Dear President Obama,

This past week, I voted in my first presidential election. As I cast my ballot, I recalled how I had envisioned this moment as a child. The first-hand experience of American democracy — voting in mock elections, tagging along with my parents to the polls and watching the decisions roll in on television — contained so much optimism and and national pride. Perhaps it was naivety, but I was certain that one day I would have the power to decide how to make my country better.

At twenty-one years old, this is my second time writing  a letter to the president.

My first letter, I was about five years old. I wrote to George W. Bush to ask him why he was letting abortion run rampant in our country. I was too young to understand that Bush didn’t have much control over abortion and that if he did he would have put a stop to it. I thought I was arguing nobly, when really I was shouting into the dark for an opinion I didn’t understand.

I’m the oldest of six kids in a conservative Catholic household. In my family, an anti-choice stance was the only option. My siblings and I were to sent to a private Catholic school, where the teachers required us to participate in poster and video contests warning people that abortion was dangerous. From an early age, my mother frequently lectured me on the evils of abortion. “Imagine if someone had tried to kill you,” she would say to me. “You are lucky I chose life.” She went as far as to outright ban our family from patronizing any company that donated to Planned Parenthood.

Over the years, I grew to understand that abortion was the only political issue that mattered to my family — everything else was secondary. Bush was willing to risk the lives of American soldiers fighting a war we have no business in? At least he doesn’t want to kill babies. Bush allowed rich people to take money from the poor? At least he believes in life at conception.

For years, my worldview was significantly controlled. The only library I was allowed to use was the one at my Catholic school. I was not allowed to read books, hear music or watch movies until my mother had thoroughly pre-screened them. The internet was also banned, because the per minute cost of dial-up was too expensive.

When you ran for president in 2008, I rooted staunchly against you. It was the only option available to me. Shielded by my parents and teachers from real polling statistics and contrary opinions, I believed there was no chance that America would make the mistake of electing  you president. Yet somehow, we did.

It was the best mistake in American history.

Keeping in line with your campaign promises, I watched my own life change rapidly during your first year in office. My parents got divorced, and a sheltered Catholic school was no longer affordable. I went to a public high school and, for the first time, met students students of all different beliefs. The internet, which had rapidly expanded in size and accessibility, opened up to me.  No longer was I restricted from seeing the secular world. I was finally allowed to view previously forbidden websites (NPR, BBC, Twitter)  and explore unfamiliar viewpoints.

Cultivating my personal interest in politics, I learned about the gay rights movement and the difficult truths surrounding the Iraq war. I learned about supply and demand, institutional racism, immigration and all the things Republicans and Democrats worried about that had nothing to do with abortion. I learned that abortion, too, is not what it seemed — it’s a medical procedure provided to women in need. I learned of the dangers of forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term and of the unsafe abortions that took place before the procedure was made legal. The more I learned, the more my opinion of you and your politics changed. I started to respect your important place in history as the first black president and realized so much of what you wanted for the nation was rooted in empathy and compassion. Though I was raised conservative, I was taught to value these two things above all else. I decided it was time to realign my political views to better fit with the values that made up who I was at my core.

Today, I am a registered democrat. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary but stood proudly behind Clinton in the general. I do what I can to help advocate for social change in my community. As a college student in Gainesville, Fla., I volunteer my time as an editor at a magazine and work at a nonprofit publishing house.

I look around my community, and I see that I’m not alone in my actions. My girlfriend advocates for the awareness of trans issues in medical professions and organizes community-run classes to help Gainesville’s homeless population decrease their dependence on tobacco. My friends and I have purchased items on Amazon to send to the Native American protesters in North Dakota opposing the pipeline. Many gathered around the citizens of Flint, Michigan, to help them get access to clean water. Black Lives Matter has let the world know that the killing of unarmed black Americans by police is unacceptable.

I was not deluded. I knew we still had so much more to do. But I thought we had the power to do it. I thought enough people cared. As crowds screamed “make America great again,” Clinton defied them and said “America is great because America is good.”  She articulated an idea that made me believe change was worth fighting for — we had so much work to do as a nation, it was our commitment to continuing social progress that made this country great.

