Naman

In October, we lost someone so magnetic that he’s still pulling us together, even in death.  Someone so funny and kind that at his funeral we laughed (almost) as much as we cried.  Someone so good to the core that he was donating as much time and money as he could, without fanfare or pretense.  Someone who is the only person who would know what to say to during all of these raw times.

I met Naman on my trip to the Dominican Republic in May and June of 2011.  He was on my team, Rojo, and immediately became the most distinctive person on the entire trip.  As many have said, everyone felt like he was their best friend on the trip, because he treated everyone like the most important person he had ever met.  As we rumbled in a hot van with too few cracked pleather seats around that wonderful island country, Naman was always there with a song, dance, or imitation to keep our spirits up.  He always took his work seriously, although he never saw it as work.

Everyone grieves in their own way.  But for people like us, people who can’t sleep at night because we can’t stop thinking of injustice in the world, people who are no fun at parties because we keep talking about this great new NGO or social business we just learned about, passive or solitary grief is not for us.  We have to do something, we have to organize, mobilize, and funderize.  We have to do this not just because it’s who we are, but also because it’s who Naman was.

So we have made the Naman Shah Memorial Fund.  The fund will be used to send students like Naman, students who are passionate, smart, kind, and want to do good by being good, back to the Dominican Republic to learn what he learned, and contribute to the organizations, people, and country to which he contributed.  Today, we will be gathering in the Alumni Center of Northeastern to learn about Akshaya Patra from its President and CEO, Ms. Madhu Sridhar.  Akshaya Patra is one of several organizations Naman supported.  They provide free, balanced meals for school children, because no child should struggle in school because they’re distracted by hunger.  We will also have a silent auction, networking, and an opportunity to donate to both Akshaya Patra and the NSM Fund.

While I would love donations, I would also love non-monetary contributions.

I ask for your connections and talents; if you are able to donate anything to our future fundraising endeavors (a gift card or service from your business, for example), it would help us raise more.

I ask for you voice; if you could publicize the event, the fund, or Naman’s life’s message of living every day to its fullest and helping others to do so as well, it will encourage others to give and keep his memory alive.

And I ask for your presence, which is strangely the hardest thing to ask.  Our SEI family has circled the wagons to care for each other and launch this fundraising effort, which sometimes means crying during meetings and other times means pretending I don’t know the person we’re doing this for because that’s the only way to get anything done.  But most of the time it feels like no one in the rest of my life has any idea that I’ve lost someone, or any comprehension of how impossible it feels for that someone to be Naman.  I would love it if you could join me tonight, to learn about a cause he cared for, to hear his family and friends tell his story, and to support this segment of the Northeastern and Boston communities that is still hurting.

For Naman’s sake, I will try to smile.  I will try not to be “so belidge!”  And I will try to do a really good job.  Because that’s all we can do anymore.

Does Voting Even Matter?

Okay, so full closure: for the last month, I’ve been a one-woman Get Out The Vote campaign.  I helped my UK/US dual citizen intern register for her first ever Presidential election.  I made sure my ex-expat coworker was properly registered.  It has gotten to the point where people have blocked me on facebook, and people have told me to stop speaking and have walked away from me mid-sentence.  I’ve even stooped to rewarding friends and family with food for their political participation.  And it all started with my near-nervous breakdown when a friend told me he had never voted.

So yeah, this matters to me.  But is that a surprise?  I watched the entirety of West Wing in real time (if you know my age, you know that’s a little strange) and many times since then.  My dad and I made a tradition of watching election returns together.  I signed my first petition and wrote my first letter to a member of congress before I could drive.  I’ve been to political rallies on three continents.  I worked for Amnesty International.  I’ve devoted thousands of hours to Model-Whatever, AKA a very elaborate game of political pretend.  I have spent years studying this stuff formally, and I spend my leisure time reading what other people would consider textbooks.

So yes, when you tell me, “It’s just politics,” I do take it a bit personally.  Not just because of my years invested thus far, but also because of what is at stake.  No matter what side of the issues you fall on, the two mainstream candidates have (or have had) differing opinions on gay marriage, reproductive health (including rape and sexual assault), the economy, the tragic deaths in Libya, how to handle the crisis in Syria, the automotive bailout, unemployment benefits, and healthcare.  These are all major issues, regardless of what you believe about them.  My physical body (and that of all women) is quite literally up for debate.  People’s rights, whether they be to have less government intrusion or to have government validate their partnerships, are at stake.  So yeah, this matters.

