I am a janitor and a member of a union. This year, I also became an activist.

The Kansas Reflector hosts opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Troy Bowman is a member of SEIU Local 26 and a longtime resident of Minneapolis.

Like many people, for much of my life, I didn’t think the election was for me. During my 57 years, I voted occasionally, but the reality was I didn’t feel that everything I did would matter.

COVID-19 and my union changed that for me, and now I want to share my story in the hopes of involving more ‘ordinary’ people in our government’s redress.

I was a janitor at a big box store during the pandemic, and started getting involved in my union as the fight for employers to pay people for the time they missed due to COVID-19 . I thought it was crazy that people like me – already underpaid and overworked – had to use our vacations or just not get paid when we were exposed to COVID-19.

I missed over a month of work in 2020, once because I was exposed to a coworker and had to quarantine, and once when I actually had COVID-19. I’m still breaking out of the financial hole of missing a month’s worth of paychecks.

I started talking about how I thought bosses and politicians treated us like expendable, not essential (like they kept calling us), and at an event I spoke with a fellow member of the International Union of Service Employees who started telling me about a chance to get more involved in the 2021 elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I was interested because I wanted to understand how to make the changes we need. We started talking about things that were going to be on the ballot.

This year, we were voting on local leaders who influence how essential workers are treated and whether we would take action to make housing more affordable and the future of public safety.

I’m an essential worker making less than $ 15 an hour, I’m someone who struggles to find affordable housing, and I’m a black man in a state struggling to figure out how to become more equal and more safe for all of us. It is clear that all these questions touch me deeply!

While elected officials made decisions that helped or (more likely) hurt me, I never got involved in politics, let alone participating in the vote. But this year, I jumped off my feet alongside dozens of other SEIU members who were also tired of the status quo. I was fed up with politicians telling us about champagne wishes and caviar dreams, but never responds.

Before joining my union election work, I didn’t think what I said or felt mattered or made a difference. But I can tell you that thousands of voter contacts and countless in-depth conversations with voters made it clear that I was wrong.

I know that I, an ordinary person, talking with other ordinary people who have similar experiences to me has helped change this election. It wasn’t just about connecting with other voters, but it helped stop the misinformation circulating. I have spoken to many people who have felt overwhelmed by the attack ads and the huge sums of money spent flooding their TVs and mailboxes.

I called a voter who told me he didn’t know anything about the election because he was busy with his job and his life. I took the time to talk to him about the important things we were fighting for. He was delighted to learn and actually hear what was going on. He was an older man who hadn’t voted for many years, but when he heard about the things we could vote for, especially after the murder of George Floyd, he said “we need a change” and that he was going to vote.

I was proud to speak to him out of his shell and help him understand that voting matters and that his voice matters. No amount of money can surpass that real human connection that comes with conversations.

After the January 6th attack on our Capitol, I remember hearing Amanda Gorman’s poem and being moved when she said that we have been in the dark for too long and we need to let our light shine. It made me want to go out there and do the necessary work to make the change I want to see.

When the election results came in, some issues and candidates I was working to support had won, and some had lost. But that’s okay, because I know I’ve helped invite more people into the process who otherwise would have felt left out, and that builds power in the long run.

I am glad I got involved in the electoral work. It’s clear to me that abstaining from the process does nothing more than keep things as they are now. If we are to solve the huge problems we face regarding income inequality, lack of affordable housing, building safe communities and more, ordinary people cannot sit on the sidelines.

I hope someone reading this listens to me when I say, based on my experience: it’s never too late to learn about government and help make the change work. There’s another election around the corner… get involved!

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Minnesota reformer, a subsidiary of States Newsroom.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of those affected by public policy or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own comment, here.