2018 midterms

At the end of 2017, I had two goals for my political involvement: 1) make an impact on the 2018 midterm elections and 2) figure out what I wanted to do in 2020.

I had done very little campaign volunteering before, so I started by researching my options. I considered skills-based volunteering like Tech for Campaigns and Get Her Elected and general public volunteering like Swing Left and Sister District Project. I talked to friends who had worked with campaigns, either paid or unpaid, for different spans of time, and I tried to picture myself in each of these scenarios.

By June, primary season was underway and everything still felt very abstract. In order to narrow my options, I looked up the extended time off and political activity policies at my workplace. After talking it over with my manager, I decided to request several weeks of unpaid time off instead of taking personal leave. Situations will vary greatly here; things I looked at included stock vesting schedules, health insurance coverage, and other possible interruptions in benefits.

After mulling over my goals for another few months, I decided that if they were in tension with each other, I wanted to prioritize exploration over efficacy. Even if it turned out that I was bad at some common volunteer roles, this season was my chance to give them a try before signing up for a more serious commitment. There were also a lot of different causes that I wanted to support, so in the end, I ended up doing five different things for the 2018 midterms: two district supervisor races for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, one San Francisco ballot proposition, one Arizona Senate race, and a general collection of races in the Pittsburgh area.

Thanks to spreading out my involvement, I think I had less of an impact. However, seeing different campaigns at work taught me a lot about what I want my own role to be. I canvassed with a candidate, with a volunteer buddy, and alone; I phone banked and text banked my own city as well as places I’d never been; and I worked behind the scenes in campaign offices, doing data entry and sorting papers. (By the way, data entry was quite the slog while suffering from untreated RSI. I highly recommend getting your health problems fixed to whatever extent you can.)

Some of the things I learned didn’t surprise me. For example, text banking drove me up the wall because I was responsible for replying to things within 20-30 minutes. My usual relationship to mobile devices is to turn off all sound and vibration and if I don’t see a notification, oh well, it can wait. Canvassing was nerve-wracking in neighborhoods where people owned dogs because many dogs are reactive to doorbells, even if they aren’t actually aggressive. I’m scared of most unknown / untrusted dogs, so barking and lunging triggers a racing heart and other issues for me. I dealt with this by carrying an anti-anxiety zine in my wallet (not this particular self-help zine, but it also featured relaxation techniques and a hand-drawn aesthetic) and going through the exercises after I retreated from a particularly scary dog.

There were other things that came up for me that made this entire experiment feel worthwhile: I learned something new about the way I want to work and I knew how I’d apply it to future volunteering decisions. The biggest thing was probably the energy difference between canvassing, phone banking, and text banking. I found text banking incredibly unrewarding because the receptive people weren’t as chatty as they would be in person. At the same time, it was also stressful because the irritated people were much more aggressive, frequently swearing at me. Although I never felt like they were criticizing me since they obviously didn’t know me, I still felt the burden of keeping my mouth shut and being polite, since I had to represent the campaign and not just myself. In contrast, canvassing was really energizing. Most times that I went out, even if it was just for an hour, I met people who were interested in what I had to say and people who thanked me for showing up and fighting for something I cared about. People who didn’t want to talk to me would simply decline to answer their door; they didn’t open the door to yell in my face.

However, if it hadn’t been for my RSI, I think my favorite thing would have been data entry and other miscellaneous tasks in a campaign office. That’s because volunteering at the same office repeatedly means that you get to know the other people there. It’s inspiring to meet people from different walks of life and hear about what moved them to get involved. It’s also much easier to see the results of your work: you started with this large stack of paper, and after two hours of waving a barcode scanner or typing on a laptop, the stack is almost gone and the voter tracking tool is now up to date, ready to empower more canvassers, phone bankers, and text bankers to do their jobs effectively.

I went into the 2018 midterm elections with almost no volunteer experience (one day of GOTV in 2008 and less than an hour of phone banking in 2016 is all I can remember) and a very hazy idea of how I could possibly change that. I don’t have an exact outline for 2020 yet, but I know what’s important to me, and that gives me a framework for making my decision when the time comes.

