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


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”

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

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

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?


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

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

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.


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

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 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

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

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

Loeb’s recommended publications:

Some wonderful publications that blend social action with a
sense of soulfulness include:
P.O. Box 52242, Boulder, CO 80323 (800)
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
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
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
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

Five Actions:

1. Write down the issues you care most about.
2. Go to the links on and find a group
working on one of these issues-ideally in your local community.
Links like the Servenet database will even let you punch in your
zipcode and see who has projects nearby.
3. Find out what projects they’re doing. Participate in one or
more. Go to a meeting or event. Listen and learn. Ask some
long-time participants how they first got involved.
4. If you like the group and the people, give involvement a shot
for three or four months. You might not be able to put in all the
time you’d like to, but put in some time, and keep on doing it
5. If you feel the group doesn’t fit who you are or your style,
find another one. We all participate in different ways, and in
different styles. Don’t give up just because it takes a few tries.
You’ll be learning something even if you don’t stick around.
6. Have fun. Remember that the people you meet are fallible human
beings like yourself, who also care about a better world.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of ”Soul of a
Citizen: Living With Conviction In a Cynical Time” (St Martin’s,
1999). Web site:

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