by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
Fifty-six years ago, a bus-driver turned to his passenger and said: "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats!"
You probably already have the scene in your heads, it was Montgomery, Alabama, and the bus-driver was speaking to the darker passengers. Most dutifully began disembarking, but for one woman.
When the bus driver realized that Rosa Parks was still seated, he asked he if she was going to leave her seat, and she answered, "No, I am not." Four such simple words; how great their impact on history. The bus driver told her that he would have her arrested and she replied, "You may do that." Again four simple words. There was no anger, no yelling, just clear resolve.
image from wikipedia
At some point we all have someone in authority tell us to do something that goes against our conscience -- but how many of us have the courage of that young woman to say: "No, I won't."
I get lots of calls from people with ethical quandaries. The most frequent is the one that starts: "My boss said that I must not report the discrepancy in our financial situation; if I do, he will fire me.' That person is being coerced to be a party to fraud, and it happens often.
Someone else was approached to run for political office and upon consulting with his pastor was told, "Don't create any more opposition for Obama, we need him to get in for another term." Should we stand back or create the opposition that provokes reform?
This week President Obama told an interviewer, "Joe Biden sums up my feelings about re-election, he says, don't compare me with the Almighty, compare me with the Alternative." What an admission. The man elected on "Yes, We Can' is now saying he that the election will be the New Halloween, we'll be asked to vote for the less scary option.
My Rosa Parks moment came at the Environmental Protection Agency.
I joined the EPA in 1990 as a senior policy analyst after working at the United Nations and various stints as a professor.
The environment inside EPA was held together by fear: fear of retaliation, fear of losing your health insurance, fear of saying the wrong thing, but the mother-of-all-fear, was the fear of losing your job.
Fear is the ever-present guest in the federal government. If you don't believe me ask Daniel Ellsberg, ask Bradley Manning, Matthew Fogg, ask Tanya Ward Jordan -- all whistleblowers, all targeted by the US government for speaking out against discrimination and corruption. It's the fear that prevents federal employees from exposing corruption and exposing health dangers to the public.
It prevents good people in government and institutions from sounding the alarm when they find out that there is lead in the water; mercury in the food or a basketball coach is molesting 10-year-old boys.
I worked with the Al Gore Bi-National Commission with South Africa for the EPA. A South African environmental leader, Jacob Ngakane told me of a community where miners working for a U.S. multinational were reportedly dying from exposure to vanadium pentoxide (a toxic ingredient used to strengthen steel). He described workers who bled from every orifice, their tongues turned green. When I reported this situation to my supervisor, I was told to "shut up" and redecorate my office.
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