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The first step to change the world

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Message Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

By Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

The first step is the simplest, if the most difficult and terrifying: it is the step that takes us from stasis, from the role of observer, to a first, tentative step toward the other, calling here - Sister! - from everything that suffers and dies. And then she is no longer other, different, anonymous. And a pathway opens before our astonished eyes from which we will never be able to waver." - No FEAR: A Whistleblower's Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at EPA by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

I reflected on those words this week as the news media were filled with the primaries and Syria. Some weeks before, thirteen Syrians died trying to smuggle on injured French journalist to safety. I wondered at the commitment of those Syrians, so intent are they on communicating the message of the deep suffering in Homs, that they were prepared to give up their own lives so that one, a messenger, could live.

I wrote the words I contemplated on in my book about being a whistleblower at the Environmental Protection Agency when I found no one wanted to respond to my message of mining practices by a U.S. mining group in South Africa that was leading to sickness and death among South African mineworkers.

I had a great job, a big office, and a salary check that made a meaty thump as it hit my bank account each month. I was living my mother's dream for me, when I realized that me pointing out uncomfortable facts was making those around me uneasy, and that they were likely to light a firestorm around my ears if I continued I had to become deeply introspective.

My mother had sacrificed so much. I had worked so hard. I had a young family that depended on my husband and I. Did I have the right to jeopardize that?

And then I remember a call I had made to my mother from Ethiopia years before, I had a much-coveted job working for the United Nations in Ethiopia.

Our dream of Africa from afar is not necessarily like the Africa we encounter. I'd gone to church and there a mother handed me her baby, I cradled it, thinking of my own child at home, and the child in my belly, I turned back the blanket and realized the child was dead.

Shaking, I could not think properly, I gave the mother her infant and fled back to my hotel.

Ignoring time differences I called my mother in Detroit, "Mom, I'm on my way home. I can't deal with this. I'm not strong enough to handle the pain in this place."

She listened as I went on, and then she said: "Marsha, you have spent the last six years of your life training for this moment, working on a PhD, and now working at the UN. You have all it takes to make a difference. Pray to God for strength and then roll up your sleeves and get to work. You have no right to cut and run. Punch through the fear -- stay and fight!"

Her words stilled me. They gave me strength. They were the sort of words that had underlined my life and created my values system.

Upon thinking of those words I understood the sacrifice of those who died to get a journalist to safety so that he might carry the words of their suffering to those who have the power to change it.

I thought of the GOP primaries and those who seek to be president and how we as voters look at the field and are dismayed, we feel powerless to change the governors that we have over the years elected to high office. But in truth, we are as powerless as we allow ourselves to be.   My mother's words echo, "You have no right to cut and run. Punch through the fear -- stay and fight!"

On the radio a young woman her words rapid with the excitement of the work she does spoke of how her small group in Worcester, Massachusetts, just five of them mobilized against SOPA -- the proposed bill that would have allowed music companies to sue you if you dared film and then post on YouTube a video of your child dancing to a famous singers voice. They have already done that in the case of a mother who posted a video of her toddler dancing to a cd of Prince singing in the background.

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Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is an environmental consultant who when working for the Environmental Protection Agency as a senior executive discovered dangerous mining conditions in South Africa conducted by a U.S. multinational. When she raised the issue (more...)
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