Wendy Says Things Episode 3 Part 2: Politics from Despair to Activism with Maren Bertelsen


Wendy: So, I know you’ve been politically active. You’ve seen how campaigns are run, and you’ve participated as a poll worker, and gone to the marches and things, and you’ve supported other people running for office, so I wanted to ask you: Have you thought about running for office and putting your own keen mind into the service of the people? And what did you decide, and what was your process of decision on that?

Maren: I have thought about it…running for office. I don’t know that I’ve decided anything particular about it. I don’t live in an area where…uhm, I live in a municipality. I live outside of the city limits for any of the towns near me and so the offices that would be available for me to run for are County Council, State House Representative, and State Senator. I think a few things about it. One thing that I’ve decided in the last few years is that it is really, really important that your representatives know what they’re doing. Like, I want people representing me who actually know how government works. So, I’m interested in that flow of people of the line.

Wendy: Right.

Maren: There are times though when people run were…who had never run before for any office and, at least at the state level in Delaware, I think I’m cool with that. I’m cool with Newbies running for the state level here. That makes sense to me. There aren’t a lot of other offices to run for, one and two: you can, you know, the legislature here generally meets for six months of the year. It’s not, you know, you can get up to speed with it. But things like in this past primary a woman was running against our US Senator and he ended up winning. I didn’t feel comfortable with having somebody who’s never held any office hold office of US Senator. I feel like there should be…you should have gained the experience of what it means to represent people. Like I think that’s true. Like, I think that I would not run for office I feel until I have run and sat on the board of my HOA (Homeowner’s Association). I would like to know what it’s like to you know, represent a group of people who are upset a lot about things that are happening in the neighborhood and to have at least gained that much knowledge of what does it feel like to try to do some good when you…a lot of people are looking and criticizing and stuff like that.

Maren: But for the most part I have watched politicians. They spend a lot of time raising money for ads, mailers, that type of thing. I don’t…and they spend a lot of time talking to people. Which I don’t mind talking to people about politics and stuff, but I just…I’m like more of a person that really just wants to get things done and I don’t know that that part of being a politician appeals to me at all. Like so, I think I’ll probably spend the rest of my life as simply an activist trying to push politicians in the directions that I would like them to go. So, that’s where I think I’m more at these days. I definitely think when I retire I’m going to…like I’m already working with the League of Women Voters, but they’re pretty organized that I think when I retire, I’ll just like hanging around other retired men and women who are spending a lot of their time trying to make sure good laws are passed in the state on a bipartisan level, or at least on a nonpartisan level.

Wendy: Yeah. Yeah, I know that we had talked about that in the past, but I wanted to kind of bring that out because there’s a lot of ways to serve besides, or in addition to, running for office yourself. You know, it was very inspiring to watch how changed, not like an an about face change, but kind of this growth. The change of growth, of becoming…of finding the things to do and doing them and it was refreshing in the light of seeing a lot of just lip service from people, you know, on social media and everything, to just see somebody, and to hear the stories of you as you became more and more involved and, you know, like I would talk to you and you’d say, “I got involved with this group.” And then the next, you know, maybe a couple conversations later: “And I got involved with this group, and oh, my god, I’m so busy…”

Maren: Well, I definitely…I definitely know for sure that, you know, if you dip your toe in political activism, before you know it, you’re under water, or swimming through it because there are so many groups you don’t know about and then when you do know about them you want to…you want to help them. Like so, yeah, I started out dipping my toe by going to the Women’s March and that connected me up with Delaware Women for Inclusion. And Delaware Women for Inclusion has connected me up with, I don’t know, six or seven different groups. And every time I meet somebody else, they tell me what they’re doing, and then I’m doing that, too. So, I have had to take a step back. I realized last year I just had too many things I was in, which meant I was doing them all surface level. And it wasn’t…it wasn’t satisfying, you know, to only be doing the surface level of things, you know, to only be coordinating communication with like Reps and Senators and stuff. And getting people to send in emails like that wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I wanted to get more involved so…

Wendy: You wanted to get more deeply involved with something that was happening instead of this kind of superficial…

Maren: Yeah, but I’m already somewhat involved, and so it wasn’t so hard. You know, there was…I was in involved in this one group with the League of Women Voters and a woman who had introduced me to that group was also working on the redistricting campaign and so I just was able to send her a text and say I would like to do that. And then I realized that all of that other stuff with the League, that it was too much. Too many emails, too many things going on, and I just wanted to focus on elections and voting. Like, that was like really my passion. And so, then I took a step back. I was in the, like the leadership groups within Moms Demand Action and I told the state chapter lead that I was going to step away from that. That I would still be a volunteer and I would still show up for legislative days and stuff like that but that I wasn’t going to be in the leadership anymore, but that I was going to go do these other stuffs.

