What do I want my life to be used for? How about saving Democracy?

By Sam Daley-Harris*

The dire warnings of democracy’s demise can be heard in the U.S. and around the world.  Headlines taunt us with their warnings. 

While many people believe democracies are in trouble, I’m not interested in bemoaning a collapse, but in pointing to one of the ways that each of us can make a difference: engage regularly, directly, deeply, and productively with our elected officials. 

I know, I can already see the eyes rolling, but let me explain.  

More than 40 years of experience as a democracy activist have shown me that while most people believe they can’t make a difference with their voices as citizens, I’ve seen that we actually can, but it must start with a serious effort to build people’s confidence. 

These are steps essential to building confidence.  Find an organization that is 1) committed to dissolving your powerlessness, 2) centered on providing you with new skills and 3) focused on encouraging you to move out of your comfort zone.  That’s right, confidence grows when you’re encouraged to do something you thought you couldn’t do and surprise yourself when you make it happen.  

But finding such an organization isn’t easy. Several years ago, I spoke with the head of organizing for a very large international nonprofit group who said, “We can’t let our volunteers write letters to the editor or op-eds because they’ll get it wrong and misrepresent the organization.”  That’s how most organizations operate.  So much for building confidence.  Organizations that are afraid their volunteers will screw things up contribute to our civic dysfunction. 

But here’s a better way.  Citizens’ Climate Lobby is a 14-year-old advocacy organization whose website reads: “Our solution to climate change?  Democracy.  And we need you on our team.”  In 2020 its members had more than 4,000 letters to the editor, op-eds and editorials published, up from 65 pieces published in 2010.  Growing to more than 4,000 published pieces is an exercise in building confidence.  Their volunteers also had more than 1,700 meetings with Congressional offices last year.  If each meeting had an average of six people attending, that’s more than 10,000 confidence boosts.  

But does any of this make a difference?  Does a renewal of civic engagement amount to anything?  During the first 100 days of the Biden Administration, volunteers from the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS had more than 300 Congressional meetings.  They’ve lobbied each year since 1984 on child survival, and, as a result, helped global child death rates plummet from 41,000 a day in the early 1980s to 14,520 a day in 2018.  For the last 19 years they’ve lobbied for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.  Over that same period the Global Fund and its partners have saved 38 million lives. 

Deep civic engagement is not just good for the issues you care about and for your democracy, it’s good for your health.  Action is the antidote to despair.  

Some groups help you register to vote and cast your ballot.  Others can help you engage with elected officials, week-in and week-out and do so directly, deeply, and productively, groups like Citizens’ Climate Lobby, RESULTS, Catholic Relief Services, FCNL, and American Promise. 

But finding the right organization isn’t enough to make it work, you also have to connect to your life’s purpose.  Without a desire to live a life of purpose, these steps will seem like an exercise in futility.  My coach, Randy McNamara, said it best during one of our Friday morning conversations: 

“I think people want to know what their life is for, beyond earning a living and being well thought of,” McNamara said. “But it’s so rare that people come into a life purpose.  The design of the culture is to earn a living and be well thought of, not to answer ‘What do I want my life to be used for?’  For most people, the first part of your life is focused on earning a living rather than doing something that is mission derived.” 

Yes, our democracies are in deep trouble and yes, there are things that each of us can do to save them.  We can engage regularly, directly, deeply, and productively with our elected officials, but only if we find an organization committed to dissolving our powerlessness and only if we are serious about answering this question: ‘What do I want my life to be used for?’


*Sam Daley-Harris is the founder of the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS and of Civic Courage and the author of “Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break between People and Government.” Article submitted to Other News by its author. 22.06.21