Skip to content
Home » A Crash Course In Making Political Change: Katie Fahey (Transcript)

A Crash Course In Making Political Change: Katie Fahey (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of activist Katie Fahey’s talk titled “A Crash Course In Making Political Change” at TED 2023 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


Feeling Disillusioned with the World

When the Flint water crisis happened in Michigan, I was already feeling pretty disillusioned with the state of the world. I was 27, I had an hour-long commute to work. I worked in the recycling industry, which I liked, but I spent most of my day crawling around in garbage cans. And I would listen to the radio on my hour-long commute and hear about how there were all these bills that the people of Michigan wanted to see passed, yet our legislature wasn’t doing anything about it.

And I found out that the reason they weren’t was because of a thing called gerrymandering, which basically meant that when voting districts were being drawn, our politicians would pick and choose which voters they wanted voting for them to all but guarantee that they were going to win the election, or that their political party was going to win an election. I kept thinking like: “How is this the world we live in? Kids don’t have clean water, politicians aren’t doing anything and aren’t afraid of our vote. Like, doesn’t anybody care?”

Taking Action on Facebook

“And why doesn’t somebody do something about this?” And I didn’t realize that soon, by accident, I would figure out that actually a lot of people do care. That next morning, before going to work, just kind of out of frustration, I made a post on Facebook, and it said: “Hey, I want to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you want to help, let me know :)” And — the emoji was very key.

I didn’t think that this would actually do much of anything. I thought maybe I’d find a couple other friends who thought this was a big deal. Maybe we’d volunteer somewhere. I certainly didn’t think that it would lead to a political movement of over 10,000 people, that it would lead to amending our state constitution or actually restoring faith in democracy in our state in general. But when I went to work and then at lunchtime, checked social media, I started to see that people were responding.

Overwhelming Response and Figuring Out Next Steps

And they were saying things like, “I’ve cared about this issue for such a long time. I’m so glad you’re doing something about it.” “Please let me know how I can help.” “Katie, let’s do this thing.” And that’s when it struck me like, oh no. These people think I know what I’m doing, and I did not.

So I quickly Googled: “How do you end gerrymandering?” And it turns out that it’s all related to a process called the redistricting process. And if you wanted to end gerrymandering, you had to get the politicians to stop being the ones getting to pick and choose who their voters were. And that made a lot of sense, because when politicians would draw these lines, instead of keeping communities together, we would get districts that look like this.

The Impact of Gerrymandering in Michigan

In no way does that represent an actual group of people. And why this was particularly important in Michigan is we’re a pretty purple state. And what I mean by that is that about half of us vote for Democrats and about half of us vote for Republicans. And that should mean that about half of our representatives should be Democrats and about half of them should be Republicans.

But depending on which political party would be in charge of that redistricting process, they would actually have a majority of the elected representatives, or sometimes even a super majority, even though they might have received less than half of the votes or exactly half. And that would then mean that they don’t even have to talk to anybody on the other side of the aisle, when passing any kind of laws. And the other important part is that redistricting only happens once every 10 years.

Exploring the Ballot Initiative Process

So you have half of the state being locked entirely out of the decision-making process for 10 years at a time. It did not seem like a good way to be doing democracy. So we went to the politicians and we were like, “You guys should change that.” And they were like, “No.” They were not interested in giving themselves less power.

But thankfully, we figured out that in Michigan we had a form of direct democracy, and it was called the ballot initiative process. And so I turned to my coworker Kelly, we were at our recycling job, and we started getting to work to figure out, OK, what is this ballot initiative process? What can this actually do?

Breaking Down the Ballot Initiative Process

And we broke it down into three different steps. One, we had to write constitutional language. Didn’t know how to do that. Two, we had to gather a lot of signatures and we didn’t know how to do that either. Three, we had to get about half of our state to vote “yes” on wanting to amend the constitution to end gerrymandering.

And guess what? We didn’t know how to do that either. But we had this Facebook post that then we turned into a Facebook group, and we started seeing all of these people coming in who were absolutely amazing. A lot of them were just like me, they voted consistently, they cared about the world’s problems, but they weren’t really interested in volunteering for a political campaign or one party or the other.

