As I mentioned in a previous article, I came to the realization that I was non-binary during quarantine and recently came out. Since then, I have tried my best to find strength and connections within the non-binary community. My series, “Students Who Break the Binary,” is an ode to non-binary students who have great ideas, a world of knowledge at their fingertips, and the ability to change the world.
For this installment of the series, I interviewed MJ Smith, a fourth-year student in political science and legal studies at the University of Maine. Smith, who goes by they/them pronouns, is a hard-working student with a strong passion for their studies. Their grit and hardworking spirit show through their heavy involvement in politics, both on and off-campus. MJ is currently working for Laurie Osher’s campaign for the state legislature, and they are the president of UMaine’s new club, Every Voice Coalition, which is dedicated to defending sexual assault survivors on campus and their rights. In the past, MJ has also served as the president of UMaine’s Queer-Straight Alliance, Wilde Stein.
For MJ, participating in activism and politics is an extremely important and influential part of their life and identity. They are always looking for opportunities to get more involved, both on and off-campus. As a matter of fact, politics is such a big part of their life, that they don’t really have time for anything else.
“I don’t really have hobbies. I think my hobby is being busy and always finding some level of activism to learn more about or just participate in,” MJ stated.
MJ attributed their upbringing in Falmouth, Maine, a predominantly white and upper-middle-class city just north of Portland, as the main driving force behind their passion for politics. They also noted that their high school experience helped them speak out against injustices within both personal and political realms, including racism and general inequality within education.
“(Falmouth High School) is where I became this more outspoken individual about racism and education, which carried me over to why I wanted to study political science in college,” Smith stated. “I really am interested in race and its relation to political science, but also just politics in general, because racism is a huge institution in the United States and that acts as a barrier for Black....and indigenous and other people of color to even enter into the political realm.”
This barrier is real, and it’s something many BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) face when entering politics. According to the Pew Research Center, only 22% of the United States Congress are members of racial minority groups, and only 12% of the U.S. Congress is Black. While this is the most diverse legislature the United States has had to date, 22% and 12% are still very small percentages, and we know that we can do better. Additionally, a lack of representation can discourage many BIPOC from running for office, as well as general participation in politics.
MJ plans on breaking down this barrier and decolonizing, deconstructing, and decapitalizing politics, so more people of different races, ethnic backgrounds, and abilities feel confident that they can run for office. They believe that through this process, they can make politics more personal and less elitist.
For MJ, a big part of their plan to “deconstruct and decapitalize” politics is to think more about the language we use to describe political issues, and using more inclusive and less elitist language. Young voices like MJ are very important in beginning this dialogue and having uncomfortable conversations about our own behaviors and unintentional microaggressions- topics we tend to avoid.
“I still don’t feel like we have to use...big, huge words to seem smarter than one another, to be passionate about this topic,” MJ elaborated. “Words do have (classist) and racist intent behind them...and also, not everyone will understand them and that’s a barrier.”
Unfortunately, these racist and classist barriers in politics often go unnoticed -- even by the people working in the field. Some of them may not even realize that the language they use or the behaviors that they exhibit contributes to these issues. This ignorance that many politicians have makes it even more difficult for BIPOC to enter into the political world.
It is abundantly clear that MJ is dedicated to breaking these barriers down. They certainly can, considering their activism, track record, and dedication to making the field of politics more human. MJ truly lives up to their own standards. They are not only a student of politics but a political activist who already puts people before politics. I believe that they will not only achieve all their dreams but also help others achieve their dreams.