Citizenship


| Web Specials Archives


TRANSFORMATIONS AND CHALLENGES

When I was a child in the 1950s, I envisioned the future in terms of technologies and objects.

THE REAL ROSA PARKS

We learn much from how we present our heroes. A few years ago, on Martin Luther King Day, I was interviewed on CNN. So was Rosa Parks, by phone from Los Angeles. ''We're very honored to have her,'' said the host. ''Rosa Parks was the woman who wouldn't go to the back of the bus. She wouldn't get up and give her seat in the white section to a white person. That set in motion the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery. It earned Rosa Parks the title of 'mother of the civil rights movement.' ''

I was excited to be part of the same show. Then it occurred to me that the host's familiar rendition of her story had stripped the Montgomery, Ala., boycott of its most important context. Before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had spent 12 years helping lead the local NAACP chapter. The summer before, Parks had attended a 10-day training session at Tennessee's labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she'd met an older generation of civil rights activists and discussed the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning ''separate but equal'' schools.

In other words, Parks didn't come out of nowhere. She didn't single- handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts. Instead, she was part of an existing movement for change at a time when success was far from certain. This in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of her refusal To give up her seat. But it does remind us that this tremendously consequential Act might never have taken place without the humble and frustrating work that She and others did earlier on. It reminds us that her initial step of getting involved was just as courageous and critical as the fabled moment when she refused to move to the back of the bus.

People like Parks shape our models of social commitment. Yet the Conventional retelling of her story creates a standard so impossible to meet that it may actually make it harder for the rest of us to get involved. This portrayal suggests that social activists come out of nowhere to suddenly materialize to take dramatic stands. It implies that we act with the greatest impact when we act alone. or when we act alone initially. It reinforces a notion that anyone who takes a committed public stand--or at least an effective one--has to be a larger-than-life figure, someone with more time, energy, courage, vision or knowledge than any normal person could ever possess.

This belief pervades our society, in part because the media rarely Represents historical change as the work of ordinary human beings who learn to take extraordinary actions. And once we enshrine our heroes on pedestals, it becomes hard for mere mortals to measure up in our eyes. We go even further, dismissing most people's motives, knowledge and tactics as insufficiently grand or heroic, faulting them for not being in command of every fact and figure or not being able to answer every question put to them. We fault ourselves as well for not knowing every detail or for harboring uncertainties and doubts. We find it hard to imagine that ordinary human beings with ordinary hesitations and flaws might make a critical difference in worthy social causes.
(coninued on next page)

Flying cars, Dick Tracy two-way wrist radios, Disneyland houses of tomorrow. Technologies have obviously transformed our lives and will continue to do so. But when I imagine the world that I want to help create, I think less of technical artifacts, however consequential, than of the webs of cultural, economic, and political arrangements that will determine whether our inventive and transformative genius becomes a blessing or a blight. I think of the qualities and choices necessary to shape a more humane world.

We've made some major democratic advances during the past half-century. Legal segregation no longer rules the American South. Women are far less economically marginalized. Gays have come out of the closet. America's military interventions are now often challenged. We've begun to think about the environment.

Yet the gaps between rich and poor are wider than ever. It damages us all that the United States leads the advanced industrial world in rates of homelessness, child poverty, lack of health care, infant mortality, and nearly every other index of desperation among the voiceless and vulnerable. For all the environmental talk, we continue to despoil the Earth. Large numbers of Americans feel disconnected and powerless. How do we create a more humane world during the next 50 years?

IN A GOOD SOCIETY

We can begin with some deep-rooted wisdom about mutual respect. Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel explained, 'What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.' Yet we've still not lived up to Hillel's words. We've still not created a world in which everyone has access to food, housing, and medical care; in which no one beats, shoots, evicts, tortures, or otherwise degrades their fellow human beings; and in which individuals can express what they believe without fear. Most of these values were enshrined just after World War II in the United Nations? International Bill of Human Rights, signed by all the major nations on Earth. But it will take more than formal pronouncements and more than individual acts of decency and civility to make these rights global realities.

