By BJ Rudell
Three local activists from across the political spectrum described the joys and challenges of citizen activism at an April 17 panel in the Sanford School’s Rhodes Conference Room, sponsored by Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service (POLIS).
Jillian Johnson, Susan Hogarth and Mitch Meyers described what drew them into political activism and how they balance civic involvement with their personal and professional lives.
“It’s challenging, but it’s rewarding to live my values,” said Johnson, a 2003 Duke graduate who serves on Durham’s city council.
Johnson also serves as Durham’s Mayor Pro Tempore and is a founding member of Durham for All, a progressive organization that develops leaders among working-class people of color.
Hogarth chairs the North Carolina Libertarian Party and has run for elected office on the Libertarian ticket four times.
Meyers, an attorney, was an active Donald Trump campaign volunteer and continues to manage the Facebook page, North Carolina for President Trump.
POLIS Director Fritz Mayer, who moderated the discussion, asked the panelists to share what drew them to politics.
Meyers, the Trump supporter, surprised the crowd by sharing that his left-leaning parents took him to protests as a child. He then served as president of College Democrats as an undergrad and campaigned for the Clinton/Gore ticket during the 1992 presidential election. He gradually drifted rightward ideologically, but was fed up with both parties when he began campaigning for Trump in early 2016 – skeptically at first.
“Every Saturday and some Sundays I was out knocking on doors,” he said. “And I had more interesting conversations with people I disagreed with than those I agreed with.”
Meyers also highlighted the value of pursuing one’s passion civically: “I couldn’t have knocked on doors for just anyone. It couldn’t just be a job.”
Johnson ran her first campaign in high school, in an effort to get her school to recognize a newly formed gay-straight alliance. She conducted research and distributed petitions throughout her school community. Activism opportunities expanded after she enrolled at Duke in 1989.
Hogarth remarked that “being a libertarian is like not being able to swim and being told to cross an ocean.” Despite the challenges of helping to lead a third party in a two-party system, she enjoys connecting with people and helping to amplify many under-represented North Carolina voices.
Johnson encouraged audience members to join a civic organization before starting a similar one. “A new organization might actually be needed, but the way to find out is to understand what currently exists and how effectively it serves its purpose,” she said.
Hogarth stressed the importance of being part of a cause that’s larger than oneself — and preferably one focused on a single issue.
“It allows people from different ideologies to band together and pursue a common goal,” she said, referencing limited international intervention as one issue that unites most libertarians, as well as some Republicans and Democrats.
It’s all too easy to become so absorbed in activism that it pushes other things out of one’s life, Meyers said. “While I love doing things like knocking on doors, my home life and my business have to come first.”
Hogarth said she’s learned how to say “no” to requests for her time. “Getting burned out doesn’t help the cause; I know because I’ve gotten burned out before.”
Johnson acknowledged that she simply couldn’t juggle her job and the City Council; so she quit her job. “Two evening meetings per week is my maximum. I sometimes take my 4- and 11-year-olds to meetings, just to get that extra time with them.”
Duke undergraduate student Sabriyya Pate asked the final question of the session: “What advice can you give to students who are passionate about issues, but who don’t seem to mobilize as effectively as past generations?”
Duke students are “part of an institution that has some cachet that you can use to your advantage,” Johnson said. “Activism has always been driven by students, but it’s a very difficult calculation. It feels hard because it is hard.”
Visiting Assistant Professor Nora Hanagan, who collaborated with POLIS on the event, later shared her thoughts: “The panelists represented three different responses to disillusionment with the two-party system. They were honest about their struggles, but they also suggest that citizen activism can be a lot of fun.”
Mayer summed up the event as “a rare campus opportunity to listen to three individuals who—despite their vast political and ideological differences—share a deep commitment to the power of citizen activism.”