In the spirit of full disclosure and with many apologies, this episode is about a week and a half overdue! I was able to grab coffee with my good friend and policy activist, Christopher Pepe, on a cold Sunday. In the wake of the political turmoil over the past few weeks, we did spend the majority of the time talking about the election, reproductive rights, what it means to be a white cis-male talking about women, and how to be civically engaged. Listen above or read below! Additional information to topics discussed can be found at the bottom of the post.
Note: In this episode, we are talking about one political perspective, particularly focused on hot-button issues. We will continue to explore a wide range of opinions and other potentially provocative topics, so please extend the same level of respect to all interviewees. I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments, but I ask that we keep it respectful.
On Growing Up with Politics
Christopher: I grew up in an Italian-American family in Northern New Jersey. My parents were from Brooklyn, my brother also born in Brooklyn. I grew up as the youngest in the family, so a lot of times, had to fight to have my voice heard. I felt like the underdog in a lot of ways. I was the only one born in New Jersey, so I got a lot of shit for that all the time. I don’t know if you’re super familiar, but dinner with an Italian-American family is like a full contact sport. It’s just a lot of yelling. We would have guests over, and they would be like, “Wow, you guys are all really angry at each other.” And I would be like, “Nah, this is how we love each other.” They’d be like, “Have you considered therapy?” No, no. So we grew up in a loud, boisterous environment and it was our duty to have dinner conversation. We also grew up in a time before cell phones, so we were all talking to each other. That’s what we had to do, and politics was the topic. My parents are very politically active. My mother, more than my father. We have always been engaged in some kind of political behavior. My mother participated in different marches on Washington and a lot of her career, she’s worked on access to reproductive health services, contraceptions, things like Plan B. These were things that were, by their very nature, political. The work that she was doing was highly politicized. So, we grew up talking about that; that was dinner conversation. I remember that, for years, the conversation was about roadblocks in getting Plan B over the counter. The fight for that, even under a Democratic administration. So, I grew up being well-versed in that, and I grew up needing to be on my shit about these conversations. I was brought up to have an opinion and be engaged and care. I think, also, a big part of that was my involvement in the Boy Scouts. There was that component of being whatever the hell a good American is. I’m not even sure if that’s a real thing, but growing up with some sense of duty and patriotism. I think those combination of things just made me a political person. I think the other thing is that I grew up in a town that was highly conservative. It was kind of a Pleasantville vibe, Chatham, New Jersey. My family moved from New York and showed up in Chatham. None of the country clubs would let them in, because they were Italian-American. We were kind of viewed as unwelcome. Part of that was when I was going to school. Everyone was brought up to be very conservative, and I remember in my 6th grade class, our teacher asked, “Who is the worst president?” All these people were like, “Bill Clinton!” and I was like, “George W. Bush!” They all looked at me and were like, “He’s great.” And I was like, “That’s because your parents tell you that!” Sixth grade me was really smart, is what I’m trying to say. There were just a lot of those different things that made it not an option to not care.
On Reproductive Rights and Being a Cis, White Male Feminist
On Law School
On Civic Engagement
Liz: Absolutely. That’s great. On Facebook a little bit ago, you posted a status stating how excited you were to see a lot of folks who hadn’t been involved in politics get involved in politics. Now, we have an entire generation of folks who are getting engaged I would say, whether it’s on the right or the left. For me, my Facebook newsfeed is filled with a little bit of both. For those folks who are maybe new to politics and not familiar with the policy or the avenues to best engage their representatives, what would your suggestions be?
Christopher: So how people should get involved? If you’ve never been active before, it’s important to find an issue you care about. If you have a personal story about something, if you’ve experienced something, I think that resonates with people pretty strongly. I think if you go out and try to advocate for a bunch of different issues, it can get tiring. If you have one issue that you’re really passionate about, really take a hold of that, read about what’s happening on it right now. Read the news. Read the news every day. The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Journal. ProPublica does good long form journalism. The New Yorker. The Economist. Get well read on these issues and then go out there. Do a little research; there are a lot of great groups out there. It’s a quick as a little Google search. Groups will come up, go read up on them, sign up for their newsletter, and they’ll send you information, they’ll send you events. Another great way to get involved is to engage with the political process. A lot of people have been using the word “resist” when they really mean civic engagement. Sorry, it’s been pissing me off.
Liz: No, explain that a little bit.