Bringing Together a Diverse Group of Volunteers

But these people are amazing. I mean, we had veterinarians, doctors, birthing doulas. We had butchers and veterans and even 16-year-old kids who couldn’t vote yet but wanted to be a part of creating a change so that by the time they could vote, it would actually be legit. So what we started to do was figure out, OK, what are all these campaign tasks?

And then what are all these skills we have? And how do we start bringing them together? For example, we had a woman who had been in charge of the Renaissance Festival for years in Michigan. And she actually started creating our first fundraising plan.

Utilizing Diverse Skill Sets

And the reason she did that is because she had experience raising money for kind of weird stuff. And we had another woman who is absolutely amazing, her name was Jamie, she was an engineer and a retired high school math teacher, and she was basically the only person who had actually volunteered for a political campaign before. So she had gathered signatures, she had knocked on doors, and using her skills in engineering and math, she figured out, how could we take thousands of us to actually end up reaching millions of voters.

And that all was really exciting. And then I had a volunteer, Rebecca, and she came up to me and she’s like, “I really want to volunteer. I have time to do it, but I don’t think there’s any way I can contribute.” I was like, “Alright, well, what do you do?” She was a stay-at-home mom.

Finding a Place for Everyone to Contribute

And I said, “First of all, that comes with a lot of skills. So we’ve got a lot to work with. But what are your hobbies?” She said, “I’m a Jazzercise instructor and a woodcarver.” Great, great. We’re going to find a place.

So we started thinking, how could we apply these skills? Well, it turns out, in order to gather a bunch of signatures, you actually need a bunch of clipboards. And buying clipboards, even in bulk, is super expensive. And we started from a Facebook post, so we did not have a lot of money.

Getting Creative with Clipboard Production

And when we went to our Facebook group and we said, “Hey, can you guys help us figure out what we might be able to do,” it turns out we not only had one, but several wood carvers. And the woodcarvers said, “Hold on, give us a second.” They went away, made a plan and came back. And they had decided to create gift registries at Home Depots and Lowe’s across the state, reserving wood so we could cut our own clipboards.

Then they found warehouses where we could then cut those clipboards and start assembling them. Then they were thinking a lot about these clipboards, so they started to think about like, how do we make them longer so they can hold both a petition as well as gathering contact information from people. And then they wanted all of us to be able to be recognized as volunteers.

Creating Professional Tools for Volunteers

So they added a nice little red stripe so that people could know that we’re part of the Ending Gerrymandering campaign. And they even thought about how could we turn this clipboard itself, if we’re going to make such an investment in them, into an actual tool to educate people on the process in general. They ended up being able to make these clipboards for only 33 cents each instead of 11 dollars. And the only reason we were able to do any of that, so that everybody could have a professional tool that made them feel confident when talking to strangers about civics, was because we had a wood carver as a volunteer.

And that was one of the first moments when I started to realize that like, us not “doing politics” as our day job was actually our strength. We were looking at democracy as how we hoped it would be instead of the brokenness that it already was. And so when we were looking at writing the constitutional language, we wanted to take that spirit and apply it.

Listening to the People of Michigan

At the time in Michigan, politicians were refusing to hold town halls. They didn’t want to meet with their constituents because they were getting a lot of criticism, because they were writing laws that nobody wanted. And so at a time when we weren’t being listened to, we thought, OK, let’s go listen to each other instead. So we made a plan to go and ask people what would they want in a redistricting process, what would one that works well and that we could have trust in actually look like?

We set a goal of going to every congressional district, and we weren’t sure if people were going to show up because we were brand new organization, just starting. But to our surprise, it was standing room only at almost every single location. And we would hear all of these people saying, you know, “I have lived in this community my whole life, and a politician has never even visited our city once. And yet here you are, a random stranger from across the state, not only listening to me, but making sure that my opinion is going to be used in a constitutional amendment.”

Finding Common Ground

And what my favorite part was, is you would have people coming in really skeptical of each other, never having really had a conversation with a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent. And they would start to talk to each other and realize that we had a lot more in common and all of us just wanted a political process that worked. And so instead of focusing on those differences, we were able to focus on actual solutions.