A good society would create a sense of economic security for all?so that, in the words of singer Bruce Cockburn, 'nobody has to scrape for honey at the bottom of the comb.' Virginia Ramirez, a San Antonio woman with an eighth-grade education, testified before the U.S. Congress and Senate that she sees human dignity embodied in how we treat our children. 'I'd like to see a world where every child has the same opportunity,' she said. 'I see children suffer from hunger, sickness, cold, and lack of education. Or they're abused, humiliated, or whatever. That's the hardest thing to take, to see children suffer. To me, there would be justice if every child in this world got treated well. I don't know if that's ever going to happen. Maybe it won't. But for me, that would be perfect justice.'

Yet those who act have their own imperfections and ample reasons to hold back. ''I think it does us all a disservice,'' said a young African American activist from Atlanta, ''when people who work for social change are presented as saints--so much more noble than the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light.''

She added that she was much more inspired to learn how people ''succeeded despite their failings and uncertainties.'' That would mean she, too, had a ''shot at changing things.''

Our culture's misreading of the Rosa Parks story speaks to a more general collective amnesia by which we forget the examples that might most inspire our courage and conscience. Most of us know next to nothing of the grass-roots movements in which ordinary men and women fought to preserve freedom, expand the sphere of democracy and create a more just society: the abolitionists, the populists, the women's suffragists and the union activists who spurred the end of 80-hour work weeks at near-starvation wages. These activists teach us how to shift public sentiment, challenge entrenched institutional power and find the strength to persevere despite all odds. But their stories, like the real story of Parks, are erased in an Orwellian memory hole.

Parks' actual story conveys an empowering moral that is lost in her public myth. She began modestly by attending one meeting and then another. Hesitant at first, she gained confidence as she spoke out. She kept on despite a profoundly uncertain context as she and others acted as best they could to challenge deeply entrenched injustices, with little certainty of results. Had she and others given up after their 10th or 11th year of commitment, we might never have heard of Montgomery.

Parks' journey suggests that social change is the product of deliberate, incremental action, whereby we join together to try to shape a better world. Sometimes our struggles will fail, as did many earlier efforts of Parks, her peers and her predecessors. Other times they may bear modest fruit. And at times they will trigger a miraculous outpouring of courage and heart, As happened in the wake of Parks' arrest. For only when we act despite all our uncertainties and doubts do we have the chance to shape history.
A good society gives ordinary citizens opportunities to shape a common future. 'What we're trying to do,' says longtime community organizer Ernie Cortes, 'is to draw people out of their private pain, out of their cynicism and passivity, and get them connected with other people in collective action.' In this sense, the very act of taking responsibility for our communities embodies the vision we seek. It makes democracy more than a vague slogan masking manipulation and greed, but rather a living process by which all citizens participate in the creation and governance of society. It makes the public arena the property of everyone.

In America now, too many of us treat the choices by which we decide our common future as the territory of others. We feel that we don't know enough to act on issues that concern us, and that our actions will make no difference, our voices will never be heard. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we withdraw from civic life, the more we leave immensely consequential decisions to a politics driven by greed, short-sightedness, and expediency. Conversely, the more we take on the difficult problems of our time, the more we can tap common power, creativity, and strength.

POSSIBILITIES IN THE FUTURE

In 50 years, I hope that our culture will have learned to encourage citizen involvement rather than delegating our most urgent common concerns to distant and unaccountable experts or to the small number of socially involved individuals whom we think are more noble and saintly than we. Most Americans think that Rosa Parks started her activism that famous day on the Montgomery, Alabama, bus and have not even a notion that it began a dozen years before that, when Parks became active in a local NAACP chapter. Our current myths suggest that change happens when individuals act on their own, in isolation, for mysterious reasons. The real history teaches lessons of common action, of perseverance, of working together for change.

