by Cilla Sluga & Mike Meiselman
It’s unusual to have such an in-depth conversation with a total stranger. But, we liked her almost immediately. She was tall, in her twenties and had a cute three cornered smile. She asked pointed questions and was not the least bit interested in chit-chat. Pretty remarkable since Jen was our server at a semi-fast food restaurant.
We’re not quite sure how the conversation started; however, within no time at all, Jen was asking us about our politics. She didn’t believe we were as lefty as we claimed. She asked if we knew any leftist anthems. Mike obliged her, there in the small restaurant dining room, by singing The Internationale, clenched fist in the air.
Eventually, she wanted to know what kind of activism we were currently involved in; when we told her we were disability rights activists, her eyes widened. Her sister had spina bifida.
Jen, was not just our server, it turns out she was the restaurant manager. She asked if our group needed money. What? Someone was offering to help our organization with cash. We tried to tell her we weren’t an official 501(3) C; that we probably weren’t eligible. However, she would not be deterred. She said, “If we can have a fundraiser for the local high school cheerleaders, surely we can have one for an organization that works for the rights of disenfranchised people.”
So, we promised to provide her with the information she required.
A week or so later, we took requisite documents to the restaurant and she sat down with us again. Her intensity and inquisitiveness had grown. She confessed she was not much of an activist, but was angry about a lot: School of the Americas, the wars, the budget crisis, poverty, racism, bigotry, and Rush Limbaugh to name a few.
She wanted to know what our group was doing right now. We told her about projects great and small. We talked about an accessible fishing pier at the lake. We told that the statue of Lincoln at the state capitol was still inaccessible, on this the bicentennial of “the great emancipator’s” birthday. When talked about involuntary sterilization act being debated in the state legislature; and other mutilations that children with disabilities have gone through, all at the hands of parents and guardians. She cried tears of anger and sadness.
She reminded us of others we know. They care, deeply, about the world and its people, but feel powerless to change it. She said she felt unable to change things… so rather than stay angry, she confessed, she put it out of her mind as much as she could.
We told her that anger was a good motivating force, and to use it; but it would not sustain her. The only real antidote to frustration and/or anger is activism. Jen said it was all so overwhelming; how could she just pick one or two things when so many things were wrong?
Both of us also remember feeling that way. The frustration Jen and others feels is like burning rubber off the tires; it makes a lot of smoke, just doesn’t get you anywhere. We found progressive groups of people and started working together to change things. We felt less angry because we were actually doing something. In fact, it was invigorating.
One thing you quickly learn once you start fighting back is that is that the enemies turn out to be the same entities. If you are fighting for a clean environment, you learn that the people behind the pollution are also responsible for derailing regulations on Wall Street. The same forces that profit from keeping institutions open are the same ones who profit from prescription drugs that are priced out of reach for people of poor and moderate means. They don’t want regulation either… they want profits. They don’t want equality, they want it all.
The ruling class wants us to fight with one another for limited resources so we don’t focus on them and their system of wealth for the rich and crumbs for the rest of us. We must continually fight, not just for the daily needs of our people, but also to knock chunks of power out of their hands and put it in ours.
She still wasn’t sure. We believe there are a lot of people in the same position. For them the most difficult step of a journey isn’t the first one. It’s more like the second or third step. Once you stick your toe into an issue, you can feel the power on the other side. What usually happens after that; people get scared, put blinders on and refuse to look at injustice any longer. It also requires us to examine our system of equality, wealth distribution and privilege. Once you start doing that, you get called names, like “red” and “socialist”. It is enough to scare most people away.
We want to say do not be deterred. Take Barack Obama’s story about grassroots organizing in Chicago. He saw the poverty; he knew the issues; he spoke to the people; yet at his first meeting, no one showed up. That’s pretty devastating. He was disheartened and thought about quitting. Then he thought that quitting and realized that wasn’t going to improve anything for the people he cared about. He felt he had no choice to but to try and try again. He succeeded in building leadership from the community where little existed before. That enabled him to go on to create or sustain other social movements.
Find your passion. Bring about change in your neighborhood, or city. Fight for women’s rights, or cleaning up the superfund site down the road, or racism, or disability equal rights. Change a neighbor, or local council’s idea about how to deal with people who are disfranchised and you are changing the world.
Crossposted at Big Noise.