic rifles just to see how quickly they could do it. Turns out, you can buy a gun with the power to mass murder in only minutes. That’s because guns are traditionally masculine, and men are always less regulated than women are. Conservatives often present the fight to defund family planning services as a moral issue. But it’s about power. In limiting women’s choices, they can limit our agency and our ability to determine our own paths. When accessing contraceptives and other services is hard, women go without. They end up pregnant before they’re ready to be. It’s hard to climb out of poverty when your biology confines you; it’s hard when your government’s actions show that they believe you should be confined.
At every bend, a person of color faces obstacles that white people don’t. The oppression of people of color is built into the very economic, political, and social systems that govern our lives. Continued segregation, poor federal funding, racially-motivated policing, a justice system that only delivers justice if you’re white: all of these factors, among many others discussed in this article, come together to inflict fear, instill control, solidify white dominance, and continue the long history of “othering” people who don’t have white skin. In order to fix the problem of mass incarceration, we must see how racism is built into our society at the deepest levels and how it compounds to create obstacles that white people never encounter. We must learn to value black lives, and to admit in the first place that we don’t, and never have.
In our world, privilege equates to power, and privilege has a way of compounding. This article explores how unpaid internships help compound the privilege that some people already have while shutting less-privileged people out. An unpaid internship requires someone to come from a family that can financially support them while they do a season’s worth of unpaid work. Having that internship will make getting a high-paying job easier and will open doors that will not be open for the person who couldn’t afford an unpaid position. The underpinning message is that once you have privilege, you tend to hold onto to it and if you don’t have it, it tends to remain outside of your reach. Unpaid internships only serve to make this socioeconomic stasis worse.
In making up the myth that most women lie about being sexually assaulted, a culture has been created where we disbelieve all women who step forward. It creates another myth that women don’t have the right to say “no” or decide what happens to their bodies, which perpetuates the idea that sexual assault doesn’t even exist. These myths are dangerous and invalidating for survivors. In this culture of disbelief, we create space for sexual assault to flourish. It isn’t surprising then that women are much more likely to be sexually assaulted than they are to get justice for that sexual assault. I’m no lawyer, but it seems that a justice system that offers more impunity for assailants than it does justice for victims is a system that isn’t working. This article takes a look at Kesha’s very public sexual assault case and how she lost in court for the same reason many survivors never even bother reporting: we don’t believe them.
In America, we think about addiction all wrong. We view users as criminals, low-lives, and people who repeatedly make bad choices on purpose. Our ideas about addiction treatment correspond with these views, which explains why we have over 81,000 people in jail right now on drug-related charges. This piece points out something obvious that’s missing in all these preconceived notions about who drug users are: compassion. If we really want to stem the surge of opioid drug users, we need to rethink our response. Addiction lives at the intersection of isolation, pain, trauma, poverty, access, and lack of opportunity. Like any social problem we face, in order to address addiction we have to address all of these underlying issues. A person’s living environment has so much to do with pushing them toward drug usage, but in any discussion about treatment there’s never talk of changing that environment, only of changing the addict. This mistake costs us 33,000 lives every year.
Section III: Personal Essays
The idea for this essay gave birth to this entire project. From the very beginning, “the political is personal” represented the intersection between what happens on a local/national/global political scale and what happens in my own life. The most obvious example of this intersection in my life is the recession of ’08 and ’09. Deregulation policies paved the way for bankers on Wall Street to engage in high-risk trades, the result of which was a financial crash that devastated millions of American families and impacted markets all over the world. This essay weaves together the story of that collapse as it happened on Wall Street with my family’s story of foreclosure, cross-country relocation, divorce, and financial dissolution. All of the events of my life since 2009 can, in some way, be traced back to the risks that traders on Wall Street took in search of profits, and the power they wielded over our economy.
