Wandering the Neighborhood…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I am very worried about the current state of politics and the direction our state and country seem to be taking. I disagree with so many of the actions of the Republican Party right now. I worry that we are edging toward a dangerous religious nationalism. I am frustrated that we are even considering re-electing someone who is not willing to abide by the results of our elections. I fret and complain about politics frequently with my like-minded friends and on Facebook.

In an effort to do something more effective than just worrying and complaining, I signed up to be a precinct chair. We have 91 precincts in McLennan County, and at the time I signed up to be a precinct chair, the Democrats had chairs for about 40 of them. That seems like a low number, but it’s evidently not that unusual. I think the Republicans have about the same number – somewhere between 40 and 50.

I don’t know what a precinct chair is or what they/we are supposed to do. I am using the present tense on purpose. I didn’t know what a precinct chair was when I signed up to do it, and I still don’t really know now that I have been one for a few months. I just wanted to do SOMETHING besides (in addition to?) worrying and griping.

One thing I have figured out that precinct chairs are supposed to do is to “help organize the precinct.” I don’t really know what that means either, but I do know it is hard to organize much of anything if you can’t communicate with the people you are organizing, and I know it’s hard to communicate with folks these days if you don’t have an email or a phone number. So, I have made it my first goal as precinct chair to see if I can round up emails and/or phone numbers for folks in my precinct who are Democrats or at least Democrat-friendly. I figure I’ll figure out what to do next when I get there.

But how do you get those emails and phone numbers?

The only way I know to do it is to engage in that most dreaded of all political activities (for introverts, at least) … knocking on doors.

It took me a while to work myself up to it, but finally I made myself a list of likely Democrats based on the voter file. For the last few weeks, whenever I have a spare hour or two and weather is not too bad, I have been out in the neighborhood knocking on doors, introducing myself, and asking folks if they want to sign up for the email list. I’m doing it spur of the moment whenever I have time, which doesn’t lend itself to finding a buddy. So, my forays are generally a lot of solitary walking, with the occasional brief human interaction – plenty of time to just look around and think about things.

I live in Precinct 8. We are a pretty diverse precinct – different races, different economic situations, different ages, different church affiliations, different languages, different political leanings and levels of interest. We include a few apartment complexes, but mostly single-family homes of different shapes and sizes — some small homes, maybe 900 square feet or so, some big houses along Austin and Washington Avenue, and everything in between. Some of the houses are old and could definitely use a coat of paint and some repairs, some have been freshly spruced up with a little dose of the “Magnolia” treatment. Some yards are mostly dirt and weeds, some are lush green lawns, some are mainly corrals for kids toys or various collections of trees and plants from sprawling live oaks, to knock-out roses, to crepe myrtles, to cacti and palm trees.

One of the things I have been thinking about as I have been wandering around my neighborhood/my precinct is how few of my neighbors I actually know. We have lived in the same house for more than 20 years now, but I don’t know many of my neighbors. The ones I do know are acquaintances from other parts of my life who just happen to live close by.

We have a neighborhood association that gets people together every few months. I have been to a few of the meetings but haven’t gotten really involved – it always seems like I’m a little too busy when they are getting together.

Other than my lackluster neighborhood association attendance, I don’t really know how to get to know my neighbors. Is that something that people used to do that we don’t really do anymore? Or is it just me? Did people know their neighbors in the “good old days” or is that just a figment of nostalgia? Do you have to have kids to get to know your neighbors? A front porch?

I tug on this loose thread of that thought as I wander from house to house, carefully avoiding houses with “Biden Sucks” bumper stickers on the cars. It feels like there is a connection between not knowing each other and our current troubling state of political polarization. When you don’t know someone it’s easier to do and say things that you would never do or say to someone you know.

Do people still read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school? It’s one of my favorite books. My favorite scene is the one at the jail where Scout talks to Mr. Cunningham. If you haven’t read it in a while, it is worth a re-read. (Here’s a link to a PDF of that scene that I clumsily and probably illegally copied.)

Tom Robinson, a Black man, has been accused of raping a White woman. Atticus Finch, the local lawyer, is responsible for defending him. Fearing prejudice will drive the local men to ignore the law and lynch Tom, Atticus decides to spend the night outside the jailhouse keeping guard. Sure enough, the local men show up bent on administering their own justice. The men threaten Atticus, warning him to get out of the way or they will do the same to him that they intend to do to Tom.

Unknown to Atticus and the men, a trio of children have been watching — Atticus’ two children, Jem and Scout, and their friend Dill. Just as things are about to get really bad, Scout, not understanding the situation, rushes through the crowd to her father.

Scout, recognizing the tension but somewhat oblivious of the danger, says “Hey” to one of the men in the crowd – Mr. Cunningham. By way of making conversation, she asks about his legal troubles, she mentions the hickory nuts he brought to their house one time, mentions the man’s son Walter. She reminds him of their connection. Remembering that connection reminds Mr. Cunningham of his better self.  It diffuses the situation. Mr. Cunningham ends up calling off the mob.

I thought about that scene yesterday as I was wandering around the neighborhood – the importance of knowing your neighbors, of having friendly, neighborly, connections.

Heading into this election year we will have plenty of reasons to get mad at each other, our anger can lead us to think awful things about each other, and if we are not careful to do awful things to each other.

We will need our neighborly connections more than ever, especially our connections to people who are different from us. I feel like we are a society starved for those kinds of connections.

How can we get to know our neighbors? I don’t know. Maybe knocking on doors will help some. Maybe not. I figure I’ll figure out what to do next when I get there.

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  1. Erin Shank on January 14, 2024 at 5:56 pm

    Thanks dear friend for loving and being concerned about our Democracy. I agree with every word that you said. I also have hope that soon we will all remember that we are the United States of America, and bi-partisanship produces good government. We are all different, we should rejoice in our diversity and remember that working together towards a common goal is the right thing to do. Thanks for all that you do! Erin

  2. LucyAnn on January 17, 2024 at 10:49 am

    A.B.T. great thoughts about how to connect with our neighbors? Knocking on doors, phone calls, monthly meetings, or the good old come by for coffee. As a precinct chair in the past. I found I had to knock on doors AND make calls. Not text, not letters, physical effort. I walked precinct 56 to gather new numbers and emails. If I had to put a plan together from my experience. I would say about every 5 years the precinct would need to be updated. Knocking on ALL doors. I enjoyed the experience with most folks being receptive. My spill was this, Hi, I’m LucyAnn your democrat precinct chair. We have this address listed as a fellow Dem. Is this still (Name) residence? Is there a phone number or email address you would like to provide? Here is some basic information, our office address, phone number and FB site. Thank for your time and don’t forget to VOTE on XX-XX (Date). It seemed to get the conversation going with strangers.
    I don’t agree with the Republican party holding the legislation system hostage until they get what they want. I don’t agree with the censorship happening in media, literature, and education. I am astonished at the popularity of these tactics. Fear is the message and its sticking with people.
    My hope is even those on the fence, we can get involved to vote.

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