Christopher: I think a lot of people are couching this idea of being engaged and contacting your representatives and telling your government what you think as some form of resistance movement, which I think further radicalizes it in the long term. I think they couch it in that because it sounds sexier than, “I’m doing my duty as a citizen. Yay! I feel great about myself.” Partially, it’s selfish. “I’m resisting.” No, you’re not, you’re calling your representative. They’re supposed to represent you. Call them. Tell them what you think. But anyway, call your representative. It’s easy. That’s a Google search too. Call them, tell them what you think. Be honest. Don’t be afraid to share your opinion and share your personal stories, which I think are often the best way of leaving a mark with people. You’ve got to remember the people who are answering phones for your senators and representatives are hearing a million different stories, so it’s really about making it you and using talking points, but not making them verbatim. If you find talking points on an issue or someone posts something on Facebook like, “Call your representative, here’s the script.” I think you can use that, but it’s got to come from the heart. Calling is the best way, other than in person visits. Not everyone can do an in person visit, but calling really is the best way to get your point across to your electeds. And not just your federal electeds, your state and local electeds too, who, a lot of people don’t understand, have a lot more influence on your day to day life than the federal government ever does. Particularly at the state level. These people control a lot of how you live.
Liz: Sure. What about the petitions and things that have been going around? There’s the one to impeach Donald Trump. There’s ones to have him release his tax returns.
Christopher: I think it’s good. Sign those petitions. It helps, it certainly doesn’t hurt. But don’t just do that. Don’t feel like you can just do that and it’s enough. Some people can only do so much, and that’s great. You’ve got to put in what you want to put in, but I think you should maximize that, that time that you have. People have to work, people have kids, but maximize that time. I think if you’re doing the petition thing, that’s good. I would personally supplement it with something like going to a protest, calling your representatives, writing letters.
Liz: Does protesting work?
Christopher: People have been trying to figure that out forever. I think that peaceful protest can work. It doesn’t always work, but I think it can work and I think there’s evidence of that in what just happened this past weekend with the Muslim Ban, that our esteemed president, Don Cheeto, put in place. There were organic protests that happened with thousands of people at airports across the country, and I think that really threw the Trump administration off. They’ve definitely been retracting from that since then. There’s a lot of internal confusion around what that thing even means. It’s not even clear to me that the executive order got any kind of review by anyone even approaching a lawyer. It got the attention of the ACLU. The ACLU went in, they tried to get a block on it, and it worked.
Liz: There were teams of lawyers going up to each airport.
Christopher: I don’t think there would have been that kind of momentum and that kind of energy around advocating for those 100 or 200 people who were sitting in limbo without those protests, without people saying, “Fuck this. I’m getting on the A train. It’s going to take me an hour and a half to get to JFK. I hate going to JFK, and I’m not even flying out of there” and doing that. That created pressure and it drains resources. It cost the city a bunch of money to send police over there and send all of those resources there, so it also becomes a financial situation for the city, for the state. I’m sure there must have been federal law enforcement. Port Authority definitely had to step up their security. So in a lot of ways, it can work. Also with the Women’s March, it sent a strong message. People are watching. People are together. The progressive movement is not defeated, it’s not dead, and it won’t be. And we’re going to be watching this guy. I think that that’s strong and I think that it empowers a lot of people that may not live in these big blue cities, but live in these small towns to have a voice. You matter. Your opinion matters. Get out there, do something about it. I think there’s a very strong message there.
Liz: Yeah. I have a weird, hypothetical personal question for you. As someone who wants to affect change and affect policy, if Trump or one of his cronies were to come to you and ask if you would join their team, is that something you would do? Is that a bridge you would be willing to cross?
Christopher: To join the Trump administration? I actually applied for jobs with the Trump administration.
Liz: Did you?
Christopher: Well, it was easy to do. They had a website up that said something like “Come work for the Trump Administration!” I think I filed like 90 applications for different jobs.
Christopher: Well, because it was easy. Because you could just select everything and submit the whole resume to the whole thing. I did it as a joke. I never heard back. Probably because I had Obama For America on my resume, and he’s not an American so… He’s a traitor.
Liz: But if they were to approach you? Say they finally got to your application, is that something you would be willing to do? Would you be willing to cross those excessively partisan lines?
Christopher: If I could be me and tell them what I think and fight for my beliefs? I think I’d be a fool not to try. I’d give it a chance. I’d be in there for two days and then they’d fire me. It depends what the position was. I think if there was an opportunity to influence people in a certain way, we need those people. We need good people in government. I would do that, I would try. I don’t know if I could do it, but I would try.
Liz: I did hear a lot of his staff are starting to jump ship.
Christopher: I think the word is that Reince Priebus wanted to resign, they really reeled him back in. I don’t think he’s going to last long. Poor guy. I don’t know who names their kid Reince.
Liz: What scares me more than the administration itself is the societal implications that have happened throughout the election, throughout the entire campaign, from both sides. It’s gotten very emotionally charged and personal and people have revealed their ugly sides. Is there a way that we can fix the country?
Christopher: I think that this happens in cycles. I think that it’s being exacerbated by the media landscape and by how people get their news. I don’t necessarily see anything fundamentally different with how people in this country are after the election.