Power—viewed in this piece through the lens of race—is culturally ingrained. It’s passed on through generations of learned behaviors and it’s taught to our children in school. This essay explores a few key moments in my racial education growing up, and the beginning steps I’ve taken to unlearn the racism that was instilled in me. Growing up racist is inevitable in a country that white-washes its history, tells myths about black criminality, and believes that our differences go much deeper than just skin. Kids now have to contend with images of black bodies broken by police officers. They’re growing up with a president who chants “Build that wall!” and believes that he can help Syrians not by lifting the travel ban for refugees, but by bombing their country. Racism is a story about power, and it’s a story I grew up hearing constantly. It’s a story that we all need to have a hand in rewriting.
This essay explores the power that our family members have in our lives. It follows my step-grandmother, who appeared in my youth to be a powerful, bad-ass woman. But as I learned more about her relationship to her husband, I realized she wasn’t as powerful as I’d thought and it wasn’t because she couldn’t be, but because she chose not to be. In some situations, we have limited power to push back on whatever oppresses or attempts to define us. But my step-grandmother had the power to push back and leave a husband who disrespected her, even if it was hard. Each one of her sons had the choice to break the cycle of infidelity—to push back against the expectation that they would disappoint and disrespect the women in their lives too—but all of them chose to continue it. My step-grandmother’s story is a reminder to surround myself with people who empower me, not those who sap my power away.
What makes a child ashamed of their body? When I was 10, I already had a vague understanding that my body was somehow illicit. That there were parts I was supposed to keep hidden. But like any child, I was curious. My neighbor was just a year younger, and she was curious too. When we got caught, her mother’s reaction sent a shockwave through my body, instilling a fear at the very core of my being. To this day, I struggle to shake off the sense that my sexuality is shameful, something I need to repress. I worry that many girls learn to think of their bodies in this way—such is our reaction to the questions they have and the games they play. I was never taught to love my body. I was taught to be afraid of it and its urges. And as a result, I’ve struggled to develop healthy sexual relationships, both with others and with myself. I’m not the only one, either. Millions of young women from my generation alone can tell a similar story.
Section IV: Short Fiction
Sometimes, the connection between the political and the personal is a matter of life and death. Your annihilation becomes a political goal that drives a government and a people. This fictional story about what might happen to undocumented immigrants in Trump’s America came to me within days after his election, so scared I was about what he might have the power to do. In America, the kind of violence portrayed in this piece doesn’t seem like a possibility. We must not forget that it was only a handful of decades ago when boats of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust approached our border, only to be sent back to the control of people who had every intention of wiping their existence from the earth. The truth is, the events depicted in this story aren’t impossible at all. They’re infinitely possible, and that’s what makes them so terrifying real.
Siobhan is an environmentalist, but her passion for saving the world—juxtaposed to everyone else’s apathy—begins to consume her. She feels powerless to create change as she travels around with her boyfriend, Rip, protesting fossil fuel consumption. With him by her side, she feels more in control—at least, at first. When he leaves her behind at a pipeline protest that turns violent, she loses all sense of her power, hiding out in the abandoned house of a neighbor afraid to open the windows lest she let the carbon in. This is a story about how we often ignore the voices that have the most important messages to share, and the personal impact of that silencing. At its core, “The Knot” is about what drives us and how all roads lead to the heart.
This story is about the war we often feel between our deepest desires for ourselves and the person that societal, cultural, and familial expectations tell us we should be. Ruth feels pressured by her grandma to be religious. She struggles to become a prodigy of religion, but it doesn’t feel right. She knows her grandma’s love is conditional, and she is stuck between her opposing desires to be loved by her grandma and free from the burden religion has become. More than anything, she wants her grandma to love her unconditionally no matter what religious beliefs she has. Because her grandma doesn’t bend, Ruth chooses to resist and forge a new path out from under those expectations. Sometimes our families can put a toxic pressure on us to be who we’re not, and even if it’s hard, the best choice may be to flush that toxicity out of our lives.
Soon after the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I began to wonder what the person who’d sold the gun was feeling, or if they were even aware of their role. In that vein, this story follows George, a gun seller who sold the murder weapon responsible for 47 deaths on a boardwalk near the Ferris Wheel where he and his wife shared their first date. At first, he puts up a wall, feigning indifference to the shooting. He aggressively denies that he feels any responsibility at all, since he sold the gun legally. But as the story progresses, he begins to wonder if something can be unethical even if it’s legal. The law is designed to be the backbone of our morality, but does that mean it always succeeds? Underneath it all, this is an examination of how guilt and trauma works in our lives, how they can eat away at us, reset our moral compass, and ultimately change our path.