Some of the things that came up for me when reflecting on my 2018 experiences:

  1. Take some time off from work. It can be exhausting to canvass all day long, even if you’re fairly accustomed to talking to people and walking through cities. That said, taking an entire week off at a time is probably unnecessary unless you’re performing a more specialized role. Very little canvassing happens during the week until the last weekend.
  2. Look for roles that involve talking to people. Talking to fellow volunteers is great; so is talking to voters. Talking to people reassures you that you aren’t alone and makes challenges feel more surmountable.
  3. Think about where you want to live and how you want the rest of your life to look. Do you want to sleep in your own bed? Do you want to have non-politics friends around to hang out with on your days off? One tradeoff of staying at home is that it’s hard to get away from normal responsibilities, which can be distracting, but it’s easy to stay in normal routines, which means that basic things like eating the right food and getting enough sleep are easier.

2017 reading list

Like a lot of people, I was a voracious reader as a kid but have had more difficulty finishing books in recent years. I’m surprised and glad to see that I read 58 books in 2017 (33 comics, 23 new prose books, 2 rereads).

My main goal was to fill in some of the gaps in my understanding of US history and racial justice. Here are a few books that stand out to me with respect to that goal:

California Politics and Government: A Practical Approach by Larry N. Gerston and Terry Christensen. I read this as an introduction to California structures and a refresher on high school civics. I appreciated the frank discussion of the anti-immigrant racism in the Progressive movement. Now I finally understand why we have all those propositions on every ballot.

Kiyo’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest for the American Dream by Kiyo Sato. This book includes vivid descriptions of daily life for the Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in WWII camps. It’s a great overall memoir and helps place our country’s crimes in context.

March: Book One, Book Two, and Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. This is a powerfully illustrated comic book trilogy that tells the true story of John Lewis’s leadership in the civil rights movement. Even if your history class was accurate, reading about a hate mob feels different than seeing the white faces contorted with anger drawn on the page.

Donating to charity

This post describes my own personal experiences and might only be relevant to people with similarly comfortable incomes. They’re arguably the ones who need this conversation more, since poor people tend to donate more of their income.

I started regularly donating money to charity after I graduated from college and started my first full-time job. I was raised to be mindful of the opportunities I had received and the role that luck played in my life. It felt obvious that I should share what I had with others. I looked for registered nonprofits that supported causes I felt personally invested in, wrote them paper checks, then gathered up my receipts to deduct them from my taxes.

It was very easy for me to get started back then because I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two other people and paying recession-era rents. Even after saving for retirement, I had plenty of discretionary income, so it was just a matter of setting a donation goal and tracking whether or not I reached it. I decided to try to maximize my company match: if they matched $500, I would donate $500. I didn’t meet my goal every year, but I liked this approach as a way to check in with myself every December. Having a concrete number helped me decide whether I had really done what I set out to do.

When I changed jobs and my new employer no longer offered matching funds, I looked for alternative models. I am an ardent atheist, but I liked some of the things I read about tithing. It seemed similar enough to the corporate model of giving away 1% of profits, and it had the advantage of scaling up with my income. The problem with donating a flat amount was that the tech industry and my own career were both growing, so continuing to donate only $500 would be an increasingly stingy move.

In the past two years, I’ve been comfortably meeting my donation goals, both in company match utilization and in percentage of my income. I’ve been reading about other people’s donation philosophies to inform my thinking. Here are a few sources I’ve found helpful:

Here’s what I’m considering for 2018 and beyond: allocate the entirety of my N% charity budget to statistically effective things like GiveWell, then donate another large chunk of money to things that are a more direct expression of my values. For example, I believe that forced birth policies are a violation of people’s right to control their own bodies. It’s against my morals to impose arbitrary waiting periods and unnecessary exams just to create financial barriers to abortion. One way I can act on this is to give money directly to pregnant people who cannot afford abortions. I could also donate to a group that does education and outreach to connect people with the healthcare they need, or donate to a politician who’s committed to defend these rights.

I haven’t figured out the details, and I’m especially unsure how much I should allocate to each type of giving. Should I keep giving N% and find another N%, doubling the amount I’m giving away to others? Should more of my dollars be dedicated to efficiency or to my personal values? Does it matter whether all of it is tax deductible, or should I allocate more to lobbying and direct aid? Either way, I’ll need to check in with myself at the end of the year to see if it’s gone well.