So once our beautiful language written by the people of Michigan was ready to go, we then got to gather those 315,654 registered Michigan voter signatures in 180 days. But thankfully, we had that math teacher, so … We figured out that if we could get about 1,000 of us to gather about 17 signatures a day, we’d be able to meet this goal. But because we had gone around the state and we had listened to people about what they wanted, they all wanted to make sure that this constitutional amendment passed.

Gathering Signatures Across the State

We ended up having over 4,000 people who were willing to come and gather signatures. And they had tons of creativity about how to talk to people about gerrymandering, And they were willing to do anything to gather those signatures. They went into parades and even literal cow pastures in order to make sure that we were getting the people of Michigan to sign. And we ended up blowing that goal out of the water. We were able to gather over 442,000 signatures.

In only 110 days, may I add. And although there is no geographic requirement of where those signatures came from, we actually gathered signatures in each of Michigan’s 83 counties, truly making it for, by and of the people of Michigan. So then we just needed people to vote on the darn thing.

Overwhelming Support for Ending Gerrymandering

And on November 6, 2018, 2.5 million people, 61 percent of the state, overwhelmingly voted “yes” to end gerrymandering and to enstate an independent citizen’s redistricting commission. Shortly after that, we got to see did this constitutional law, written by a bunch of strangers, actually work? And so our commission started to come together.

Thirteen strangers were selected. Four Democrats, four Republicans and five independent voters. They couldn’t be politicians, they couldn’t be lobbyists, they just had to be regular people. Those people were then invited to represent the state.

Creating a Representative Commission

So there was a lottery to make sure that the demographics actually kind of matched who the people of Michigan were, making it one of the only decision-making bodies in Michigan that actually looks like the people of Michigan. They then had the task of going around the state and gathering input from people, asking them what they wanted to see in the redistricting process. And they held town halls that also had standing room only, even though it was only very shortly after COVID.

This commission ended up passing maps that are the most fair maps that Michigan has ever had. And in the first election they were used in, in 2022, how people voted was an exact match for how elected representatives were elected. This is my personal district in the “before” and “after” picture.

Ensuring Fair Elections for Future Voters

My favorite part about all of this is that because we actually changed the constitution, it means that in future redistricting processes, this is going to have to be the same process that’s used, which means that future voters will be guaranteed to have fair elections from here on out. I’m sure that each of you guys have something that keeps you up at night, that makes you feel like, man, I really wish somebody would do something about this. And maybe you feel like you aren’t qualified to be the one to do something.

Or maybe you feel like nobody is listening or cares about this issue. And I used to feel that way. One thing that I did not remember but ended up popping up on my social media is I made almost the exact same Facebook post about a year earlier.

Feeling Alone in the Fight

And it said like, “Hey, let’s end gerrymandering. Who wants to help?” And nobody even liked it. And more importantly, I also didn’t do anything about it. And I think that’s because I felt alone.

I felt like, man, nobody’s even liking this. Like, I must be the only weirdo who wants to end gerrymandering. But by the time I made that second Facebook post, what I realized was that actually, like, a lot of us were feeling the exact same way. We were sitting, feeling like nobody cared.

Realizing You’re Not Alone

We really wanted this issue to be dealt with, but we felt like there must be somebody else whose job it is. There must be an expert out there. But what I have completely learned is that you do not have to be an expert to get involved in democracy. You don’t need a fancy title or a PhD, you don’t even have to ask permission to try.

You never know where one little step will end up leading you. It might change your entire life. And I think that’s really important to remember. I mean, there’s a place for experts, too. I definitely should not perform open-heart surgery on any of you.

The Power of Regular People

I would not be good at it. But we are the ones who are closest to these problems. Our communities and our kids are the ones who do not have clean drinking water. We have the most incentive to want to fix these problems, because we live with its brokenness every single day.

And we see our communities as actual communities. They are our homes. They aren’t red or blue. They are just us.

So I hope all of you remember that when it comes to democracy, all political power is inherent in the people. We all are those people, and this is our power. I hope you don’t forget that. And you remain unafraid to create the world you want to live in. Thank you.

Related Posts