Imagine if we taught how ordinary citizens have changed the world, again and again, even against entrenched resistance. Young women and men just coming of age would learn the stories of citizen efforts like the abolitionist, women's suffrage, populist, union, civil rights, and environmental movements: How ordinary people have learned to act despite their flaws, hesitations, and failings; learned to persevere, even under the most difficult of circumstances; learned to keep on until they prevailed. Historical examples can teach how seemingly impossible efforts can create powerful change. They give a sense of possibility that counters cultural cynicism. They allow those coming of age to think not only about addressing small, immediate issues, but also their deeper roots. They teach the arts and skills of democracy—how to reach out to our fellow citizens, organize them for change, and make our common voice heard.

Civic conversation needs to continue well after citizens leave school. In the Scandinavian countries, study circles encourage citizens to take on the most difficult common issues, coming together to reflect and to act. Participants even get tax credits for participating. We too could institutionalize these approaches and make our schools, libraries, churches, and temples centers for reflection and discussion. Whatever our desired society of 50 years to come, civic participation must be at the heart of it.

A good society would help each of us fulfill the full bloom of our uniqueness, what Jungian therapist James Hillman calls the acorn of our character. It would honor our individual gifts and encourage our particular callings. It would give all its inhabitants the economic, emotional, and spiritual support needed to follow their dreams. Unjust societies, in contrast, starve hopes, aspirations, and possibilities. They stunt lives and potentials.

Because we realize ourselves fully only through interaction with others, a good society would foster community in all its forms. It would nurture rich and vibrant places to live where we are surrounded by friends and acquaintances, feel a sense of belonging, look out for one another's children. Such communities once existed in our small towns and urban neighborhoods. The longing that most of us have for places where intimate connections are commonplace speaks to the depth of our social needs—our reliance on the company of other human beings to feel at home in the world. We need to rebuild a world of face-to-face exchange, of communities where we are known, of places that are not interchangeable.

Wherever we reside, we'll realize neither our individual nor our communal selves if we're totally consumed by our work. That points to another feature of a good society: We should be able to make a liveable wage without sacrificing our psychological, spiritual, and sometimes even physical well-being by giving over our entire lives to our jobs.The saying on the bumper sticker—'the labor movement: the folks who brought you the weekend'—is more than a joke. For generations, citizens struggled to shorten the hours they worked; indeed, democracy is impossible when employers control our every waking minute. But the time that we spend related to our jobs has been steadily increasing for the past several decades, even though American industrial productivity has more than tripled since 1948. A good society would allow citizens time to think and reflect, to be with their families and friends, and to engage themselves in their communities. It would foster a culture that allows us to slow down the pace of global change, challenge the idolatry of mindless consumption, and wield our awesome technological capabilities with enough humility to respect the dignity of the Earth.

Aristotle once said that a barbaric culture consumes all of its resources for the present, whereas a civilized culture preserves them for later generations. Many of our society's most destructive present actions yield consequences whose gravest implications aren't immediately apparent. That's true of our casual destruction of the planet. It's true of our writing off entire communities of young men and women who will grow into adulthood bereft of hope and skills. It's true when we say, in one of the richest countries in the world, that we can't afford to address our most pressing common problems.

The alternative, as environmentalist David Brower said, is to act so that 'the new child or the new fawn or the new baby seal pup that's born a thousand years from now. .opens its eyes on a beautiful, livable planet.' Latina activist Virginia Ramirez touched on this in explaining why it's important to persist: 'Maybe the things we're working on today won't bring about changes for years. But it's just as important that we do them.'

WORKING FOR THE FUTURE

Working for the future requires a vision of accountability by which we hold individuals and institutions responsible for the impact of their choices, linking even seemingly disconnected actions and consequences. Congressman Ron Dellums once said that we know the state of a nation's soul by looking at its budgets. In Dwight Eisenhower's classic words, 'Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed—those who are cold and not clothed.' I've seen this statement on so many posters, banners, T-shirts, and signs over the years that by now I barely notice it.At present, we spend $300 billion a year on what we call defense—as much in real dollars as during the heart of the Cold War and a figure that, when added to costs still being paid from past wars and weapons buildups, accounts for nearly half of all current discretionary federal spending. Shifting from this direction would ease the endless cycles of threat and counterthreat, retribution and vengeance, into which we put so much of our energy, passion, and creativity preparing to annihilate our fellow human beings.

