Your voice can light up the darkness, your truth set someone free. Never underestimate the power you hold when you rise up for yourself and those around you.

Andrea Chmelik

As a public speaker, I’ve given speeches, led workshops, and been a panelist for numerous organizations, including Central Coast Writers Conference, Ecologistics, Cal Poly Women in Business annual Women in Leadership conference, and Change the Status Quo social justice conference. As a writer and an activist, I recognize the obligation to use my voice and my words, and speak truth to power without fear or hesitation. I share my experience in hopes to inspire, uplift and empower.

March to the Polls Speech, November 2018

I was born in Czechoslovakia, a country that no longer exists, in 1979. At that time, the voter turnout in elections was 99.5%. There was only one party to vote for. Ballots were pre-printed with the names of candidates chosen to win. People who didn’t turn out to vote were blacklisted and punished, along with their families. Everyone voted. Yet for over four decades, nobody could speak their truth.

I came to the United States in 2002. I made new friends, built new relationships, embraced new culture and put down new roots. But no matter how invested in my new community, as an immigrant, I could not vote. I had to rely on those around me to make decisions about what ultimately was my life and my future. I got my citizenship in 2015. The 2016 presidential election was the first one I was eligible to participate in. And while the results were not what I was hoping to see, I knew with absolute certainty that I would never let anyone take my voice or my vote away again.

I often hear people – both here and back in my home country – say, “My vote doesn’t matter. My voice doesn’t matter. The system is bigger than I am.” But the system is what we make it to be. Yes – it’s far from perfect. It was handed to us as a patchwork of experiments, some successful and some complete failures. It has been and continues to be discriminatory. But we can’t wait until the system is perfect before we get engaged. If you are not the architect of your own destiny, you will end up living in a structure somebody else designed for you.

Back in Czechoslovakia, it was the voices of those who refused to be silenced that made a difference in the end. It was their resilience that ended totalitarian regime and restored democracy. Here in the United States, it must be every single one of us. If you are eligible to vote, you carry the responsibility to make the best possible decision for a bright and just future for everyone in your community. For those you love, but also for those you disagree with. For those who are your close friends and for those you’ve never met. For those who can cast their own votes, and for those who – for so many different reasons – cannot.

Vaclav Havel, Czech writer, dissident and the president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, once said, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Today, as we take part in our democracy and cast our votes, I am both hopeful and optimistic. The system won’t be perfect after this election, or the next. But making our voice and our vote heard makes sense, and we will continue our work regardless of how it turns out.