Maren: So, voting. Elections. And then also, the state of Delaware is no different than the rest of the country, I’m really interested in making sure that we make not only just a little progress but a lot of progress on racial equity issues. And so what came out in the…in the state of Delaware what came out the George Floyd protests this past summer were two task forces: the African American Task Force that has like 4 subcommittees. I believe they’re hoping to add two more. And then the Law Enforcement Accountability Taskforce that has four subcommittees. Delaware has a pretty atrocious, like in terms of how we’re doing in stuff, we’re one of the few states that have a law enforcement officer Bill of Rights and we’re one of I think, I think the other state is gone, I think we are the only state that has a state statute which basically says the police officer gets to decide if using force was right. It’s his or her mental state and they get to decide what that is whether they felt they were in fear of their life, not a reasonable person, but whether the officer themselves thought that. And there were only two states that had that, and I believe that they have repealed I think, I think it was Virginia maybe, and theirs is gone. So, we are now the only state that has it, but the Law Enforcement Accountability Taskforce has some big names on it, including our Attorney General, and I believe that real change will happen, especially if the citizens of Delaware keep their eyes on it.

Maren: Like that’s like the thing, right? The thing is that you have to…you have to show up and you have to…I mean, right now it’s easier than ever because all of these are public meetings that meet on Zoom and then are rebroadcast on their YouTube channel. So, you can stay up to date on what these task forces are doing. You can leave public comment at the end of every single meeting. It’s not always the case that people show up and do it. I have a lot more faith in the African American Task Forces getting their work done without public comment than I do with the Law Enforcement Accountability Task Forces.

Maren: I think there are a lot of law enforcement officers that are on those subcommittees, and I don’t know that it’s…that they’ve decided it’s in their best interest to change what they’re doing.

Wendy: Yeah, I know we were talking about how this big relief after the election, and with the vaccines coming out. This kind of relief from the pandemic and people are starting to feel like everything is OK, and, like you said, maybe we’re done. Maybe we’ve got to the part where we’re done. We knew months ago that if you were really active in trying to support change this was…that there was the immediacy of saying something at the time, but that there was also going to be the need for the long haul, for being present, and active, and supportive over time. After. After the elections. After the pandemic. This idea that we can go back to normal, as opposed to…OK maybe our momentum slows a little bit and we take the breather, but then we have to roll our sleeves back up and continue, kind of, trying to make change, trying to stay…

Maren: I couldn’t agree with you more. And what my experience of the whole thing has been waves of activism. And so, I think that I saw the first wave and I was a part of…I’m sure that there have been many waves before I got involved. I was a part of the wave that happened after the 2016 election. Like that’s the wave that caught me up in it. But in terms of…like, I’m an admin on the Facebook group for the Delaware Women for Inclusion, and, you know, during the George Floyd protests, protesting the behavior of the police, that’s the most I’ve ever seen people wanting to join our group and the overwhelming sentiment of that has been: “This is enough. Like, I’m done. Now I’m activated, let’s go.” And there have been lots of groups that have sprung up that are only focused on racism and getting rid of it. Like, you know, really tackling it in the state of Delaware, and it’s amazing. And I’ve been involved…the YWCA here does an amazing job with its diversity and inclusion group, just offering, like, tons of like really, really good programming. And a few years ago, two years ago, I went through one called Dialogues to Action – Conversations about Racism. And we met for eight weeks same day and time and it was a group of I think…I think the biggest one there were maybe like nine of us and the facilitator. There were some weeks where, you know, it would be a little smaller, but that was just really instrumental. I mean you know a little bit about my growing up, and I grew up in a very segregated suburb of Chicago, that was overwhelmingly white. And so, you didn’t have to concern yourself with anything about race. It was maybe something you saw on TV, or if you went into Chicago because black faces and Hispanic faces, they just weren’t around. Like maybe one family. One family of African Americans, the Taylors, that I remember. One family of Hispanics, the Batistas, that I remember, and you know, a handful of Asian American families. And the rest is all white. Like that’s my recollection of my childhood, very white. And when you don’t have to…when you’re not in contact with another group you don’t concern yourself with them, particularly if you’re in the group that has supremacy. Right?

