Stepping off the Sidelines: Casting my first vote this November

The view from the sidelines

My life and my work have always centered on social issues of inclusion, access, and representation all over the world. I believe in the power of voice and choice regardless of your circumstances in life. I’ve spent my professional years with an unequivocal focus on bringing all voices to the table, especially in economic development – so when people hear that this will be the first time (yes first) in my life that I will be voting in an American Presidential election, the responses, range from shock to disbelief to disappointment to pure confusion.

How could a tax-paying, educated, civic-minded Black woman NOT vote EVER? Were you traveling? Were polling stations closed? Was there an issue with your registration? What happened? Are you serious?

Why not vote sooner?

Well, the answer is both frustrating and complex. While I deeply care about voting and have lived in the US for more than half my life, making the nation’s capital my home for the last 15 years, I was not allowed to vote because I was not yet an American citizen. 

I came to the U.S. to go to college and traversed my journey here with all sorts of visas to allow me to stay legally. My life was a merry-go-round of student, travel, business, and diplomatic visas – all giving me the right to be here to live, work, volunteer, and travel but not to really be here with full agency and representation. Only after marriage to an American and a few more years of biometric testing, medical testing, naturalization testing, financial testing, and marriage legitimacy testing was I finally given the green light to become a U.S. citizen – yes, three years ago. 

This was the moment when I finally was given the opportunity to make decisions on issues that mattered to me. When I was finally able to be heard. When I was finally able to play a role in government accountability and effectiveness. At the deepest level, I took the right to vote seriously because I know what it means to be locked out of the place that you desire to be in so badly, even when the social contract feels broken.

At the deepest level, I took the right to vote seriously because I know what it means to be locked out of the place that you desire to be in so badly, even when the social contract feels broken.

Commitment to Public Impact

I came to the Centre for Public Impact to lead our inclusive economies work because I believe that given its scale, resourcing, and mandate, the government is uniquely positioned to improve access to economic opportunity. Yet the government lacks the resources, legitimacy, and trust it needs to improve outcomes for all the people it serves. 

Although not having the right to vote for years has impacted my relationship with government, as it has for countless others, I remained hopeful that one day the tide would change and government would stop working around me.

Why we at CPI think government legitimacy is important

At CPI, we define government legitimacy as the relationship between government and the people it serves. When this relationship is strong, government and people can work together effectively to address problems. But, too often, we have seen this relationship weakened in America: a lack of faith in government makes it harder for government to effectively deliver results that matter to ALL people

As Congresswoman Norma Torres of California’s 35th District recently said on the subject of legitimacy, “We can’t continue to elect people to represent us who do not represent us.” Many of the complex issues Americans care about – systemic racism, jobs, climate change, public safety, and health – are interconnected and influenced by a wide range of factors. While some may feel beyond government’s control, our hypothesis is that legitimacy is squarely within government’s capability and likely to have a broad and deep impact.

The consequences of government ineffectiveness in 2020

We’ve seen firsthand the dire consequences that can arise if government does not benefit from resident trust and, as a result, struggles to be effective. In 2020, this has manifested as racial injustice, COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on people of color and women, and the attacks on the electoral systems, to name a few. 

For immigrants, the consequences are sharply and personally felt. There are many legal immigrants, whose citizenship application may still be under review, who feel they can’t access food banks, reduced-cost school lunches, or a COVID test simply because that will be held against them. We are also seeing that many immigrants cannot access social services, despite paying taxes. In an interview with CPI’s Brian Zuluaga during Hispanic Heritage Month, Teresa Alonso Leon state representative for Oregon’s House District 22, so rightly states, “To me, legitimacy means viewing government through an equity, racial, and social justice lens, and recognizing that laws are often unjust.” This election year is the culmination of a complicated American history, which, for me, is intertwined with the right to vote.

What it feels like to not be able to vote when you want to

You stand on the sidelines when everyone else around you is getting to choose with their best interest at heart.

On a more human level, it’s a strange feeling to have when you live, work, and prosper somewhere, but you are not REALLY seen by the government. You never feel like you can trust the ground you stand on. You stand on the sidelines when everyone else around you is getting to choose with their best interest at heart. 

Politically, the easiest way to bring about change is voting for representatives at local, state, and federal levels who’s beliefs and platforms align with the changes that should be made. I’ll never forget walking to the polls with my friends in 2008 and standing outside the polling station at a church. The door was open, but just not for me. I sorely wanted an “I voted, Yo voté” sticker – not purely for optics but purely because I believed that the 44th U.S. President would bring a level of hope that the world needed. I celebrated the hope, cried tears of joys, and danced in the streets with a tinge of sadness that I wasn’t really part of the process. I knew, regardless of my contributions to society, that I had to be patient, lucky, and privileged enough to get my opportunity to become a U.S. citizen whenever that would be. Finally, 2017 was that year.

2020 will finally be different for me. My voice (through a vote) will count. I will celebrate the achievement. I will celebrate my choice. I will celebrate my voice. I will never forget those out there who still don’t have that chance. My work at CPI will continue to advocate for governments whose sphere does not miss the issues that people who call the US their home care about – all with the power of my first vote.

Reimagining Government

My vote is a powerful step towards better representation and strengthened legitimacy. Core to CPI’s mission is supporting governments in becoming better at nurturing trusting relationships, understanding cultural and historical context, and sympathizing with those least heard perspectives. We are hopeful that supporting governments to build legitimacy will equip them to better address the urgent issues they face head-on today while laying the foundation for a better system in the long-term.

I won’t be ignored, not today.

I want to reimagine government so that it works better for everyone, including people who have been voiceless and choiceless for years.

Having been left out of the formal American government system most of my adult life, I have seen and felt what it is like when government only works for some. I want to reimagine government so that it works better for everyone, including people who have been voiceless and choiceless for years. This includes individuals who face issues of citizenship, like me, along with the countless others who experience barriers to voting. This push is for everyone out there that wants to vote but simply cannot vote. Enough is enough; you won’t see me on the sidelines.