I was one of the first students to arrive at WHYY, where the Vote That Jawn event would soon begin and was welcomed in by a kind old woman at the security desk. The large glass doors allowed for the bright daylight to filter onto the plastic table set up in the lobby. It was bare, so I got to work transforming it into a proper welcoming desk. I laid out the sign-in sheets with accompanying pens and lined up the Vote That Jawn hats to my perfectionist satisfaction while the rest of my classmates arrived. The layout of the WHYY studio is like a classic Dora the Explorer map, challenging a visitor with two stops before getting to the final destination. Guests had to pass the lobby and recording studios before arriving at the main event space, although the guests made it farther than I ever did. My classmates and I buzzed across WHYY’s Dora’s map with our various tasks. A few of us colored a large sign for the front table, while others helped beautify the event space. When everything seemed perfect, we waited.
I thrive on pressure and quiet makes me fidgety. For several minutes, my peers and I sat making small talk at the front table. Our non-fiction writing course brought together the strangest, yet most intriguing, people. We understand each other through reading each other’s pieces and by observing how different people participate in class, yet we had not gotten the chance to discuss topics beyond our classroom. We chatted about homework loads and desired courses for the Spring semester, but a dozen people crammed around a table was not making for a very productive space. Lorene Cary, my professor and one of the organizers of The Vote That Jawn event, pulled us away one by one to do other tasks and soon enough, I sat there unaccompanied. The atmosphere is what I would have imagined of a bee hive — everyone was buzzing around with small tasks, all contributing to the whole. It was one of those life moments where it feels as if you are on pause and everyone else is fast forwarding before your eyes.
The first time I felt like that I was at the 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC). My godfather was the Convention Manager for Clinton’s side of the event and I interned under him for the week. For the days leading up to the start of the convention, I stayed in what they call The Bunker organizing thousands of credentials — prized tickets to the event that denote who gets specialized access. My parents said I had a lot of power holding such prized possessions, but it didn’t quite feel special sitting in a windowless basement sorting thousands of plastic cards. The real fun began during the actual convention.
When people ask me what job I had during the DNC, I never really know how to answer because I came into the role accidentally. Nobody ever sat me down and gave me the job of Boiler Room Communications Coordinator. As I said, I thrive on productivity. The first night of the convention, my godfather and his team were running around, and I found myself with nothing to do. I did not want to interrupt their important business by asking for a job. That was the pause-button-beehive moment. I paused, I looked around me, and gravitated to where I could see someone was needed.
What the DNC operatives call The Boiler Room looks like Tetris played with tables. Chairs are pulled up to the tables on all sides and 50 phones line up side by side, one phone for each state delegation. Each staff member gets two or three phones, so that delegates can call with problems and requests. Say a delegate at a rally needs water or someone has a bloody nose, but cannot leave. Someone in a wheelchair needs to get through the crowd and is unable to do so. A delegate punches someone and security needs to be called — yes, that did actually happen. My job was to make sure that the DNC America saw on TV was not streaked with bloody noses and blockaded wheelchairs. My job, or the job I took upon myself, was to help the function — and create a seamless facade.
Each time one of my staffers’ phones rang, they registered the complaint to me. I would then attempt to coordinate fixers: the building’s coordinators, the DNC staff, or the Hillary Campaign management. At 16, I was probably unqualified for the position of Boiler Room Communications Coordinator, but it gave me purpose, albeit for only four days of the convention. The smooth productivity of the room spoke for itself and my individual role became irrelevant.
I remember the moment TVs went off-air the last night of the convention. I was sitting at my makeshift desk filing one last complaint when Clinton’s management team filed into the boiler room, my godfather included. Energy exploded from the dozens of tired staff members, suddenly energized with hope. The convention had gone smoothly. In fact, it would later be reported as one of the cleanest run conventions of the decade. As you can imagine, 16-year-old me felt pretty special about that. After years of being called too bossy — something my fellow organized male peers had never been accused of — I had finally harnessed my abilities into something productive.
So back to the Jawn — I stayed at the sign-in table until the last late-comers had written down their names and emails. By that point, it was just me and Library Jesus sitting amongst sheets of contact information. Self-named Library Jesus is a bearded man who bikes around downtown Philly with a mobile library cart. He was sharing his enthusiasm for registering two new library members. While listening to his quirky tales was entertaining, I was not getting anything done.
I was yearning to be productive and for some reason, my organized self didn’t even consider enjoying the event with my peers down the hall. I picked up the sheets of names, phone numbers, and emails and began copying the information into Google Spreadsheets. I got into a zone, tuning out everything around me and solely focusing on words in the spreadsheet. What would seem like a trivial task to someone else felt fulfilling and gratifying. The Jawn organizers would later use the spreadsheet to communicate with participants about registration deadlines and social media updates, although it would have felt gratifying even if my work had not been used.
The next thing I knew, almost everyone had gone. I spent another hour cleaning up by the side of Lorene Cary. I sent Cary the spreadsheet the moment she drove away in her small white car; then I turned toward the door. I had missed almost the entire event in the lobby — the music, the speakers, the inspirational youth activism — yet was leaving satisfied. As the large glass door was closing behind me I heard a small yelp.
There sat the elderly security guard I had met when I entered the building just hours before. I had been in my own head organizing for several hours and the unprovoked social interaction was slightly jarring. I had forgotten anyone was left on the premises. I walked back to the desk and we chatted about the event and the importance of voting. Just as I was turning to leave for the second time she said, “Hey, dear, do you have an extra one of those posters? I want to hang one up in my church to encourage my friends to vote. That way I can help too.”
Serena Christine Martinez is a feminist attempting to combat social inequity from all intersectional angles, whether that be in class, at a protest, or writing for a diversity magazine. Martinez hopes to continue broadening said knowledge base by studying Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies during her next four years at the University of Pennsylvania.