Wendy: Right.

Maren: In a white supremacist patriarchy, I don’t have to be concerned with anything except my experience, and my experience is going through life not thinking about race. So, it’s really one of the gifts that I think that’s happened in my life since we moved to the East Coast is actually…I mean we live in a neighborhood that’s diverse, and I have had opportunities to, I guess, I probably have always had the opportunities to do something, I just never chose to learn about it. Like, I was kind of convicted by the comments of a friends, a friend of mine from in the Delaware Woman for Inclusion group her mother was…came to meetings too and was part of the group and she talked about the fact that, you know, if you if you’re a white person and you don’t know anything about African American history, the African American experience, that’s true because you don’t want to know. There are so many resources in our libraries that you could learn about this thing. There are so many programs that you could go and immerse yourself in, so you’re making a choice. If you don’t know, you made a choice not to know.

Maren: And you know me. I am an intensely curious person. I…it takes nothing more than a random thought of mine and I can swirl myself through the Internet and spend hours researching something, right? To reading all about it. I am so curious, and so when she said that I was like: “I know nothing.” It’s such a…it’s such…it’s that’s a true thing. I don’t…I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to look at it, I guess, you know, deeply. I wasn’t aware of intentionally doing that, but I am intensely curious person. The fact that I knew so little about African American culture, African American art, African American poetry, African American writers, American history, American history as it involves African Americans, is because I just chose not to know. So, I’ve been really fixing that side of my ignorance in the last few years. And that’s gotten me to a group of people, like what I’m currently doing is once a month for the next 10 months, we met once, the YWCA is running these small group white ally groups, where we’re going through this particular curriculum to become better allies, and I’m super excited about this because I think the next step for this is simply: white people to be educated and to learn how to talk to other white people about it. I don’t think the problem is ever going to be fixed solely by black people. They didn’t create a problem. They won’t fix the problem. It is…this doesn’t happen without white people being intensely engaged on it.

Maren: And it’s a watershed moment. We’re at a watershed moment with this. When you looked at those protests, there were so many white people in them. And that’s the first time I can remember that happening. And so I think, I don’t know this all started because of the waves right? The waves of people, so you know I was part of the wave in 2016 that said no to Trumpism and that got politically engaged on that and has stayed engaged. And there are there are thousands of us, but there was another wave that got activated for that in the 2018 election. There’s another group that got activated around the 2020 election and are staying engaged from it. And when you look at issues, it’s the same thing. I got engaged in the cause for racial equity, you know, when I went to that Dialogues to Action thing. There have been successive waves and I see the large wave happened during the…after George Floyd’s murder. Like there was a large group of people who got engaged on the subject of race at that moment, and they’re staying engaged. It looks to me like they stay engaged, so those waves are what needs to happen across this country, if we’re going to save our democracy. And a big part of saving our democracy, truly I believe this to the deepest part of my soul, is going to be dealing with our racist past and figuring out what we need to do to heal from that.

Maren: I think a lot of problems in our politics right now are a direct result of white supremacy, and we’ve got to deal with the racism to be able to address the other stuff.

Wendy: So, do you feel…because I know that after the 2016 elections you were, you know, kind of in a place where you despaired. And…because in my mind, I was thinking about this conversation that I wanted to have with you was to go from despair to activism. But on personal level, also I’ve seen this growth, and it seems to me that, by taking these steps, and joining groups, and becoming active, that you’re more connected to your community, connected to yourself. You’re more aware and compassionate, you know, more willing to…like not that you were never not these things, but just a growth of it, more and…and how do you feel that the activism and the engagement with other people, and the connections that you’ve found, how…how is that affecting you as you move forward through life?

