Derek Barcikowski walks through the door of Salem’s Cafe Polonia with a cell phone still to his ear. He is wearing a loosely tailored button down shirt of plain baby blue tucked cleanly into slacks. Getting off the phone, he apologizes and asks the waiter for a bowl of beet soup, which he eats hungrily but carefully. “I figure I should kill two birds with one stone,” he says, “I haven’t had a chance for lunch.” It is four pm.
Barcikowski has taken time out from a frantic schedule to discuss his involvement in local politics. A Salem restaurant owner, former candidate for city council, and current coordinator of Joan Lovely’s campaign for the state senate seat, his chiseled face has appeared frequently in the news over the past two years. Even before he moved to Salem two years ago, he was involved in national politics and many issues involving the Polish immigrant community. Slowly but surely, his interest in these issues has turned Barcikowski into a dynamo. Habitually serious, he lights up when I question him about the effectiveness of grassroots politics.
“In the short time I have been in Salem, I’ve seen enormous political capital. It is young professionals who are running the city council now. Both the Republican and Democratic committees here are reviving at their hands as well.”
Barcikowski is adamant that American political power lies entirely in grassroots groups and interested people, young and old. No matter what your profession or background, he says, “you can have an impact. I am a walking example of that.”
Across the bridge at Atomic Cafe in Beverly, Bea Modisett agrees. A Monsterrat graduate and painter, Modisett moonlights as an advocate for political awareness. She currently sits on the Beverly Cultural Council, but turns fiery at the suggestion that her level of involvement isn’t for everyone.
“If someone is uninformed and distant about politics,” she says, squeezing her paper cup of tea so that it nearly overflows into her lap, “that’s their right. But by taking that stance, they also lose their right to complain about political outcomes.”
As a generation, says Modisett, we have grown so accustomed to the value of immediate satisfaction that we habitually bail out on politics with immature impatience; a tendency that denies us the satisfaction of involvement in the workings of our community.
“Many of us on the North Shore are now living in a village atmosphere, but we need to learn to appreciate the enormity of the American nation, and to be content with starting at the roots.”
By Modisett’s reckoning, the best way to be satisfied with, say, the results of a national election, is to be committed to influencing in much smaller settings.
She might as well be quoting Julie Curtis, professor at Salem State University, long-time Danvers Public Library Trustee and member of the university’s branch of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, in whose small office she speaks to me, hammering the same point. She smiles persistently, crinkling a kind, broad face:
“All politics are important, but local politics most of all.”
Curtis’s view is that those with an eye to local issues will vote best, and that no matter their level of commitment, those who love their community should vote in early races, or–best of all–help to run them.
“My opinion has always been, you’ve got to give back to your community. A lifetime of involvement began for me when I simply wanted to return the favor to my public library. It’s the next generation we’re relying on now to adopt this approach. Without them, we will literally run out of people to run the country. ”
The White House, she reminds me, can’t do a thing at the top if there is no one at the bottom. That, in a nutshell, is the beauty of American Politics; a beauty Barcikowski, Modisett, and Curtis saw most clearly after, not before, they put their hands to the wheel and started to drive our local political machine forward.