Testing the waters: How to start being politically active

March 9, 2018, 3:00 a.m.

Just like passing the driver’s license test last weekend does not mean that I should be trusted on the road just yet, the fact that I am finally old enough to vote does not mean that I completely understand the system. Based on my current knowledge, I probably would not know exactly what I am voting for when it’s my turn to step behind the polling station curtains. While I do have clear opinions on topics like gun control and immigration that happen to align with the Democratic party, I don’t know what other factors I must consider before taking a political stance. In fact, all I do know is that I would not even be able to defend myself if my political ignorance were exposed because it is so shamefully blatant.

As I’ve come to believe that using your voice is more important now than ever, my desire to educate myself led to me turning to one of the most valuable resources of Stanford: the multi-talented and diverse student community. Encouraged by a suggestion from a friend, I met with Hannah Zimmerman ’21, a Socialist activist from New York City, to learn more about how I could begin my exploration in the world of politics — not necessarily in terms of the Socialist party, but in a broader perspective.

Considering that we Stanford students have difficulty finding times to meet thanks to our busy schedules, I was more than happy when she extended an invitation to chat during her shift at the costume shop. List of questions in mind, I made my way to the backstage area of the Roble Gym theater, where I found Hannah was spraying down dirty costumes from the latest show. It was my first time in the backstage area of the theater (and probably my last): the dazzling dressing room lights were hypnotizing, and the dresses hung on the racks were masterpieces impossible to look past … As un-related to politics as it was, how could I not ask for a tour?

While we browsed through her latest projects and most recent accomplishment (tailored men’s trousers designed from scratch), we talked about everything starting with her background as a seamstress. With her father being a musician and her mother being a former hobby sewer, Hannah had always been artistically inclined. She shared that she had always been involved in school theater productions before attending the prestigious La Guardia High School as an opera singer. This performing arts background is what inspired her to create clothes in the first place; she wanted to make her own costume in her school’s theater production of “Into the Woods.” Fast forward a few years, and her inclination towards performing arts is what led her to discover her love for political activism.

This concept of coinciding interests prompted me to think about my own story — was I oblivious to the fact that my past experiences were building up to the answer I’ve been searching for? While I’ve been looking for the answer to my “political dilemma” through common methods like attending lectures and reading newspapers, I had not even considered approaching this situation with an additional, more personal lens.

For Hannah, she describes feeling an energy, similar to the energy she feels when on stage, as she learned more about Sanders’ work and his political views. It wasn’t until this moment that she decided to immerse herself in politics and take action with the energy from Bernie’s campaign under her belt. After phone-banking for Bernie and attending local meetings organized by fellow supporters, a year later, Hannah became the youngest member of the 2016 Democratic National Convention’s national delegation at 16 years old.

Note that someone not even old enough to legally vote transitioned from not knowing much about politics to building a platform encouraging other students to voice their political opinions through her “High Schoolers for Bernie” campaign within the span of a couple years. To me, this was utterly mind blowing. Even at 18, the idea of getting involved in politics is a bit daunting. Everything seems to become controversial in one way or another. But Hannah uses her initial lack of experience as proof that anyone can become politically active.

She emphasizes that it was a steep learning curve to get to her current position, but as a true performer, her main tip for anyone who wants to be political has always been to go where the energy is. She says to “look for the people who have the energy and who are willing to do things, because they are the ones you would follow. And even if they don’t follow through, they’ll just give you ideas that you can run with yourself.”

Our conversation in the costume shop took various detours as we delved into her past and love for designing clothes, but we ended at the same point I was initially seeking: a tip to keep in mind when becoming politically active. Her political journey intertwined closely with and built off of her artistic interests, but, at the end of the day, all she did was intentionally follow the energy she felt compelled towards. She immersed herself in a world that she truly felt compelled to learn more about rather than one she was the most familiar with. As a person who takes everything quite literally, I’m not sure I know exactly what is meant by “the energy,” but I’m hoping I’ll know when I feel it now that I am aware of its existence.  And for now, I’ll continue staying informed with the current news, following the work of people with values that align with mine and keeping Hannah’s advice in mind.


Contact Serena Soh at sjsoh ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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