When I read an article like Alice Chen’s, I think it ignores these facts.  Whether we “give permission,” by voting or not, the federal government still has the ability to make it much harder for me to receive medical treatment that I need or may need, at a price I can afford and at an availability that is reasonable to my time and budget.  Moreso than her ignorance of this, or her belief that Social Security is a program for “poor people,”  I feel like her broad strokes of the anti-vote attitude does a disservice to my intelligent, kind, intentional, politically active friends who feel that this presidential election is not inclusive to their needs.

Legitimate arguments against voting in the Presidential election:

  • 3rd party candidates aren’t included in the televised debates, or most mainstream media coverage, despite being on so many ballots
  • Campaign finance makes things a mess, and especially affects 3rd party candidates and many people who could more realistically represent America
  • Electoral college
  • Pursuant to that, living in a Red State or Blue State is pretty disenfranchising
  • Voter ID laws in some states have disenfranchised some voters
  • Gerrymandering has disenfranchised some voters (to be clear: both sides do this.  It is despicable either way.)
  • For many impoverished or elderly Americans, getting to their polling place is not realistic.  Reliable, affordable transportation can be a problem, and while it is illegal, many jobs will find a way to punish a worker who misses time to vote.  This is also despicable.  Can we have elections on Saturdays?

These are all legitimate grievances.  As someone who cares about politics, yes, this pisses me off.  I am of the belief that we should all have easy access to polls and accurate information, and it should be incredibly easy for us all to vote.  We should all have a voice, and every voice should matter.  (Incidentally, that’s part of why dismantling the electoral college is more complicated than it first appears–but that’s for another post.)

That being said, here’s a list of ways you can make your voice heard in American politics and American political thought if you feel like the Presidential Election isn’t serving you well:

  • Vote for local ballot questions
  • Vote for state and local political races
  • Vote in mid-term and local elections
  • Write to your state and local politicians about issues that matter to you
  • Visit your state and local politicians to discuss issues that matter to you
  • Get as educated as you can about the issues
  • Educate others about the issues
  • Write op-ed pieces for local and national publications
  • Donate money to a reputable organization that will represent your voice (not all lobbyists are bad!)
  • Become a local politician
  • Attend political rallies and carry out actions
  • Volunteer with an organization that represents your values
  • Sign a petition that represents your values

I realize that many people do not have time for these commitments, such as the people working three jobs to feed their family, just trying to scrape by.  To them I say, god bless you for doing your best.  I hope it gets better for you.  To all of us with enough time to be able to read what I’m writing, to have enough time to comment and be on facebook and twitter and go out to bars, I say step it up.  Because if you have enough time for those things, but not enough time for these things, then you’re not politically disenfranchised.  You’re just not prioritizing politics.  And that’s your choice.  I disagree with it, but it’s not my life.  But not prioritizing politics is not that same as feeling disenfranchised by the Presidential Election.  So please stop pretending it’s someone else’s fault that you’re not involved.

When I think about the people I’ve met, the people with no right to citizenship in any country, or the people risking their lives to vote, or the people who have suffered physical violence because they attempted to make their voice heard, I just think how despicable and how privileged it is for someone to choose not to be involved in any way.

Why should you prioritize this?  Well, if you’re in Massachusetts, we are voting on medical marijuana and the issue of physician-assisted suicide.  Those are super controversial.  Very few people have a “whatevs,” sort of attitude toward those.  I think if you really took the time to look, you would see that so many of the issues at stake in this, and every election, are personal and controversial.  If, when and how anyone has a child is so personal and such a huge commitment, that it deserves a lot of thought.  What we do about this wretched economy of ours will affect everyone in this country, much as it already has.

I hate the dismissive sound of someone telling me, “it’s just politics.”  The sound of someone telling me not to cause a problem, not to stir the pot.  I suppose if you’re someone whose rights have never been threatened, someone who can afford to weather every storm, someone who doesn’t have a target on their back right now, someone who isn’t bothered to care about how we treat other countries, or the prisoners in our own, then yes, you have every right to not care.  To tell me to sit down, shut up, go along with the status quo, and just let everyone have a good time.  But not everyone is having a good time right now.  Not everyone in America, or the world, of even in our little state of Massachusetts.  And whether I’m that person whose rights and whose livelihood is at stake or not, I will always be that person who cares.  I will always be that person who speaks up.  And regardless of whether I choose to vote in the presidential race or not, you can bet your ass I’ll be that person finding a way to affect whatever change I can, no matter how minuscule.

So go ahead.  Tell me to shut up.  Let’s see what happens.

Happy Election Day.  Happy Democracy.  Make your voice heard, whatever that means to you.