 Maren: I definitely did. I definitely was in a place of deep despair after the election. I’ve never experienced a low like that. There was a weight that…I was out in Washington at the time, you know we were making that move. Kathryn had already started working in Middletown here in Delaware. And so, I was alone when that occurred, and when the election occurred, and I remember going to bed that night and feeling this sinking weight on my chest, like just this deep weight. And still somehow hoping, because it looked bad when I went to bed, it looked bad, and still somehow hoping that I might wake up in the morning and things might have changed and Hillary Clinton would be president. And that didn’t happen, and that weight just stayed there. It didn’t go. I remember the depression that fell on me, like I just I have never felt anything like that in my…my life. And at the same time, things started to happen in the media, well, the media started reporting on things happening. So, gas stations near our place in Federal Way like they’re just all these reports of racist attacks, you know, people being verbally, or even physically, abused just going in to buy gas. And just this, like shocking day after day after day, of you know, waking up to the news, you know, 200 headstones being pushed over in a Jewish Cemetery. And like that kind of horrible things coming out of this and, you know, truly wondering is my country descending into fascism? Like what is happening here?

Wendy: Oh, yeah, you put out that fascism checklist.

Maren: Yeah…yeah, one of the podcasts I listen to said, you know, make note of the things that you have now, because they will start to erode. And it did erode. Like I did do that.

Wendy: How many things got checked off on that list?

Maren: I can’t remember off the top of my head.

Wendy: It was significant, yeah.

Maren: It was significant. It was significant. Yeah, so like this deep depression, this weight on my chest, it didn’t…it didn’t completely lift but it did get a little easier to carry. And it lifted, most of it lifted off for me, when Joe Biden became president. I woke up the day after that and I realized I can take a deep breath and it was no problem. But I like all of the…the months leading up to that moment where I could take a deep breath, I did start to see that some of what I was feeling before those years, were just this desperation of what is happening is completely unjust. And I seem powerless to affect it. Like that is the nature of my not being able to breathe: watching all of this injustice happen for such a long time, being aware of it in a way that I wasn’t aware of it prior to that moment. Like, I can go back now and I can see the injustices that happened under many administrations not just the Trump, but that’s when I became aware of it, and really started looking at it.

Maren: And so, the morning I could breathe clearly, you know, and take a deep breath, the thing that stays with me is that I just got this slightest glimpse, I got to a momentary glimpse, of what it’s like to live under injustice and be powerless to it. And I realize that is what African Americans, all Black people in America, and anyone who’s not white, and also women are experiencing in America all the time. All the time there’s this injustice that you have to live with. I experienced part of this injustice as a gay woman in this country. We live with these injustices because we’re living within the structure of a white male patriarchy, you know, so a white supremacist patriarchy and all of that coming down on us and it’s like I could breathe because you know part…part of it was lifted for me. Part of it was lifted in that I didn’t have Trump like pushing these things down and like not stopping. Now, I’ve got a guy who I don’t know how much he’ll do for good. I hope a lot, but he’s at least not trying to make things worse.

Maren: I don’t know. To me, it makes me want to work for racial equity even more like because I could take a deep breath. I want everybody to be able to take a deep breath like that’s my…my thing I want everybody to be able to live their life without an inordinate amount of injustice. I think humans…there’s suffering in the world, right? I don’t know that it’s possible to create any society that has no injustice in it, but you certainly can do better than where we are at now. And that’s what I want. So, I just want to do better than we are now. So, in terms of despair, I definitely know that the past times where I became politically activated and then it didn’t go well and then I deactivated. I just quit working and I had that luxury to just say uh, and to walk away from it, now. I just don’t feel like being apolitical is an option anymore. I feel like that’s just throwing a blanket over my head. Like there’s real injustices out there in the world, and there’s ways to address them and that’s what politics is. Politics is talking to one another. Politics is addressing the issues that are confronting us as a community, so I don’t think I’ll ever become deactivated again, and I try not to despair. I think that – let me get this quote for you – because it’s just a real good one. I was listening to a podcast have you ever listened to the On Being podcast with Krista Tippett? It’s really good, I think you’d like it. But I was listening to it and they were having…(humming)…alright let me get to the bottom, OK. So, let me find that exact quote…OK, so she was interviewing Bryan Stevenson, do you know who he is? So, he started a group let me get it right.