But the morning after the election results were announced, I felt abandoned, disillusioned and afraid. Donald J. Trump has been elected to lead this country. and I do not know if I believe in our greatness anymore.

We didn’t elect Trump as a nation. We elected him as individuals.

Many of my family members voted for Trump. I knew that they had voted Republican in the past, but this time it cut me deep . I will have to face them — my grandparents, my aunts and uncles — at Thanksgiving dinner. I made plans with my girlfriend of two years to share our love with my family for the first time at Thanksgiving. After I told them, my grandmother said she would welcome us. But then, she went into the voting booth and elected Trump. It’s an ugly contradiction, a refusal to understand the ways in which her actions affect others. When I talked to my dad about how afraid I now feel to live in this nation, and how I afraid I am for minorities and other disenfranchised populations, he told me I shouldn’t take a presidential election so personally, that my family members still love and respect me, even though they voted Trump.

I just don’t know how that can be the case. They voted for someone who openly brags about sexual assault. They voted for someone who wants to deny citizenship and asylum to thousands of families in need of our help. The morning after the election, on the side of a memorial to Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, a vandal scrawled in red spray paint “Your vote was a hate crime.” Many might think it’s hyperbolic, but it feels to me like a chilling reminder of what my family and millions of other Americans represent: our country’s complicit, and at times enthusiastic, oppression of immigrants, racial minorities, women, the disabled, and the LGBT community.

There are many theories bouncing between media talking heads about what lead our nation to to choose Trump to be the leader of the free world: Our disillusionment of politicians, no one trusts the Clinton’s and blatant sexism.

While I understand the fascination with postulating, I think the media is misguided in their generalizations. Every voter who cast a ballot for Trump walked into the booth with some or none or all of these reasons behind their choice. We didn’t elect Trump as a nation. We elected him as individuals. Many people have said this over the years, but I like to turn to Audre Lorde who reminds us that “the personal is political.” People can be affected by matters of politics deeply and individually. If political outcomes are personal, then it follows that political actions are, too. We watch the endless, inescapable election coverage on television together, but ultimately, we go into the voting booth alone. We make individual choices that impact everyone — our friends, family, and strangers in cities we have never met.

This election and its results have left me doubting whether there are enough people in this country who are standing up in favor of doing the right thing.  I am afraid that a lack of access to higher education has created a false historical narrative and minimized the importance of being on the right side of change as we move toward an uncertain future. Katharine Capshaw, a professor of American studies at the University of Connecticut, wrote that the way Americans are taught to view civil rights as a battle already won “speaks of the desire for an uplifting narrative of social progress, a happy ending that [reinforces] the viability of American ideals.”

I wanted to believe in the viability of this nation, but when a man like Trump is our president-elect, I am reminded that I am surrounded by hatred, willful ignorance and bigotry everywhere I turn.  With a Republican Congress, it seems as though Trump will be able to pass legislation that reflects the darkest ideals of his party. I see the importance of reaching across the delta to people whose perspectives are radically different from your own, but Trump has coaxed out a particular ugliness in the people of his party. I fear these sentiments, held quietly by many in the past, will rise to the surface of our national consciousness and signal the onset of a reactionary political movement.

I’m writing this letter because, like many, I am struggling to process the results of this contentious election. I learned through my own experience that individual change is possible; your presidency helped shape who I am. I will forever be grateful that you taught me to believe in the importance of taking action and standing up for those who have no voice of their own. But I wonder if my case is atypical. Are most people in this country are so resistant to change that they won’t dare even elect a female president? Can we really change the attitudes of people so deeply set in their ways? Can we ever hope to have a better nation when so many seem to only consider themselves when making decisions for everyone else? As you prepare to leave office and hand over your responsibilities to a president-elect Trump, I can’t help but wonder if you still believe there is hope for this nation. And if you do, I wonder how.

I want to conclude by offering you my sincere gratitude, for your time and commitment to this nation and its people, and your optimism in the face of difficult times. This shows remarkable bravery, something I think we could all use right now.

Sincerely,

Helen Stadelmaier

obama

Illustration by Sara Nettle.