Jun 28, 2013 | By Bethan Johnson, NETWORK Intern
In a week of 5,000 postcards, 40 hours of work, 13 hours of Texan filibustering, 11 Senate office visits, 5 Starbucks trips, 4 major Supreme Court decisions, 3 wrong stops on the Metro, 2 Congressional sittings, and more weight gained because of delicious food truck lunches than I’m willing to admit, at first glance my first week interning with NETWORK would appear to boil down to the number one—one successfully Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Having never worked in federal politics, my knowledge of Washington came almost exclusively from The West Wing and The New York Times. When imbibing information from these kinds of sources, certain nuances get lost. For me, Washington became the manifestation of pure belief in statistics.
In a town seemingly obsessed with numbers and among people who rely upon figures to write policies, vote on legislation, and even to understand themselves, I wondered how I would fit in amidst the figures. As I rode the bus to work I thought back to the emails I had received in the weeks before arriving: “think federal budget, taxes, and debt limit.” The email seemed to confirm my suspicions: everything in Washington boiled down to numbers.
My boss told me to prepare myself for work on appropriations and taxation, which would—theoretically—shake out over the course of my stay Washington. I wondered what, aside from making coffee and drafting meeting minutes, I could add to anything so calculated and divisive.
You see, numbers and I never seemed to get along. I never could sit through a math class without my mind drifting and I decided upon History and English for majors in college in part to escape math. In short, the sum total of my mathematical capabilities is my parlor-room trick of doing simple computation in my head. And even though I’d spent years arguing for social change and studying America’s political movements, the concept of belonging to such an official and intense political community felt foreign. I wondered how long it would take before they spotted the intern.
Although the answer to that question proved to be “not long,” it was soon overshadowed by the mountain of work left before the truly life-altering decision on comprehensive immigration reform. I walked into the office to be put to work almost directly. I was thrust into meetings on strategy and development before I’d even figured out where the bathroom was.
And then, before my very eyes, my intern life began. I quickly discovered that as the NETWORK program “Nuns on the Bus” travelled around the country rallying the public around comprehensive immigration reform, the fleet of fervent advocates implored listeners to mail in NETWORK postcards to show their Members of Congress. These postcards, eventually estimated at 5000 in total, found their way to my desk. To ensure that all three affiliated elected officials saw the personal notes, we copied them twice over and delivered each by hand; my job, seemingly mundane but actually critical, was to man the photocopier for two days. By the end of day two we had organized, photocopied, and cut each postcard for delivery and delivered them to Senate offices with the same hope of success as the original sender.
In the end, the thousands of postcards and hundreds of hours of labor contributed to two final numbers: 68-32. These two numbers will prove extremely significant. On a personal level, the statistic represents a victory for NETWORK and the apparent successful culmination of my contribution to the campaign; on the national stage, the figure will inevitably change the course of millions of lives. Over 11 million undocumented workers will be given a brighter pathway to citizenship.
While the 68-32 figure may have allowed our nation sorely-overdue room to grow, the values cannot and will not encapsulate the significance of this vote. As I spent hours alphabetizing, moving, photocopying, and stacking the post cards we received, I saw the statistical value of the cards fade into the background. While the size was impressive and the campaign’s manpower was wide-reaching, I became fascinated with the capital we weren’t calculating.
Largely lost between their mailing and our reception was the idea of effort. While the questions we asked were basic contact information, the reality behind each postmark was the level of passion needed to fill out the card at all. In this town the distinction between keen interest and direct act seems less blurred than before. Without people committed to direct action, those individuals willing to fill out postcards or attend our “Nuns on the Bus” events, the passion we have would prove little more than a whisper in the halls of Congress. As we tabulated the size of each stack and the logistics of delivery, the personal almost got lost in the numerical.
Each postcard carried with it a message, some simple—“comprehensive immigration reform now!”—and others more personal; one person even filled out all of the personal information questions with the word “undocumented,” scrawling “help me get out of the shadows” near the edge of the card. The stories and calls for change from around the country were housed on those cards and, by photocopying them and delivering them to senators, I helped connect constituents to representatives.
Just like my understanding of Congress, my knowledge of the inner-workings of the Metro system, and my inability to avoid the food trucks near Union Station, I recognize that the bill adopted by the Senate is imperfect. With 48 amendments and plans that create a climate of militarization along one of our borders, the bill feels to me like progress and not perfection.
I feel much the same about my assumptions about Washington and my potential here at NETWORK. Although statistics eventually determined the fate of this bill, I’ve come to see that in the heart of downtown Washington the political climate is warmer than the cold, hard statistics of appropriations bills and approval ratings, and this political community more sentimentally connected than it seems. In reality, Washington is a hybrid, a creature that feeds on both statistics and sentiment. And maybe I can lend a hand to the mighty task of infusing life back into statistics and increasing socially-conscious funding to the point that they can change the world. It won’t be perfect, it most likely won’t be pretty either, but it will be progress.
In the end, even the highlights of the last week cannot parse out figure from feeling. 11 million people—the comprehensive immigration reform bill is a promise to 11 million people. The legislation I had even the slightest hand in promoting is one step closer to helping millions of members in American society gain citizenship, and I read the words and saw the widespread passion of the American electorate; these are the moments I feel proud to call my own.