Showing up in person

In the aftermath of last November’s election, I started attending far more political events than I ever had before. I joined groups that were just forming and groups that had been around for decades. I made signs and attended marches. I listened to speeches by experienced activists. Showing up for causes that I believe in started to make a difference in how I experience my daily life.

My newfound motivation is summed up best in this advice post about Trump by a psychologist: “We do good things because they are good, but results are not guaranteed.” Most of the beliefs I’m advocating for right now are things that have been important to me for decades, if not my entire life. What deterred me before wasn’t thinking that something didn’t matter; it was thinking that my own actions wouldn’t help. I wanted more immediate gratification than I could realistically expect. I ran a service organization on campus and I phone banked for a candidate I believed in and I became a peer counselor on a crisis line. Then I got discouraged and wondered whether I had actually improved anyone’s lives. And then I convinced myself that I needed to take care of myself first, which was technically true, but I didn’t actually make a plan for how to resume taking care of others.

Six months after the election, I’m revisiting President Obama’s words from his farewell address: “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.” This is still tough for me. My guess is that I’ll be battling complacency and fear for a very long time. But I’m trying to believe in the people around me and to spend my time working alongside them. Seeing their faces, hearing their voices, and relying on their strength… it’s not a magic cure, but I think it helps.

The cost of healthcare

Nancy Pelosi has been working with other Democrats to host events in support of the ACA. I attended a rally at City Hall on January 15 and a town hall at Delancey Street Foundation on February 18. Pelosi is also asking constituents to send her personal stories of how we would be affected by the repeal of the ACA. I decided to adapt some of my tweets into a letter that I sent by email.

A few weeks ago, I attended your rally to save the ACA at City Hall here in San Francisco. I was proud to see the turnout across the country that weekend. For me, that day was partly about being a person in a visible crowd, but also about spending the time to hear other people’s stories. I wanted to share my own story with you to explain why it’s so important to me to fight for healthcare for everyone.

I grew up without consistent health insurance, but I got mandatory coverage when I went to college. In my senior year, a few days after a student clinic visit, I got a call insisting that I go to the ER immediately. I asked them, “Wait, what? Why? I feel fine.” They told me that they’d completed a blood test and my results contained something or other that was 3x the expected levels. They were super scared, so I reluctantly canceled my plans with friends and hopped on a bus to a nearby hospital, rolling my eyes. Getting screened in the ER was tedious because I had to wait around, but I didn’t really mind. Just like I assumed, they found levels contrary to campus clinic.

However… they did find high blood pressure. Really high. Enough that they wanted to admit me immediately to run some more tests. At this point I started arguing with them. I felt fine, no big deal. What I really meant was, “I don’t know whether I can afford to be that sick.” I find that it horrifying that I was 21 years old and had blood pressure that called for hospitalization and still tried to refuse further tests. Even though I had insurance, I was panicking that I might be on the verge of a preexisting condition that meant I could never afford a coverage gap again.

I was very lucky: my insurance covered almost all of my $23k hospital bill for a two day stay. I had a parent that taught me how to talk to institutions, including calling the hospital on the phone and asking for a payment plan. I didn’t end up with a serious health crisis. And when I graduated a few months later, I started working at a job that provided good insurance and paid enough that I could save up. But if my health had been a bit worse, or my family had been poorer, or if I’d been less educated, that could easily have been catastrophic.

Our broken healthcare system affects every single person in this country. The ACA finally gave me hope that we would fix it in my lifetime. Thank you for the support you’ve shown so far. Please continue to fight on behalf of all of us.

Post-election changes

This is not a post about how the outside world has changed since November 8, 2016. If you’re looking for that, you probably want this series of posts by Amy Siskind. These are observations about myself.

On the night of the election, I stayed up until 5:30 am, struggling to come to terms with what had just happened. By the next day, I was angry and had resolved to show up and do my part.

Here are some ways that my life has changed in the past 2.5 months.

It’s impossible to maintain focus at work and in my personal life. Turns out it’s harder to write layout code when you simply don’t feel safe. This shift has made me realize how secure and happy I felt for much of the past year. Even as I struggle to find my footing again, I’m grateful to have had that time and to become more aware of it.

