On a cold March morning at the Minnesota State Capitol, as children walk up the steps and visitors mill around, volunteers in red and green tshirts gather in the rotunda to talk about the Equal Rights Amendment, a fitting topic for International Women’s Day. One of those many volunteers is ArcStone accountant Ellen Lawless.
Ellen has been volunteering her time for many years through institutions like Feed My Starving Children and Kids in Need Foundation. It wasn’t until a book club friend, someone she has known for 20 years, asked her if she’d be interested in the Women’s March that took place on Trump’s inauguration day in 2017, did she find herself gravitating towards activism.
“Even that seemed scary, because it was hard to know what the reaction was going to be,” Ellen shares. “I wondered who would be there marching. What that day showed us was that there was a lot of buy-in from a lot of people. There are a lot of us out there that have concerns with what happens in politics.”
Ellen has always been one to observe carefully before taking action. She found this behavior mirrored in her middle son, John. “I waited so long to get into political activism, because there doesn't seem to be an entry point. Looking at how politics work, there’s all this structure to it; there’s all this stuff you need to know. John was like this whenever he was someplace new; he held back, and you could see him watching. I never realized he and I were so alike. In school, John would be around the edges until he found he could enter in to playing with a group... In a lot of ways, I feel that’s the way I am. With politics, for sure.
Sometimes finding your way in is just having that passion for one specific thing.”
When her talk turns into her work, like through volunteering with Feed My Starving Children, Ellen becomes verklempt at the thought of a mother not being able to feed her children merely because she can’t afford to. “So much comes down to luck in life,” she explains. “Just the idea of people not having enough food or basics is awful. When people come together and do four hours worth of work to pack food, it has such an impact. That’s amazing. You see that impact right away. ‘We fed this many people for this amount of time we worked.’ The great thing about it is that when you give money, which is not a bad thing, you don’t 100% know what it’s going for. When you actually pack the food, you know what it will be used for. You know its purpose. It’s very concrete.”
The biggest struggle with being passionate about something is the apathy you can encounter in others. How do you get others to care about something as much as you do? “It’s hard to be passionate about a cause, especially if it’s not your own cause. Certainly for me. I’ve not had enough bad things happen to me, and I’ve been fortunate,” she says. “You have to realize people aren’t going to care about the same things. For some people, it might be like my friend who’s an artist. Her thing might be art supplies or making sure they are accessible in the schools. What you need to do is tap into something that resonates with them. It’s hard to know what that is, but that’s where you start.”