Wendy: Get it right.

Maren: He just…there’s just a movie that came out about him. He’s actually from Delaware which makes it even better, you know, from the local level, I feel. He went down to…I think it’s…let me get this right. Yeah, so he went down to Alabama and so the name of the movie is Just Mercy and it’s also, it’s his memoir which I want to read that. The movie was fantastic. He went down to Alabama and he just got involved in a group…so he got involved in…basically trying to represent people who had been put onto death row in these, you know, in Alabama, in these southern states, and had success in getting them out. So, he is part of a group that started a group called the Equal Justice Initiative or EJI, but also part of a group they created. Have you seen the museum and the memorial that was created about slavery in Alabama, or maybe it’s a Mississippi actually. Oh no, it’s in…it’s in Montgomery AL too. So, check out that. Check out the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. There’s like a museum connected with it. It’s basically talking about enslavement to mass incarceration, but the memorial is quite, as memorials are, quite powerful. I definitely, if I ever get anywhere near there, I want to go and see it in person. Anyway so, he was being interviewed. I already know him, like from reading about him, and from having people talk about him, because he comes back to Delaware sometimes to give talks and stuff. Just quite an amazing man, right?

Maren: And so, he was being interviewed by Krystal today and he said: “I am persuaded that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. That if we allow ourselves to become hopeless, we become part of the problem. I think you are either hopeful or you are the problem.” So, that’s what I have emblazoned in my brain when I feel despair. The only thing that despair gets me is the thing that I don’t want. Like if I quit, if I despair, then all of these things will happen. And so, you just keep working. Like that’s my political realization. Like you’re never done. And you just have to keep working. And you just have to find the hope within, you know, sometimes really difficult things. And because otherwise you stop working. So, that’s it in a nutshell for me is just: I don’t have time for despair. I feel the hits when they come, when something, you know, really egregious comes what was happening on the border in 2017, 2018 splitting up the families. When that was happening and that was like the deepest pain that I had felt since Trump was elected.

Wendy: Right, but I mean that’s actually one of the things that hasn’t been corrected yet.

Maren: It hasn’t.

Wendy: And it’s still early in the administration, I know that, but at the same time if we say, “OK, we had the elections, and everything is fine.” Do we lose sight of the fact that that hasn’t been corrected[WK1]  yet? And how many…

Maren: Yeah.

 Wendy: …will get lost under the sweep of relief about the outcome of the election because people relaxed too much? Because…

Maren: I hope they don’t. I hope they I hope they stay activated I don’t know how to make that determination for another person.

Wendy: Right

Maren: But if all you did was you know post a little bit about you know how you were going to vote for Joe Biden and now Trump’s not president and you think that’s done, it’s not enough. It’s not enough. You have to decide what’s important to you. And you have to view politics as a way to get those things done, and you have to figure out how you accomplish them within that political system. So, you know, so for me that’s multiple levels. For me that’s making sure that the people who get elected believe the way I do, and they will be true representatives of me, but it also means holding them accountable. We just had, you know, and I’m still trying to understand it, and what’s going to happen with it, but we had both our US senators were among the eight Democratic senators who did not support $15.00 an hour minimum wage. Both of our US senators…both of them are on the record as saying that they do support this, and they voted against it.

Wendy: Mmm.

Maren: So, part of my job is to hold my representatives accountable when they don’t do the things they say they’re going to do. Just the same way we did with the state senator who just put those bills in the drawer and did not put them out for vote, you know, did not exit them from his committee where they could get an up and down vote.

Wendy: Right.

Maren: You got to hold people accountable. You got to make sure you have good people in, and you got to hold them accountable if they don’t do what they say they’re going to do. But that means you have to stay engaged. You have to know what the issues are. You have to know, you know, I have to know why they made that vote. Is there something I’m not seeing? I try to keep an open mind when it comes to politics and politicians, so I’m not going to just say, “Wow, you know, they’re out.” But I’m going to want to know why they did that. I’m going to know why, if they do support this, what are they doing to make sure it becomes a law, you know. Is it…and if they’re just talking about it and not really believing, then I’m going to hold them accountable for that, So…but yeah, I think it’s not enough just to vote.