I feel physically nauseated from time to time, regardless of how much I sleep and what I eat. Sometimes it seems incredibly daunting to get up from where I’m sitting and walk to my bus stop and go wherever I need to go. I assume that this is due to stress.

I lost interest in most of my old hobbies. I would like to keep running, but it feels like I don’t have the energy to do it yet. I picked up comic books but gotten bored after a few pages. My cosplay ambitions are on indefinite hold, partly because I have no interest at all, but mainly because I don’t think I can sustain both cosplay and activism, and if one of them has to go, it’s obvious what I should do.

I started reading the news again. I’d been trying to limit my daily consumption of it, especially during the endless campaign, but I think I went overboard and got disconnected from the outside world. I grew up reading the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and when I moved to California after college, I got into neighborhood coverage, urbanist blogs, and The Atlantic. These days I mainly try to read The Guardian and periodically peek at National Review, but I inevitably also read a lot of New York Times and Washington Post because that’s what gets shared the most in my networks.

I call my members of Congress on a regular basis. I put their phone numbers in my contact list a week after the election and I’ve been following action newsletters and calling their district offices ever since. I helped a few friends get through their phone anxiety to make their first call.

I learned that I like attending political events in person. However, not every group is right for me. Each group of people has its own style of running the meeting and resolving conflicts. Coming from a tech environment where everyone bends over backwards to avoid crosstalk, it’s jarring to hear people interrupting each other or bluntly saying, “That’s not true. Your facts are wrong.” It’s something I’m trying to get used to without losing my sense of self.

Becoming a Democrat (again)

I’ve been voting for about a decade now and I’ve almost always voted for Democrats. I was excited for my very first election (a midterm election!) because I could finally vote Rick Santorum out of the Senate for his opposition to birth control and promotion of intelligent design. I was also eager to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary.* Back then, it actually mattered that I was a Democrat because Pennsylvania had closed primaries, meaning that only Democrats could vote for the Democratic candidate.

However, when I moved to San Francisco, I registered to vote without declaring a party preference. This isn’t the same as explicitly declaring yourself Independent; it’s just not having any annotation on your name in the voter rolls. I was just trying to avoid phone calls and paper mail, not totally disavow the party. Over the years, I got used to this status quo, and ended up feeling surprisingly attached to it. Since California’s primaries are only closed for Republicans and not Democrats, I didn’t feel the need to rejoin until now.

In the weeks before an election, you get voter guides in the mail from a bunch of different advocacy groups. I do my best to study multiple guides and compare their reasoning when they differ, but I assume that some voters will vote Democrat all the way down the ticket out of information overload or apathy. After all, I’ve considered doing it myself: I didn’t do enough research before my first election and was surprised by how many offices there were beyond Senator.

Here in San Francisco, the Democratic party totally dominates local and state politics, to the point that people strongly identify with specific factions within it. In San Francisco, this looks like a fight between “progressives” and “moderates” over how to fix the housing crisis (but everyone at least agrees that we have a housing crisis and that it’s hurting existing communities and vulnerable people). When I’m on the fence, I do look to the Democratic party’s endorsements in hopes that party members have done a lot of useful arguing on our behalf and figured out a reasonable compromise.

I’m not sure where I thought those party members came from, but last fall, I learned that some of them are directly elected at Assembly District Election Meetings (ADEMs). So, last weekend, I showed up to the Assembly District 17 election at Local 261, a union hall in the Mission to reregister as a Democrat and vote for San Francisco’s voice in statewide party policy.

The line was several blocks long and the wind and the rain were intense enough that my umbrella snapped in the line of duty, but I made it into the building after an hour and was able to cast my vote. As of this post, official results aren’t out yet, but a preliminary photo on David Chiu’s Facebook page suggests that the margin between the 7th Delegate and the 1st runner-up might only have been a vote or two, which is amazing and makes the wait in the rain feel worthwhile.

* This claim is according to the best of my recollection, but I’m not 100% sure and I’m not going to FOIA my voting record to fact check my own blog post and confirm that I voted. For what it’s worth, I did find a Facebook post from April 2008 where I mentioned Obama.

