Yesterday I was fortunate to spend the day visiting our representatives and asking them to support funding that will eliminate Hepatitis B. On the surface this seems unnecessary, why wouldn’t our representatives support
the elimination of this deadly disease? Why does it require a hundred plus people to make their way to the Capitol to tell our legislators this is needed?
It is common for people to believe our representatives automatically know what we need. For instance, that our representatives already understand what is happening with Hepatitis B infections and that they will act appropriately to address the problem. This is simply not true. Our representatives are smart and talented, but they are not all-knowing. They need us to share our knowledge and guide them in their work.
Even more importantly, people often believe it is not their responsibility to have a voice in the governing process of our country. They believe that being a citizen ends once they cast their vote, and that they must trust their elected representatives to do what is best for all. But this is a false belief. We cannot, as a democracy, afford to let a ruling class, even an elected one, determine how our government runs. To do so would be walking towards dictatorship, and this is the type of governance we turned away from as a nation. Instead we adopted democracy, which by its design requires action on the part of its citizens.
When I taught Democratic Citizenship to freshmen college students and asked them to write their representatives, many of the students did not feel they had the right to tell their legislators what to do! I had to explain to the students that as democratic citizens they are leaders, and that they had the right and the responsibility to tell their legislators how they should be leading us. In a democracy we don’t get to stay home and defer to, or blame, those who are elected to our government, in a democracy we are the government!
I’ll say that one more time because it is so important. We are the government! It is by the people, for the people. When we see a need for change, for instance the urgent need for research into cures and immunization against Hepatitis B, it is not just our right to act, but our responsibility! This is how our government works. When we start letting those we elect tell us what is best, we weaken our democracy.
Many people shy away from this responsibility. They fear they do not know enough, or feel they do not have the time to be involved. It does take time to be a democratic citizen. You must actively stay informed and strive to understand all the complexities of the issues you care about (not just repeat what you hear on the nightly news). It means standing up as a leader, in large ways or small, and taking action to build the change you are hoping for. This is why calling, writing, visiting your elected officials and sharing your knowledge is essential. And this is why I was in Washington D.C. with Hep B United, to share knowledge about how Hepatitis B is plaguing our communities, and to help our representatives understand how they can take action to address this social problem.
It is a privilege to participate in the governing process! In many places in our world people are denied this privilege. We live in a strong, vibrant democracy and this means we are all leaders. Use your leadership wisely!