“I just met a guy who’s running for the State House,” Julie said. “He’d like to talk to us about helping his campaign.”
Julie met lots of guys, but usually they didn’t want to talk.
“Why us?” I said. “We’re working to end apartheid and help people. We’re not into politics.”
A few months earlier, I’d learned about Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela. Students Against Apartheid opened chapters all over the world with the goal of convincing corporations to divest from South Africa. This little office in Tampa, with patchouli-smelling volunteers, John Lennon playing on the stereo and posters of fists on the walls, pulled me away from Broadway dreams and Tony Awards fantasies forever.
At eighteen, I was an activist.
“He seems like a good guy,” Julie said. “We should talk to him.”
This guy running for the State House showed up again the next day. Jim reminded me of Jimmy Stewart, earnest and sincere. But he was running for office. That meant he was a politician, probably a lawyer.
I tried to let him down easy. I talked about our noble cause, and how we were succeeding where other generations had failed. Companies pulling out of South Africa, a growing anti-apartheid movement, and Nelson Mandela would one day be free.
One day soon.
This was a movement to be proud of; it wasn’t dirty, like Florida politics could be.
Jim nodded. He thought about what I said. He believed in our movement and thought apartheid was a cause to fight against. He felt proud of our hometown activism, students pulling together to help our brothers and sisters across the sea.
“But what about Louisa Stephens down the street?” he asked.
I didn’t know Louisa Stephens.
“Mrs. Stephens needs help. She’s unable to drive or walk and her health is fading. She requires some assistance to get through each day and her elected representative has been cutting programs she needs to survive.”
“Yes,” Jim said. “So isn’t helping her also a worthy cause? She taught school for 40 years and volunteered at the library and hospital when she retired. Mrs. Stephens tutors kids who otherwise wouldn’t get into college. Helping her live out her remaining years in dignity…I’d like to think that’s noble, too.”
“You shouldn’t stop what you’re doing, Katie,” he said, still earnest and sincere. “Just think about our neighbors, the people with whom we connect every day. They need our help and they’re just as important as the people in South Africa. I understand your hesitation to get involved in politics, but we’re not all dirty.”
I met his gaze and promised to consider helping him.
“You’ll never regret it,” he said.
And I never have.