People Who Make NY Special

How a Park Slope Soccer Mom Became One of NYC’s Fiercest Resisters

Like many people, Lisa Raymond-Toland was horrified on November 8, 2016. Now the unlikely activist is fighting back.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Raymond-Tolan

As copresident of Indivisible Nation BK, a powerhouse nonprofit player in the fight against the extremism of the Trump administration, Lisa Raymond-Tolan has powwowed with Senator Chuck Schumer, Governor Andrew Cuomo, gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon (whom her group is endorsing rather than Cuomo), and countless other local leaders. But before the 2016 presidential election, she says she was a Park Slope soccer mom who never got involved in politics.

Raymond-Tolan has friends in powerful positions. / Photo courtesy of Lisa Raymond-Tolan

So how does a soccer mom become one of the most influential activists in New York City? Raymond-Tolan explains her original complacency, her political loss of innocence, and her life as a tireless resister (no, she’s not paid; she works as an occupational therapist at a Brooklyn elementary school) and born-again optimist.

What Should We Do?!: Were you political—or from a political family—growing up?
Lisa Raymond-Tolan: When I was a child, I used to protest when my parents were having adult friends over and wouldn’t let the kids hang out with them. I would make protest signs that read “Kids Lib” and rally the other kids in the basement. I was also a big fan of telling my parents that they were violating my constitutional rights whenever I got in trouble. I could not believe my parents—who were in their early 20s in the late 1960s—weren’t hippies protesting the Vietnam War and getting high at Woodstock.

WSWD: So you were determined to be more active than them?
Raymond-Tolan: Well, I surprised myself because, as an adult, I was completely uninvolved in politics or protests. I have always been a voter, even in primaries, because my grandfather consistently told me if you don’t vote, you can’t bitch. I always bought candidate merchandise—I had my “I’m With Her” hat and my Obama bumper stickers—and I always donated a little bit to the Democratic presidential candidate. But I didn’t ever go to protests or rallies. I couldn’t tell you who my congressperson was, and I definitely couldn’t tell you a single thing about my state senator—or even that there was such a thing as a state senator.

I thought about phone banking for Hillary Clinton a lot. I knew people who organized phone banking parties and went canvassing, and I thought, That is so great, I should join them! And then I would open my laptop to the phone banking website and have a panic attack and think, Well, it’s OK, because all of those other people are doing it.

WSWD: How did you feel when Clinton lost?
Raymond-Tolan: On election night in 2016, I was at a big party, surrounded by close friends and all of our kids running around, and as the night progressed in that horrifying fashion, I became catatonic. I was like Cameron in the bottom of the pool in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the kids in Peanuts listening to teachers who sound like “wah-wah, wah-wah.” All I could think about was how I didn’t phone bank for her. I did nothing. And we all lost.

As the 2016 election night progressed in that horrifying fashion, I became catatonic. All I could think about was how I didn’t phone bank for her. I did nothing. And we all lost.

WSWD: That was galvanizing, for sure.
Raymond-Tolan: I swore to myself I would never be that uninvolved person again. Later in November, my councilman, Brad Lander, held an event called Get Organized BK. The first one was basically people mourning the loss together, but during the second one, people broke out into working groups. I chose the one that was called “Dump Bannon,” because I couldn’t believe an anti-Semite had that much sway over our so-called president. The group then morphed into “Opposing Appointments,” because everyone Trump was nominating for his cabinet was awful.

In December 2016, the Indivisible Guide came out. It was originally a Google doc that outlined Tea Party strategies that we Democrats could also use to influence the political landscape, like making phone calls to our representatives, having meetings with our electeds, asking them to hold town halls, and writing letters. That Google doc turned into a movement and a national organization. We named ourselves Indivisible Nation BK (INBK) and were one of the first Indivisible groups in the country (there are now more than 6,000). I didn’t know any of the people in INBK before December 2016, but they are now my family, my resister sisters, my activist wives (Indivisible is full of women leaders, though INBK does have one awesome man on our board). 

