To keep the political hope to stay involved, it helps to remember that our actions can bear unforeseen fruits. Change comes, to be sure, when we shift governmental or corporate policies, elect better leaders, or create effective local alternatives that can serve as broader models. Despite the limits of the just-passed health care bill, and the need to improve it through further legislation, it’s a major victory that over thirty million more Americans will now have health insurance, largely paid for through taxes on the wealthy. So concrete results matter, including the sometimes razor-thin elections that shifted the Senate and House from bodies dedicated to handing favors to a tiny elite, to ones at least beginning to pass legislation benefiting ordinary Americans.
But change also comes when we stir the hearts of previously disengaged citizens and help them take their own moral stands. We never know how the new-found involvement of those we engage will play out in the rest of their lives, but if we inspire enough people to take those first steps in speaking out for justice we can sometimes transform history.
I once went for a run in Fort Worth, Texas, in a grassy park along a riverbank. Coming upon a man shaking a tree, I hesitated, then stopped and asked, “What are you doing?”
“It’s a pecan tree,” he said. “If I shake it enough, the nuts will come down. I can’t know exactly when they’ll fall or how many. But the more I shake it, the more I’ll get.”
This seems an apt metaphor for social involvement. Often our efforts may yield few clear or immediate results. Our victories will almost always be partial, as the health care bill exemplifies. But we need to draw enough strength from our initial steps to help us persevere. “You have to begin with small groups,” said Modjesca Simkins, a veteran South Carolina civil rights activist told me when she was eighty four. “But you reach the people who matter. They reach others. Like the Bible says, leaven in the lump, like yeast in the dough. It rises somewhere else. “
Under Czechoslovakia’s Communist dictatorship, playwright (and, eventually, president) Vaclav Havel helped build the country’s nascent democracy movement through such apparently futile actions as defending a Czech rock band, Plastic People of the Universe, when the authorities broke up their concerts with police raids and sentenced key members to prison. Unexpectedly, the defense committee Havel created to defend the band evolved into the country’s key human rights and democracy group, Charter 77. Later Havel launched a petition, together with other writers and civic activists, to free a group of different political prisoners. Even though they were only asking the president to include the group in a Christmas amnesty, critics said that those who circulated the petition were being “exhibitionistic,” dismissing their motives as nothing more than an attempt “to draw attention to themselves.”
When Havel reflected on the incident seven years later, he acknowledged that they hadn’t succeeded in freeing the prisoners at the time. But he still didn’t think the critics were right. When the prisoners finally got out of jail, they said it had helped them to know that they weren’t alone. This mattered because the movement needed their courageous voices. More importantly, for many of the people who signed the petition, it was their first step in standing up for their beliefs. And it wasn’t their last. They went on to play dissident music, put on dissident plays, speak out in classrooms, preach from pulpits, and challenge the regime in a hundred different ways—until there were so many speaking out that the government couldn’t put them all in jail. Eventually, they brought down the dictatorship without a shot being fired. Had Havel and the others not persevered with efforts that seemed initially fruitless, they’d never have built the movement that ultimately prevailed.
Havel’s story reminds us that even in an apparently losing cause, one person may unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third, who may then go on to change the world, or at least a small corner of it. Rosa Parks was part of a similar chain of inspiration. Her husband, a barber named Raymond Parks, co-founded the Montgomery NAACP. After Raymond and Rosa met and married, he convinced her to attend her first NAACP meeting, a key step on the path to her famed stand on the bus a dozen years later. But who first convinced Raymond Parks to speak out, at a time when progress was elusive? Although we’ll probably never know, it almost certainly took a succession of people and conversations. The links in any chain of influence and inspiration are too numerous, too complex to trace them all. But they remind us that, by encouraging others to get involved, we can have a continuing impact through all of their future actions.
Barack Obama himself first became politically involved through exactly this process. It was during the campus anti-apartheid movement, when students at school after school pushed their administrations to divest from companies doing business in South Africa—an effort that Archbishop Desmond Tutu later credited as playing a critical role in securing his country’s freedom. At Occidental College in Los Angeles, a former Green Beret and Vietnam Vet named Gary Chapman transferred in from a community college and created the Student Coalition Against Apartheid. The group held rallies and debates, showed documentaries, brought in speakers, circulated petitions, and marched on their local Bank of America branch. With the help of supportive professors, they even secured a unanimous faculty resolution to divest. But the college trustees—highly conservative Southern California business leaders—refused to go along.
Chapman had just graduated when Obama arrived at Occidental in the fall of 1979, and began working with the Student Coalition, which other students had kept going. Although Obama’s role in the campaign was modest—he helped bring in touring speakers from the African National Congress, attended some organizing meetings, and spoke at a key rally—his involvement opened up a world in which he could connect his actions to his beliefs. Looking back, he credited this experience for laying the foundation for everything that followed, including his considering the vocation of community organizer. Had other students and faculty not taken the risk of standing up for what they believed—thus encouraging Obama’s participation—he might never have started down the path that ultimately led to the presidency, and to all the possibilities that remain for it, and could still be realized if the rest of us become sufficiently involved.
None of us can predict when the causes we support will capture the popular imagination or enlist someone who goes on to do powerful work for justice. “Before water turns to ice,” writes psychologist Joanna Macy, “it looks just the same as before. Then a few crystals form, and suddenly the whole system undergoes cataclysmic change.” Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould developed a theory he calls “punctuated equilibrium.” Rather than occurring at a steady pace, evolution proceeds in fits and starts, Gould argued. Long stretches of relative stasis are followed by brief periods of intense transformation, when many new species appear and others die out. Although attempts to improve social and economic conditions usually proceed incrementally, it is impossible to foretell precisely when any of our endeavors will reach critical mass, and bear unexpected fruits.
The chains of influence created by this stream of human courage almost always have humble beginnings. A few years ago I heard a talk by Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner. She described attending a small Catholic college in Atchison, Kansas, where she engaged in conversations about social justice that were critical to her transformation into a social activist. Both fellow students and faculty opened up new worlds to her. They got Maathai thinking about what needed to be done and what she could do.
After returning to Kenya to become the first East African woman to get her Ph.D. at the University of Nairobi, she founded the Green Belt Movement, which has planted 40 million trees in an effort to reduce soil erosion. She also challenged the dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi, demanding multi-party elections and an end to political corruption. The government imprisoned and violently attacked her, but a year after Maathai won the Peace Prize she was elected the first president of the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council.
None of this would have happened, she said, were it not for the conversations with those who’d inspired her when she was in college. As I listened, I wondered what it would be like to have a young Wangari Maathai or Barack Obama sitting next to you, and discovering years later that you’d helped set them on their path.
Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of “Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times” by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin’s Press, publication date April 5, 2010, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, Soul has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it “wonderful…rich with specific experience.” Alice Walker says, “The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love.” Bill McKibben calls it “a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity.”
Paul Rogat Loeb
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times, whose wholly updated new edition will be released March 30, of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association, and of Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus. See www.soulofacitizen.org To receive his articles directly email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles.
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