'We're here. We're voters. We want to participate': Inside the first-in-the-state ASL caucus
Watch video of how the Iowa caucuses work as Iowans and candidates try to rally their support for their preferred candidates. Des Moines Register
Gretchen Brown-Waech hadn’t been able to shake the goosebumps off her arms for months.
Every time she thought about caucus night, which had been nearly every day since December, those pesky bumps rose up again. There was a real chance that this gooseflesh had become her flesh, she joked in the back room of a vacant storefront in the basement of a once-bustling neighborhood strip mall.
Soon she and 17 friends, some new and some old, would form a circle, ensuring everyone could make eye contact and toss out their arguments. “Warren wasn’t a flip-flopper, but someone willing to change her mind.” “Joe had the experience needed to lead the country.” “Pete could beat Trump; the polls say so.” “But, oh, God, who could trust the polls?”
Here, in a small gathering in a nondescript room hidden from the broadcast cameras swarming other big caucus venues, not a single person spoke. Here, on this historic “first” night, another first-of-its-kind was in danger of going unnoticed: The state’s first American Sign Language caucus.
“Coming here, I just felt it was so important to be a patriot, to support America, to be involved in this discussion so we have a nominee who we can look up to,” Vania Kassouf, 42, who drove from Cedar Rapids to participate in her first caucus, said through an interpreter.
“It feels so empowering,” she added.
Hours earlier, the ASL caucus got off to a slow start. For most, this was their first caucus experience, and confusion was expected. In all her preparing, Brown-Waech had steeled herself for questions and consternation and brought extra presidential preference cards in case all the “caucus speak” — those familiar would tell you that it really is a different language — was lost in translation.
In the adjoining room, the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living was hosting a different caucus, one not exclusively for disabled people, but set up with their needs in mind. There, unlike other caucus sites, chairs were plentiful, food and drinks were free, and child care, a lactation room and a quiet room (for people who needed a moment away from the crowd) all were provided.
Partnered in ensuring access, Brown supported the other group, but wanted to make sure the ASL caucus had its own space where their language could be dominant and “they could act like themselves.”
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“We didn’t have to conform to hearing culture expectations,” she said.
Back in their circle, the candidate discussion continued, and nearly everyone in the room got their say. With her camera mounted on a tripod, Brenda Falgier, of Iowa City, live-streamed the entire event, dipping in and out with pros and cons for almost every candidate before making a quick change into a Warren sweatshirt and hat as the first alignment got underway.
Last cycle, Falgier brought an interpreter to her local precinct. But in a room so loud, filled with so many separate conversations, keeping up was a fool’s errand, she said.
“I felt like I was physically present, but I really wasn't able to participate,” she said.
This time, however, she was able to engage with everyone in the room, while also laughing and joking and enjoying the goings-on because, she said, “these folks are my people.”
A woman walked in from the caucus next door and stood stoically near the observers until her face broke into tears. Her brother is deaf, she said, and never took part in a caucus. She tells me she can’t stop thinking of him in that circle, finally getting a chance to participate.
Brown-Waech flips the lights on and off — a deaf “bing,” she tells me — and everyone retreats to their sides of the room.
After the first alignment, Warren, Biden and Buttigieg were viable. The lone Sanders and Klobuchar constituents joined Buttigieg’s group for the second alignment.
Of the group’s four delegates, Warren took two and Biden and Buttigieg each took one. Is four a lot of delegates? one caucusgoer asks.
Four more than they’d ever had before, Brown-Waech replied.
For Falgier, preparing for this caucus experience forced her to become a more vigilant participant in the voting process.
And — although this was a small step on a much larger journey to full equality —Falgier felt the gap between the deaf community and the political machine closed a bit that Monday night.
“Now we have the opportunity, finally, to advance our ideas and our desires and goals and needs to the national level (and) get attention for what the deaf community needs,” she said. “We're here. We're voters. We want to participate.”
After many “goodbyes” and “good jobs,” the room clears of everyone but the interpreter and me. Brown-Waech was ready to sleep, calmly, without those goosebumps for the first time in a long time, she tells me.
“Our voices have been silenced for forever,” she said. “And for us to sit in that circle and go around and talk about our candidate, who we’re supporting and to, at the end, be able to offer our official results to the Democratic party…. Oh, I am going to cry.”
As I drove back to the office — so lost in thought I forgot to start a podcast or turn on the radio — I wondered about what it meant to be welcomed, to be part of something for what feels like the first time.
“It’s ironic, right?” Brown-Waech said to me when I asked her that question. (“Don’t worry,” she added, “deaf people make a lot of deaf jokes.”)
But, one-liners aside, there is so much that we might find out when we stop shouting over one another. So much we can understand when we bar cable news from filling the quiet void with empty words.
Although the history books may distill this 2020 caucus cycle down to the failures of an app and the muteness of the Iowa Democratic Party as the results board remained empty, it’s another sort of silence I’ll remember.
The silence that saw 18 Iowans be truly heard for the first time.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. One of her greatest regrets is not learning to speak another language fluently. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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