WSWD: What are some of the strategies that you use?
Raymond-Tolan: We use the Indivisible Guide’s five strategies—call and letter campaigns, town halls, meetings, public events, and elections—to push our local, state, and federal representatives to resist authoritarianism, corruption, and intolerance; protect democracy; and stand up for our communities. Since December 2016, my group has organized almost daily calling campaigns, and we have hand-delivered more than 35,000 letters to our senators, representatives, and the governor. We have met with all of our representatives and Senator Schumer, as well as with the staffs of Senator Gillibrand and Governor Cuomo. We have endorsed six candidates so far, and produced two videos, our most recent one about voting in the state primary on September 13. We want people voting!

Hanging with the second most-famous Schumer. / Photo courtesy of Lisa Raymond-Tolan

My personal goal is to make activism accessible and easy—anyone can do it! You can do it in under five minutes. Even retweeting something on Twitter or sharing an action on Facebook can be activism. All I can think about is what we could have accomplished if more of us got involved before November 2016 and what we can accomplish now if we work together to save our country.

Everyone needs to get involved. You don’t have to do ALL the things, but you have to do something.

WSWD: What is your worst fear about our current administration and direction?
Raymond-Tolan: How to choose just one? It’s the steady rise of authoritarianism. It’s the gaslighting of America. The normalization of racism. The normalization of lying. The turning back of women’s rights. The list is endless.

WSWD: What do you think needs to happen to stop that from happening?
Raymond-Tolan: Everyone needs to get involved. You don’t have to do all the things, but you have to do something. Call your reps. They tally those calls. Calls impact their decisions. Our legislators are the only people who can stop harmful legislation and appointments; they need to hear from us literally all the time. Text bank. Canvass. Get out the vote. Share an action on Facebook. Retweet an action. Go to a protest. Protests matter. Attendance at protests matters. You don’t have to go to all of them, but show up to some! Pick something and do it.

WSWD: What do you expect from New York politicians?
Raymond-Tolan: We expect boldness. These are extraordinary times, and we need more than politics as usual. We need them to be extraordinary, we need them to be fighting in every way possible. We need Senator Schumer to hold his caucus together and use every tool he has to shut the GOP agenda down. We need backbone.

I think the starting is the hardest part, and that’s true of any new habit. Activism needs to be a daily practice. Once it’s a part of your life, it’s easy to do it.

WSWD: How do you maintain optimism?
Raymond-Tolan: I’m a born-again optimist in my adulthood (after years of cynicism and sarcasm). I always find that action is the perfect antidote to my anxiety. I’m an occupational therapist, and it’s all about doing. Doing is therapeutic. When I’m anxious, I find something to do: text bank, make a call, use Resistbot, tweet. I also find that having a leadership role holds me accountable and keeps me engaged. I’m great at multitasking, which keeps me from feeling overwhelmed. But I do take time to hang with my family, read, and binge-watch. You have to.

WSWD: Please don’t tell us you binge-watch The Handmaid’s Tale!
Raymond-Tolan: I totally binge-watch Handmaid’s! Right now I’m watching Orphan Black and then Castle Rock. I like dark, apocalyptic stuff.

WSWD: Maybe those shows remind you of why you fight. What do you think keeps other people from getting involved?
Raymond-Tolan: Complacency. Feeling like your one action won’t make a difference. I was right in that before November 2016. I knew other people were phone banking and canvassing for Hillary, so I felt OK not doing my part; I let others do that work. I post a lot on social media about my activism, in the hope that seeing a regular person do these things is inspiring. I’m meeting with Schumer and Cuomo and it’s crazy—I’m a Park Slope soccer mom! If I can, anyone can. But I worry that people see me and think, well, Lisa is doing so much work so I don’t have to. Not the case!

I think the starting is the hardest part, and that’s true of any new habit. Activism needs to be a daily practice. Once it’s a part of your life, it’s easy to do it.

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