Vote like your children are watching, because they are

Katie Mgongolwa lives and teaches in Durham.
Katie Mgongolwa lives and teaches in Durham.

At the library last weekend, the parking lot was full. It seems everyone was there to find a new book or get out of the house, and we drove in circles around the parking lot for awhile, until, just as we were about to give up, a young man ambled by and climbed into his silver Mazda.

I quickly turned on my blinker — the universal sign for “dibs” — and waited as he slowly backed out and drove away. And just as I was about to pull in, a red Honda came out of nowhere and swung into the spot.

“Today is not the day,” I thought indignantly as I instinctively sounded my horn. The driver of the Honda looked up, almost surprised, then begrudgingly pulled out and went to find an unclaimed spot. I exhaled.

“Um, Mom, why did you honk at that lady?” my 6-year-old asked from the back seat as I pulled into the hard-won space.

I had that parent moment, where I immediately internally questioned the event and how to explain it to my kiddo in a way that seemed awesome and not crazy. “I had waited for this space,” I said carefully, “and put on a signal that I was next. It wasn’t fair for the other driver to take it. Kind of like cutting in line, you know?”

“Yeah, although if I really wanted it, I’d cut in line!” my 6-year-old responded gleefully, and I just smiled back at her, as we both know in actuality there are few people with a better understanding of justice than a 6-year-old who has been wronged.

In 2018, as a parent — especially as the mother of a girl of color — I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to explain this world to her, when, quite frankly, this world often treats girls who look like her as disposable. And this may seem a sharp turn from a discussion of a parking space at the library, but in many ways, it’s not. Our kids are watching everything we do, and listening to how we respond to situations.

When we talk about Kavanaugh, for example, kids are listening to how we discuss consent and agency and women. When we let careless stereotypes slip out, our kids may end up carrying that with them to the school hallways. They’re sponges, for better or for worse.

One way we can take advantage of their sponginess is by bringing them with us to vote this fall. Early voting began Oct. 17, and the Durham County Board of Elections website will tell you when and where you can go — and even how to do same-day voter registration! Sample ballots are also available on the website.

This election is really important. In Durham, we have a choice to make. After showing our desire for a new district attorney and a new sheriff in May, we now have judicial elections to consider. Durham as a community is resourceful and wealthy, with the ability to take care of our neighbors and friends. This should lead to us to ask: Why are we criminalizing poverty? Why do we find jail deaths acceptable? Why do we let rising home prices force our neighbors out, producing astonishing eviction rates?

As reflective citizens, we must question how systems in our city and state exclude and under-serve folks. These current positions in the election are full of power, much of which remains invisible to the average citizen. And as any graduate of the Racial Equity Institute can tell you, when power is invisible, racism thrives. In fact, racism requires invisibility, but not intent.

This is an opportunity to start shifting power back to the people. Power has been systematically removed from poorer communities, and until power is returned, nothing else is truly sustainable.

As average citizens, we don’t always see or understand the politics used to take away power from groups, like Hayti here in Durham, or Brooklyn in Charlotte, or Warnersville in Greensboro. But this is all to say that we should remain incredibly and ambitiously curious, and that curiosity should propel us to be well-informed voters, when possible.

Our votes for local judges should be for someone passionate about decriminalizing poverty, who, in a world that hasn’t yet achieved a society without bars, can utilize the judicial system to hold people accountable without ruining their lives. Judges should not have a one-size-fits-all approach to justice, which Durham has achieved in various ways so far with the Drivers License Amnesty Program and restorative justice, and can continue to move towards.

Furthermore, as a friend succinctly phrased it to me recently, the North Carolina Supreme Court vote is “the single most important vote you can make this election.” This vote is essential to make our courts independent and protect basic human rights that remain threatened.

Our children are watching and listening as we make decisions about what justice can look like in Durham and our state. Like being a parent, being a voter requires eternal vigilance. See you at the polls!

Katie Mgongolwa is a high school teacher in Durham. You can reach her at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com.

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun