This week, rather than focusing on a poet or fiction writer, I’ll examine a collective writing project rooted in both protest and civic engagement. Earlier this month, a group of expats from the USA gathered at the Beijing Bookworm to write postcards to their elected officials. This is not something Americans normally sit around doing while they’re abroad. Or to put it another way, these are not normal times. Roughly one month into the new presidency, popular opposition to the Trump agenda has not died down. To document the state of resistance in this far-flung corner of the world, I chatted with Erin Campeau, who organized the postcard writing event.
DE: Can you talk a bit about the postcard project in general? What’s it about? Who’s behind it?
EC: The postcard project is a call-to-action and is an extension of the Women’s March on Washington, which took place across the globe on January 21, 2017. The March saw unprecedented numbers of people take to the streets in order to send a clear message to the Trump administration - to let them know that we (women of all races, nationalities, sexual orientations, abilities, and economic backgrounds) refuse to be silent. It also has the ongoing goal of unifying communities and fostering feelings of empowerment, and it is inclusive of people along the entire gender spectrum who support the same ideals. The organizers of the March have set 10 actions for the first 100 days of the new administration - action 1 was writing postcards to senators, and action 2 was forming a community huddle and coming up with inclusive, nonviolent actions that we can start taking today. The event was meant to combine both actions and give progressive U.S. Americans in Beijing a place to connect with and support one another while planning “next steps” collectively. A lot of the people who came are members of Democrats Abroad, and others were hearing about the group for the first time.
DE: The card states, “I’m concerned about” and gives the writer a single line. I think a lot of us could go on for pages and pages we’re so overwhelmed with concerns. What’s the strategy here?
EC: It’s definitely true that there was limited space on the postcards, but I think that was intentional and served a purpose. After reading various political guides, including “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda”, it has been suggested that communication with congresswomen and congressmen be concrete and concise. That said, there was room on the back of postcards for additional thoughts, though I think everyone mostly stuck to one page. The benefit of using one of the Women’s March postcards is that they have become a recognizable symbol for multiple issues. Each postcard started with “I’m part of the #WomensMarch movement”, which, considering the historic nature of the March, makes a statement in itself. By identifying ourselves as part of the movement, we were symbolically supporting various issues including, but definitely not limited to, women’s rights, Planned Parenthood, affordable health care, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, indigenous rights, immigrant rights, refugee rights, religious freedom rights, an end to rape culture, racial equality for all, and environmental justice. My hope was that this was implied at the very start of our letters. That, and I’m certain that many of us have supplemented our letters with phone calls about other issues.
DE: If you don’t mind my asking, what were the concerns you wrote about?
EC: Both of my senators are liberal, so my postcards were meant to be thankful and encouraging. I thanked one of my senators for her continued fight for women’s reproductive freedom, and I thanked the other for his opposition to Trump’s recent travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Many of the writers had similar messages of gratitude - this was not just about stating the changes we’d like see but also about thanking the politicians who are standing for progressive values. My representative is a Republican, and I wanted to voice my support, as his constituent, for Planned Parenthood. I have many, many more concerns, but I stuck with two and let the Women’s March symbol speak for me as well.
DE: Have you been involved with this kind of thing before, or is this something new?
EC: This isn’t my first time participating in a community project like this, but in recent years I have felt quite removed from U.S. politics. I participated in an anti-racism march in Spain, for example, but it was more of a celebration of diversity in the community and was not addressed to any policymakers in the States. I became more steadily involved in Democrats Abroad this past September as my focus started to shift homeward. Given what is going on at home, I definitely feel a need and desire to start contributing more.
DE: Do you ever feel disconnected from events back home? How do you deal with it?
EC: Yes, I do, and particularly since the election, finding ways to fight off feelings of isolation and idleness has been really important. It’s easy to start feeling like there is nothing you can contribute when you live so far away, and that can feel really defeating. Democrats Abroad has been an amazing space for staying active and feeling like part of a community that cares and is involved with things happening at home. And that’s the thing - the postcard writing event was completely a collaboration. I realistically did very little to bring it together, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Ada from Democrats Abroad or all the people who created and consistently maintain the social space necessary for participation. I am so grateful for the group and its members - I cannot reiterate that enough. We have a WeChat group that is really active and is always full of ideas for taking action from home, and we also get together at least once monthly to share ideas and encourage one another.
DE: There’s something very red, white and blue about writing a letter to your representative. Like it’s the kind of thing you’d see in a 1950’s educational video about civic duty, but not something people actually do. I’d certainly never done it before. I wonder if the silver lining to this whole Trump debacle could be a re-birth of civic engagement. Many people are aware and active in a way they weren’t before. What do you think? What is your level of hope versus despair?
EC: It does feel very 1950’s, and there is something symbolic about gathering in a room with paper and pens and writing down our voices. I completely agree with you that many people seem to have been kind of jolted into action. I know that I, too, feel a greater sense of urgency. There is certainly a lot to fight for right now, and despair is a very real sentiment that is being felt by populations across the globe. Real lives are at risk - real people with faces and stories and dreams. So I don’t mean to undermine the reality of their situations or the speed with which we do really need to act, but I do agree that there is room for hope. Like you, I see people mobilizing and refusing to be complacent, and to say that it is inspiring would be an understatement. If you dig beneath the rubble that is dominating the news, you’ll find stories of communities really finding each other and really standing up for one another. Those moments needs to be recognized so that they can be celebrated and replicated. People seem to be digging very deep to really consider how they can contribute. And contributions don’t have to be heroic - every little thing helps.
DE: Do you worry about burnout? I mean there’s just so much to be angry about all the time.
EC: Activist burnout is a real thing, and it is something that really needs to be considered and recognized as a threat to long-term positive action so that it can be avoided. I recently saw a quote on the Women’s March on Washington official Facebook page by the poet/artist/speaker Cleo Wade, which stated “And if a life of resistance and everyday activism is your new normal…remember to take care of yourself. The best of you is needed.” It’s definitely easy to carry with you a certain constant level of angst these days, but we also need to listen to and respect what we are able to give in each moment so that our efforts can be sustained. Self-care needs to also be made a priority. Being a part of a group really helps in this regard because you feel encouraged but also like your actions are collectively amplified, and that can help prevent burnout simply because it is so energizing in and of itself.
Erin Campeau is from the United States but has spent the greater part of the last 10 years either working, traveling, or studying abroad. She completed her master's in International Peace, Conflict, and Development Studies - an undertaking that was inspired by her time outside of the U.S. She now lives in Beijing, where she is an active member of Democrats Abroad.