Christopher: I think it’s just more brazen, more out there. People are being more honest about their racism or sexism or their misogyny, all of their deeply held biases. It’s not being covered up in the same way that it used to be. A lot of that decorum is gone, but it’s really just been a veneer. We’ve pretty much always been this way.
Liz: So is it better to expose the wound and deal with it or is it better to bring back that veneer?
Christopher: I don’t know that we’ll ever totally heal our original wounds or our original sin in this country. I don’t know that we can ever bridge that, unless we have a much stronger foundation for public education and unless we return to a media landscape that doesn’t thrive off of our division. And a political party system that thrives off of our division. I kind of hope that we would move towards a multiparty system, proportional representation, like in Germany, for example. I think that would greatly change how we talk about issues and how we come together and how we interact with each other, but right now everything is two sides.
Liz: Well, what about all the folks in the middle? I feel like it is the polarized voices that are heard the most, but there is a huge portion of the country that sits right on that middle.
Christopher: 46.9% didn’t vote in the last election, registered voters. It’s a huge issue. It’s an issue that we talk about after the election and then everyone goes back to doing their usual thing. I think a lot of people think that they don’t have a voice in government. Also, I think a lot of people don’t participate because our civics education, generally in this country, is a mess. So, there are real problems here. I don’t know how we bridge a lot of that, but I do think that education is something that really needs a lot of work. Public education, and teaching people from the very beginning of their school careers that civic engagement is not a privilege, it’s a duty. It’s something that you need to do, you need to engage in your government, because it doesn’t speak for you, if it doesn’t know what you stand for. It’s something that we really need to work on, it’s something that I really want to work on at some point in my career: how do we get more people into the political process? How do we get more people engaged? How do we get more people to run and be exciting candidates, who energize people who typically are disenfranchised or don’t want to be involved in the system, because they don’t see themselves in the candidates who are running for office?
Liz: How would you approach that?
Christopher: I think there are a lot of great programs doing it right now. Certainly, since the election, there have been a lot of people who want to run for office, which I think is great. But, again, it has to start from a young age. I’m not really sure about programs that are set up to get more people engaged in politics from a young age. I know there’s Model UN, people have high school Democrats, high school Republicans, that kind of thing. I don’t know if there are any groups doing that work from the beginning. Getting their proper civics education. And grounding their beliefs about politics in the facts of how the system actually work and how it serves or doesn’t serve the population. I don’t really know, and I want to learn more about it.
Liz: Addressing public education from a young age and starting with the next generation?
Christopher: Yeah, it’s going to have to be some kind of effort, and it’s going to have to be in the community. It’s going to have to be from people that people know. I don’t know where that starts. I don’t know where that comes from. I will say that that’s not a fight that I’m particularly engaged in. I think I’m more engaged in lifting up people who have typically been abused and mishandled by the various systems that we have, really since the founding of this country, that’s women and LGBTQI individuals and people of color. I want to be an ally in that fight. Because how these sort of white working class people have felt for the past 8 years, is what everyone else has been living with for the past 800.
Liz: That’s an argument that’s not easily heard.
Christopher: Because people don’t want to have conversations about privilege. They get turned off by that, and I think that’s something we need to fix. There’s a different way to have that conversation that isn’t so eye-glazing for a lot of people. It is eye-glazing for people. I understand that, so I don’t know how we have that conversation, how we get people to understand that.
Liz: So is there a silver lining in the political climate right now? In general, the trends that have happened in politics lately.
Christopher: I’ll tell you what though, I’m very inspired. If there’s a silver lining to any of this garbage, a lot of people are going to hurt, so it’s really hard to talk about a silver lining when a lot of people are going to suffer over the next four years. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that people are giving a shit and that people are standing up and that people who previously were not getting involved are getting involved. I also think it’s incredibly inspiring to see how much of center stage women have taken in this resistance, in this idea of not being silent, and standing up for what they believe in. If people can get more civically engaged, and the New York Times can get more subscribers, and if real journalism can recover somewhat because people want to be informed and they want to get involved, and they want to have the tools necessary to go out and resist, and demonstrate, and be good citizens, then I think that that’s good. And I think that also is a good sign to young people now, people who are in school, to see that this is what you should be doing. This is how you should be acting, this is how you engage with your government. This is how you stand up for what you believe in. I think that that’s not a disservice.
For More Information About:
Center for Reproductive Rights: Official Website
CUNY Law School: Official Website
New York Times: Official Website
The Atlantic: Official Website
Wall Street Journal: Official Website
ProPublica: Official Website
The Economist: Official Website
ACLU: Official Website
Contraception and the ACA: Planned Parenthood
Birth Control Repeal: Forbes
H. R. 7 – No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance: Congress
Hyde Amendment: ACLU
AllAboveAll: Official Website