San Francisco’s representatives

My Civic Workout recently asked subscribers to look up the answers to these questions:

  • Who are your elected officials?
  • Where are their newsletters?
  • When are their upcoming town hall meetings?

I live in San Francisco, and if you live in my general vicinity, all of the information below should apply to you too. If you live elsewhere, consider taking some time to research your own elected officials and share your work with your local friends.

Here are the links I used:


I couldn’t find websites or newsletters for everyone. Most people do seem to have campaign newsletters, but those aren’t the same thing as constituent newsletters. One reason might be that newly sworn in members haven’t set everything up yet (as of early January 2017): for example, Kamala Harris was elected to the Senate and Scott Wiener was elected to the State Senate on November 8, 2016.

Federal legislature

Each state has two Senators that represent everyone in the state. If you live in California, both Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris represent you, regardless of where in the state you live.

Each person has exactly one representative in the House of Representatives. The districts don’t necessarily line up with city names. You might need your zip code or even your street address to figure out who represents you in the House. Nancy Pelosi represents most, but not all, of San Francisco.

Legislation can be introduced by either the House or the Senate. If someone tries to introduce a nationwide version of SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious racial profiling bill, it could come from either the House or the Senate.

Cabinet nominations and Supreme Court nominations are confirmed by the Senate. When the president chooses people to lead the Department of Homeland Security or the State Department, or to fill an empty spot on the Supreme Court, the Senate needs to sign off on each of those choices.

Senator Dianne Feinstein
San Francisco office: 415-393-0707
Washington DC office: 202-224-3841

Senator Kamala Harris
San Francisco office: 916-448-2787
Washington DC office: 202-224-3553

Representative Nancy Pelosi
pelosi.house.gov (newsletter)
San Francisco office: 415-556-4862
Washington DC office: 202-225-4965

State legislature

Legislation can be introduced by either the Assembly or the (State) Senate, which are similar to the House and the US Senate. One important difference is that State Senators don’t serve the whole state; instead, they have their own districts which are a bit bigger than Assembly Members’ districts.

Scott Wiener serves San Francisco, Daly City, and Colma in the Senate. David Chiu serves the eastern half of San Francisco in the Assembly; Phil Ting serves the western half of San Francisco.

State Senator Scott Wiener
sd11.senate.ca.gov (newsletter)
San Francisco office: 415-557-1300
Sacramento office: 916-651-4011

Assembly Member David Chiu
asmdc.org/members/a17 (newsletter)
San Francisco office: 415-557-3013
Sacramento office: 916-319-2017

Assembly Member Phil Ting
asmdc.org/members/a19 (newsletter)
San Francisco office: 415-557-2312
Sacramento office: 916-319-2019

Concrete actions

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, I hoped that Trump would not be elected. If he did get elected, I hoped that he wouldn’t follow through on his claims. Since the election, I have been proven wrong over and over. Right now, I have very little hope for the future, but I cannot stand by and do nothing.

Here are my attempts to take consistent, effective action against the regressive policies and cultural fallout that I’m expecting from a Trump administration:


For the immigrants that will be targeted by inhumane deportation policies, I’m donating $50 per month to the American Civil Liberties Union.

For the people who will lose access to reproductive healthcare thanks to fundamentalist Christian terrorists, financial barriers, local abortion clinic shutdowns, and coercive state laws, I’m donating $50 per month to Planned Parenthood.

For everyone endangered by unconstitutional government surveillance, especially activists, I’m donating $50 per month to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

For queer people who might lose their marital status, get fired from their job, or get denied their correct gender markers on paperwork, I’m donating $50 per month to Lambda Legal.

For everyone targeted by hate crimes and resurgent white supremacy, I’m donating $50 per month to Southern Poverty Law Center.


I’ve purchased annual subscriptions to The Guardian and Foreign Policy to get news that isn’t curated for me by advocacy groups, friends, or colleagues.

I’m donating $50 per month to ProPublica to support investigative journalism.



I’m following three email newsletters: flippable, re:act, and resist in addition to all of the advocacy groups above.

I’m calling Representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator Barbara Boxer, and Senator Dianne Feinstein with my comments and including my name, address, and zip code to make sure they know I’m a constituent.