Like many people in this country, 9/11 haunts me. It follows me around, pulling at my heels, reminding me that safety is an illusion. But it’s less personal for me than for some, even as it has drastically altered the course of my life. This story explores just how personal 9/11 was, particularly for those who lost their significant other or a close family member. The attack on the World Trade Centers—as part of the larger attack that day—led to our current political climate, the mess we’ve helped to create in the Middle East, and our current president. In a much more intimate way, it changed the lives of thousands of people—maybe more—who had to learn to live in a new world with someone missing.
Section V: Academic Essays
Women’s bodies are so frequently debated in Congress that it’s easy to forget that once, women were not discussed at all. Our issues were silenced, belittled, and ignored. “The Personal Is Political” was the call for women’s struggles to be recognized as more than personal problems that women were expected to manage on their own. As a result, abortion and family planning access are a staple of political debate. The problem now is not that these issues are discussed, but that they are discussed by men who make decisions about women’s bodies as though real people don’t have to live with the consequences. That’s why the political now needs to be made personal. Our bodies have been so successfully politicized that women as human beings are entirely absent from the debate. That’s because it’s much easier to take rights away from a body.
Love is scarce and self-interest is abundant: this essay delves into the theories that founded modern capitalism, showing the direct impacts that those ideas have had in shaping our reality. It revolves around the idea that we can’t address the systemic inequalities that persist unless we change the economic system within which we operate. So long as the free market demands inequality in order to function, women will continue to face exclusion from full economic, social, and political participation. People of color will continue to have life-threatening encounters with law enforcement. Latinas will continue to make 54 cents for every dollar that a white man makes. At the core of this piece is the idea that inequality in one segment of our lives perpetuates inequality in all segments of our lives.
The Colonial Legacy: Native American Relations From America’s Conception To The Standing Rock Protests
The way we tell our history is important, and for the most part, we’ve gotten it wrong. We continue to treat Native Americans like they are burdens, as though they were the ones who tried to steal our land from us instead of it being the other way around. We can’t right the wrongs of our past by sewing the pages of history shut, pretending they never happened or glossing over the parts that make us look as bad as our actions genuinely were. We can’t right the wrongs of our past by building an oil pipeline that endangers a tribe’s water supply. We can’t right those wrongs at all, but we can make different choices. We can choose to stop taking land that isn’t ours. We can choose to view Native Americans as human beings with inherent value and rights. In the story of our history, we are the bad guys. If we don’t like that, we shouldn’t tell a different version of history. We should make a different choice about who we want to be and write that story going forward.
Inspired by Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, this essay explores the intersection of traditional American values, capitalism, and climate change. I examine how our nation developed values that were compatible with capitalism, which helped foster a growing attachment to our economic system. Capitalism has become such an integral part of our identity that we’re willing to deny clear evidence that it’s threatening the very environment we depend on for survival. The fact that climate change believers have to fight our government to advocate for the survival of our species boggles the mind. We’ve come to believe so strongly in human-made institutions that we’re convinced they’re more enduring than the laws of nature. Focusing on the power of history to influence what comes after, this is an essay about how the stories we tell shape who we become.
Section VI: Interviews
This interview offers perspective on the current relationship between American racism and the terrorism that only grows larger in the Middle East. Beyond our incessant bombing, what fuels anti-American activity in the Middle East is our continued belief that they’re lesser than we are, a belief that’s now openly part of our new government’s foreign policy. We are quick to blame terrorists for all evil in the world, but we don’t ask where that terrorism grows from. We don’t look in the mirror and ask what we have done to cause it. Rowshan argues that changing our racism and xenophobia are key to ending the war with the Middle East, but first we must change our beliefs about African Americans and Native Americans in our own country. Until we see the humanity of the minorities living within our borders, there’s little hope that we’ll see the humanity of those in the Middle East.