The First Fourteen

“We were 14, 15, 16 years old…We didn’t have a clue we were making history, we were just trying to make some wrongs right.” ~Bette Mae Fikes

Bettie Mae Fikes walked arm in arm on March 7, 1965, with a group of 600 students and teachers to protest racial inequality in voting rights in Selma, Alabama. Not old enough to vote herself, she put her life on the line to fight for the right to do so. Although the group marched peacefully, they were violently mowed down by law enforcement, causing the day to be forever remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”

Visiting the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Alabama this past year, I watched the documentary Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot and viewed the expansive exhibit memorializing these protesters. Lecia Brooks, Outreach Director, and I discussed the obstacles that still impede equal access to voting. I left that meeting painfully aware that my own political involvement paled in comparison. I was embarrassed to acknowledge that the extent of my activism consisted of posting editorials on Facebook and ranting about politics to like-minded friends. I resolved that it was time to up my game, to do something.

Shortly thereafter, I dug in. I discovered that only half of the voter-eligible Millennials turned out in the 2016 presidential election, despite their 31% share of the electorate. The overall tally was also distressing: just 60% of all eligible voters participated in the Presidential election. These numbers inspired me to formulate a plan to bring my peers to the polls.

I decided to organize an event in Chicago, called “I Will Vote,” to raise awareness about the importance of voting. Recalling my conversation with Lecia, I invited the SPLC and a local organization called Chicago Votes to speak at my event.

Advertising the event to my friends, teammates, and classmates, I received enthusiastic, supportive responses. Optimistically, I reserved a theater large enough to hold 125 attendees to accommodate what was sure to be a huge turnout.

On the cold, rainy morning of the event, friends began to call, offering various excuses for their unavoidable absences. I panicked. What if no one showed up? Not only would I have failed to do something, but Lecia would have flown all the way from Alabama for nothing. The turnout only confirmed my worst fears. In total, only 14 people came: six family friends, six teammates, and two adults from a local conservative group who attended solely to argue with my co-host and me. Not even the Chicago Votes representatives bothered to show up. Responsible for spearheading the event, I was crushed by the failed attendance.

Nonetheless, Lecia gave her presentation as planned and opened the floor for discussion.  I stepped up as a facilitator to ensure that my peers were engaged in the discussion. We covered every topic imaginable: voting, affirmative action, police brutality, and the increasing division between political ideologies.

As the afternoon unfolded, I began to see value in the day despite the size of the crowd. Reduced attendance notwithstanding, the event was not a failure. I had reached outside of my comfort zone to act upon an issue which I cared deeply about. Although the conversation veered away from its intended purpose, I felt that each attendee walked away with some new kernel of knowledge. Even if they just posted their thoughts on Facebook or ranted to their friends, as I had—it was a start. And, if each of them found their own 14 new faces, we’d soon realize my dream of a packed auditorium.

Instead of discouraging me from further involvement, this experience underscored that I have my work cut out for me. The day made me stronger, secure in my resilience, and eager to try again. Next time, I will get 15 attendees, and one day, one of us will change the world.

Molly Gallagher, a high school senior in Chicago, wrote this essay as part of her college application. She was recently accepted by Middlebury College in Vermont.