A good society would be clear about the human toll of our choices, asking who benefits and who pays. When a nurse I know was conducting physical exams of inmates in Seattle's local county jail, she discovered that a huge percentage had chronic ear infections. That prompted her to think about the implications of young kids with untreated earaches: They can't concentrate in school because it's hard to hear what the teacher is saying. This makes them feel angry and edgy. Soon they drop out, start stealing to survive, and end up in jail. My friend wondered how many of these young men might have followed a different path had their families had access to decent medical treatment.In 50 years, we should have long since exhausted our excuses about providing health care for all of our children, ensuring that they attend adequate schools, making sure that they have roofs over their heads. We will have stopped building prisons and returned to building youth employment programs, so we can nurture those who fall between the cracks. We will have made a priority of protecting our environment, the world our children and their children will inherit. 'We can clone animals,' pointed out David Lewis, who spent 17 years in the California prison system before founding a pioneering drug rehab center. 'We can send rockets into space. But we can't give young people anything better to believe in than worshipping the god of money. We can't make drug treatment programs available to everybody who wants and needs them. I would like to see that same kind of effort applied to saving people's lives.'

David's point hits home to me. Enough resources exist in America to meet our public needs. If we learn to consume sustainably, our inventive spirit should serve us well in the future. But we must reform the policies and institutions that allow our society, in the words of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, to be dominated by 'private affluence and public squalor.' Budget numbers seem abstract until we realize that they represent the common resources of our society—resources that could support better schools, efficient mass transit, low-income housing, community-investment corporations, inspiring arts programs, universal health care, or a serious effort to repair the environment. The most successful attempts to heal our society's ills and promote human dignity are often local grassroots efforts; imagine their impact if we gave them enough resources to do their work as well and as powerfully as possible instead of forcing them to scramble constantly for crumbs.

To borrow a phrase from the ecologists, imagine if we developed a full-cost accounting of all our political and economic choices, so that we realized what we're losing by our shortsightedness: When kids don't get treated for earaches, many end up in jail; when watersheds are devastated on speculators' whims, salmon runs dwindle; when the wealthiest get an endless succession of tax breaks, children go hungry; when corporations lay off employees, speed up production, and reduce benefits, families disintegrate and communities erode. We need to think about all of the deferred, denied, and unintended consequences that ripple out over time, including opportunities lost and potentials unrealized. Only by being honest about the consequences of our choices can we move forward.



Loeb's recommended publications:

Some wonderful publications that blend social action with a sense of soulfulness include:
Hope Magazine, P.O. Box 52242, Boulder, CO 80323 (800) 513-0869
Sojourners, 2401 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009 (800) 714-7474
Utne Reader, P.O. Box 7460, Red Oak, IA 51591 800-736-8863
Yes Magazine, PO Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110, 206 842-0216,


Five Questions:

1. What would you most like to see changed in America, or in the world?
2. What stops you most from acting on your concerns? A sense that what you do won't matter? A belief that you're 'not the right person' to take a stand? A sense that you don't know enough or aren't sufficiently courageous?
3. Has there been a time when you wanted to take a stand on something, but didn't. What held you back? Does America teach us to be citizens, or teach us to be passive?
4. Have you ever spoken out on a difficult or controversial public issue? What did you learn? Did you find an unexpected strength?
5. How much do you think you know about the movements that have changed America in the past: the women's suffrage movement that gave women the vote, the abolitionist movement that ended slavery, the union movements, the populist movements, the civil rights movement? Would a sense of how they found the faith and perseverance to keep on help you act on the difficult issues of our time?
6. I write about a 101-year-old friend, who recently died, after being an environmental and labor activist all her life. I never knew anyone who inspired so many people. What would it feel like to look back on your life and feel you'd helped create a better world?