Paraphrasing Dorothy, sometimes it takes a faraway adventure to make you appreciate your own backyard.

For me, it wasn’t a tornado that brought me overseas, but a desire to help people in emerging democracies. Today, I am back home and immersed in Maine’s homegrown democracy work: the Clean Elections Initiative. Here’s how I got back.

As a kid, I was idealistic about politics. From having a bake sale to raise money to save the rain forest to handing out stickers for local candidates, politics was a part of our community, and it was fun to be involved.

But Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything for me. I didn’t have a personal connection to the tragedies of that day, but my attitude toward politics changed.

This was serious business, with serious consequences. The activity and the pageantry that captivated me before no longer had the same appeal. I was unhappy with President Bush’s rush to war and wanted to learn more about the countries that were in our sights.

In high school I got interested in Afghanistan and in post-conflict reconstruction. I majored in political science in college, starting the Yale Afghanistan Forum, which brought together people with starkly different perspectives – Afghans, local veterans and people from all over the world who were studying in New Haven.

Through college and beyond, I took every available opportunity to travel, learn, and help people in developing nations around the world.

I worked on projects in several countries, including Tajikistan. It was in this remote central Asian nation that I truly saw what democracy is at its core.

The Tajik people face enormous challenges, and a big one is corruption. No matter what problem the activists try to fix – education, health care, pollution, street crime – their efforts are frustrated. In their political system, the voices of the rich and powerful routinely drown out the voices of ordinary people.

I loved my work, but like a lot of development workers and expatriates, I was aghast at the level of corruption and oppression. And I was discouraged about whether my efforts there could make much of a difference.

The local folks’ point of view was entirely different. This was their country; they were realistic about the grave problems and undeterred by setbacks. Every day they risked their lives and livelihoods pushing for democracy against a brutal dictatorship. They were deeply engaged and committed to making things better, no matter what or how long it might take.

Their enduring effort is a concrete expression of democracy. These are the people who can and will make a difference. Their courage remains the one reason to be optimistic about the future of their country. They are inspiring, and they led me to question myself. What had I ever risked for my country? How hard would I work for my democracy?

In my final months overseas, I started thinking about what I would pursue once I returned to the States.

Halfway around the world, I realized that what we have in Maine is unique and incredibly valuable. And soon I would come to appreciate that things of such value should never be taken for granted.

Today I have come home to Maine, and come home to democracy. My democracy. I started out volunteering for the Clean Elections Initiative, and today I am a full-time organizer working to engage voters throughout southern Maine.

Clean Elections is about having the kind of politics where all of us – no matter our background or walk of life – can use our voices to improve our community and our state. It’s about separating private money from public office to lessen the opportunities for corruption.

It was almost two decades ago that Maine citizens initiated Clean Elections. It proved itself to be a valuable law, popular with voters and candidates alike.

But the law has been weakened by damaging court decisions, funding cuts and more. That’s why Maine people are, once again, initiating new legislation. The Clean Elections Initiative will strengthen our landmark law, increase transparency and bolster accountability.

Maine people’s tenacity and vigilance to enhance and improve democracy is proof that citizens can fight to change the system and win. It is exactly why the U.S. is a model for people struggling for democracy around the world.

I am so proud to be a part of this historic initiative. When it comes to democracy, there’s no place like home.

— Special to the Press Herald