Maren: I mean that’s like the big thing. It’s not enough to do that anymore. Right now our country is facing like really unprecedented problems and many of them are created because people have been doing nothing more than voting, you know, and nothing more than listening to political propaganda as a basis for why they were voting the way they were voting. And that has given us the country that we are in now. You know, when people talk about debt, a lot of that is occurring because politicians aren’t willing to tell constituents that to pay for this, we’d have to raise your taxes. So, they keep on cutting taxes and then paying more for programs. It’s like we got to grow up as a country, you know, and we’ve got to make sure that…

Wendy: Magic *garbled*[WK2] 

Maren: Yeah, we have to grow up as a country, and we have to make sure that our politicians are adults and are willing to have hard conversations with us. And…but that takes a route…that takes an engaged and knowledgeable electorate. That takes more than watching the debates and, you know, where it’s just a bunch of sound bites. It takes more than watching the nightly news. It actually takes learning about the issue and how we’re going to solve it. Immigration and the problem at the border that is a really hard question. There are a lot of different, like, views on how that would need to be fixed and it hasn’t been fixed because it’s a hard problem. Like, we’re…we’re sitting here debating, you know, cancel culture. Like, this is what we’re[WK3] …what the people in Washington are talking about, not immigration policy. Like, there are hard things that need to be done, hard choices that have to be made. On many levels of our society, we need people who are willing to lead. And right now, we have people who aren’t.

Wendy: Right, we need to have the meaningful conversations. No matter what political party you belong to, or if you’ve been apolitical, or if you’re politically agnostic, so to speak. There’s a lot of ways to be involved in local communities, in non-profit groups, in policy groups…

Maren: Oh my gosh, there’s so many boards you can join. There so many groups you can join. People can do like a ton of good. I think everybody should be devoting at least a few hours of every week to doing something that improves their community. It doesn’t have to be necessarily, you know, in politics. You know, everything is politics. Everything is how we relate to each other as human beings. But get involved in something. Make it…make our world better and you start local. So, you don’t have to become an expert on national immigration policy, but you should know who decides, you know, where your County tax dollars are going, and where are they going? Do you know? Because I know this much now. [Holds hands about four inches apart] I used to know this much, you know. [Holds hands about an inch apart] It’s…there’s a…it’s a lot to learn.

Maren: Groups can help you learn because there are people who’ve already gone over it. And that’s like my big thing, is if I’m interested in something, I want to know the group that’s doing the stuff on it because they’ve already solved a lot of the problems. They’ve already built part of the road. They’ve got a nice vehicle. I just need to help them push their vehicle. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I don’t need to go and research all of the best ways to have a better police force…better police forces in my state. There are already lots of academics who have been studying it for a long time. There are communities that have already put solutions into place and have lessons learned. Like, just grab what they’re doing that works and start to put those pieces into place and start slowly improving the situation. It’s not…there isn’t a way to fix problems quickly. There is only making things better.

Wendy: I appreciate your coming on the show and talking to me about this. I was really excited to have this conversation.

Maren: Well, I’ll talk about this stuff forever, you know, you can’t shut me up.

 Wendy: [Laughing] Yeah.

Maren: It’s going to be like one question and then Maren talking for 45 minutes. And then another question, and then Maren talking so…

Wendy [Dying of laughter] In this episode of Maren Says Things…

Maren: In this episode of Maren Says Things, I can say lots of things. And the other thing is I still know just a little. Like I know so much more than I used to know, but there’s still so much more to learn. There’s so much, you know, just…but there’s always something you can do to get involved in something small.

Wendy: Right.

Maren: And someday, maybe I’ll run for my HOA and maybe that’ll be a springboard to something else.

Wendy: Maybe it will.

Maren: I don’t feel the need to, like, be in office to be able to affect change. So, I don’t, I don’t know, I don’t feel the desire to run anymore. I did for a while. I don’t anymore. I just want to…I just want life to be a bit easier for people, you know.

 Wendy: Yeah, that’s a good goal.

Maren: Yeah.

Wendy: I’m going to stop recording now.

 [WK1]Just four families reunited so far of the 5,500 children separated from 2017 on – those are the ones known about.

 [WK2]Most likely, I was trying to refer to magic math, or something similar. It was probably hilarious.

 [WK3]In her head, she’s already in Washington. 😉