September 2, 2019
This week, I wanted to discuss how and why I became interested in politics.
My journey into this arena differs from many people I know who are actively involved, and have been for most of their lives.
I didn’t grow up being interested in politics at all. In fact, my family wasn’t either. Yes, they voted in every election cycle, sometimes for a Democrat (namely Russ Feingold) sometimes for a Republican (they voted for George W. Bush twice). I remember watching the 2004 Presidential debates with them when they were on TV too. However, up until 2008, my parents never really paid that close attention to politics, and neither did I.
From a young age, I always I thought I wanted to be a meteorologist. Specifically, I had a fascination with tornadoes! I remember watching as a very young kid the Tornado Video Classics VHS which showed some of the best tornado video footage captured on camera. All through elementary school, middle school, and the early part of high school, I thought going into meteorology to study severe weather and tornadoes was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to help people by doing this.
My junior year of high school, however, that all changed.
It was the fall of 2008. I was taking a history course called Conflicts that semester. It was a two-part course: the first semester we focused on American conflicts from the Spanish-American war through the Second World War. The second semester focused on American conflicts from Korea through Afghanistan and Iraq. Even though the course was focused on studying the past, our teacher, Jeff Ellmaker, made it a point to relate everything we were talking about in the class to what was going on today when possible, much like the professors I would later work with in undergrad and law school did in their courses.
Mr. Ellmaker also wanted us to be active and informed participants in our democracy. It was the height the 2008 election between John McCain and Barack Obama. We spent a good amount of time in our class talking about the important issues in the election, and debating them. He worked as a facilitator, much like a reporter would who’s asking the questions at the actual Presidential debates, and made sure our discussion stayed civil. It was a ton of fun!
I also had a friend in my study hall that semester who was actively involved in politics as well. He encouraged me to do as much research as I could on the candidates, study the issues, and decide for myself what candidate and party best represented my interests. I followed this advice, seeking out as much information as I could. After studying the candidates, the parties, what they said on the issues, and discussing these things with him and others, I realized that I very strongly identified with Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.
These two experiences, happening simultaneously, spurred something in me. Politics captured my interest in a way that few other subjects had. It made me realize that I was passionate about wanting to try and help people, and make their lives better. Even though I still had a love for weather, it made me re-evaluate what I wanted to do with my life, and ultimately led me down the career path I’m on today.
Even though I couldn’t vote that year, I did everything I could to try and get my friends and family that I knew to vote for Barack Obama. It worked too! I believe to this day that my efforts are what got my parents to be as active and informed as I was. My mom has become a dedicated Democrat ever since. I’m also confident that my discussions with a friend in that class got her to vote for Obama as well.
Ever since that Fall, I’ve followed politics about as closely as one can, and, as you know, have been very active in the field. I decided to go to undergrad to study history and political science. I went to law school with the idea that doing so would give me the tools I needed to be able to craft laws and policies that could improve all of our lives. I also worked as an unpaid organizer on President Obama’s re-election campaign, volunteered countless hours on campus in 2012 at UW-Milwaukee registering voters and talking to them, and have worked as an unpaid organizer and volunteer on several other campaigns since.
My story works as a reminder of how a good teacher can have an immeasurable impact on your life. Had I not taken that course with him, I may have never discovered my true calling.
Many people don’t figure out what they’re truly passionate about until later in their lives. However, I was fortunate enough to have had experiences at the right time for me to change course and pursue a different career without having tens of thousands of dollars in student debt hanging over my head if/when I did.
I’m forever thankful to Mr. Ellmaker. His class is what nudged me to pursue my true loves.
I’m also thankful to the friends I was around at that time for giving me the encouragement to find out where I fell politically on my own. Had it not been for those conversations, and their largely staying neutral when I was first getting interested in all of it, I’m not sure I would have found out how I truly felt about the issues.
That fall changed my life and made me a better person. I’m forever grateful for that.