As relieved as I feel since the US Presidential election was definitively called for Joe Biden, I also have a new and startling appreciation for the fragility of our democracy, and for the ongoing requirement for all citizens to act to maintain it. Over the past six months I’ve been preparing myself, in the words of film producer Andrea Chalupa, “to make democracy a lifestyle.”
As a social dancer, it occurs to me that citizen is first and foremost a followership role. Certainly any citizen can become a leader by organizing a community group, launching a fundraiser, or running for office; yet, fundamentally, we are all citizens first. We are all followers first.
It’s sobering to consider that Republican enabling is as much a demonstration of powerful leader-follower dynamics as was Biden’s cathartic win. Leaving aside actions that undermine democratic process; in a practical sense, two very different groups of followers fought to uplift the leader they believed in. Both leaders continue to depend on strong relationships with those followers to achieve their goals.
And in a few weeks, America will stand at another fork in the road with Georgia’s US Senate runoffs. And the outcome will again be because specific groups of leaders and followers came together in powerful ways. The process by which that happens has never seemed more important to me than right now. The chose is no longer between two political parties within a democratic system; the choice is between democracy and something else.
I admit that I have never been a very active follower in a civic sense. I belong to a class of white, educated citizens who have–so far–been lucky enough to live well and safely in this country. But I aspire to be an ethical follower, a good citizen, and I believe that democracy is a rather urgent matter. And so I have been spending some time considering what changes I want to make in the way that I embody my civic followership role.
Fortunately, I’ve discovered that there are a million ways to be a good citizen-follower. In fact, good really depends on the circumstances, on determining the most appropriate way to respond to who or what is leading you in any given moment. And as I wrote postcards to voters and volunteered for local organizations, I was surprised to discover a familiar feeling–the feeling of dancing, this time with millions of unseen others, all writing their own postcards, phone banking, texting, marching, donating, talking to neighbors and strangers all over the country.
Feeling part of this enormous, intricate, decentralized dance gave me back some sense of the connection that I had been missing all year, isolated at home. Seeing hundreds of strangers on Zoom training calls was surprisingly comforting. If you’re looking for ideas on how to join the civic dance, I highly recommend the podcast How to Citizen with Baratunde, which explores the term citizen, just like the term follow, as an active verb, or the weekly mailing list Americans of Conscience, which contains a practical list of bite-size actions.
And while national action is front and center right now, here are a few core followership concepts that I’ve been using to re-orient myself more locally:
Followership Principle #1: LISTEN
After attending several Black Lives Matter actions, I started learning more about the national movement for criminal justice reform. I read books, participated in online trainings, and volunteered for the successful campaign of George Gascón, LA’s newly elected, progressive Attorney General. As a follower, you choose who you listen to, and who you listen to becomes your leader. It’s easy to forget that we have this choice, but it’s always there. We can change the channel, call a real human being, or take the time to search for the information we want. With greater understanding, our actions become more directed and useful.
If you’re not sure where to activate your follower listening powers, try asking yourself what you are confused, concerned, or worried about, and then start learning more about that thing.
Followership Principle #2: SUPPORT
In quarantine, I started cooking more and planted arugula and kale in my yard. I learned that shifting from industrial to regenerative agriculture is the single biggest opportunity we have to draw down the carbon load in the atmosphere and actually reverse global warming. This is a big project, obviously, so I started small: I researched local composting efforts. I discovered that I could save my scraps and drop them off at a small urban farm. I don’t know why composting is so incredibly satisfying, but it really is! I got three of my neighbors to start doing it, too.
If you’re not sure where to offer support, try asking yourself what you’d like to see more of or less of in your community. Who is already working on that? How might you connect with those people?
Followership Principle #3: BE YOU
Often the best way to be a good citizen is to lean into the things you like to do, and find ways that doing those things in new ways or in new places can make your community better. To leverage my coaching skill set, I found an organization looking for volunteer peer counselors. I love the work itself, the community around it, and the fact that it’s such a valuable service for those who use it.
If you’re not sure what to offer, try asking yourself what you already enjoy doing? What would you like to do even if you were not being paid to do it? Who or what organization needs that thing?
This intense year has put civic followership on display in the United States like never before in my lifetime. I’ve learned a lot about political history, autocracy, systemic racism, and my own complacency. I’m grateful to scholars and writers like Heather Cox Richardson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Eduardo Porter, Timothy Snyder, Isabel Wilkerson and Sarah Kendzior, among many others, for their tireless and meticulous work.
In so many ways, 2020 is an inflection point. For the rest of our lives we will remember this year in before and after terms. What meaning will we give it in our own future stories? We must have ethical leadership, to be sure, but if this year has proven one thing, it’s that we will never have it without equally ethical and engaged followership. As long-time thought-leader Ira Chaleff writes, “Follower is not a term of weakness but the condition that permits leadership to exist and gives it strength.” That means us. We are the followers.