The Take Back America Conference and Me, Part 2: Conscience and Connectedness
I have to admit that I did not go to this conference hoping to change large numbers of people's minds about the urgency for meaningful election reform. It's not that I wouldn't like to. It's just that I've been doing this long enough now to find that a thoroughly unrealistic notion, akin to winning the lottery or being struck by lightning. (I was struck by lightning, come to think of it, so maybe a breakthrough is not as farfetched as I thought.)
In this installment of "What I did at the Take Back America Conference", I want to focus on the session called "We've got issues: Young people in action". As far as I could tell, all of the panelists were in their early to mid-twenties. I thought of myself when I was a college student, oh so long ago. At the time, I was committed to doing well in school, juggling homework with a busy social life and my current job (variously a hasher in my dorm cafeteria, waiting tables at a local restaurant, dorm resident advisor and selling toupees and men's clothing at a nearby mall). Even though it was the late '60s and early '70s, I was simply not political. I now have two college grads of my own; they were much more active as students than I ever was. But even they couldn't hold a candle to these representatives of the up and coming generation. It was very inspiring, as I'm sure it was meant to be. They were so young and yet so savvy! The first five speakers talked about their specific focus for activism: global warming, new voters, youth outreach, LBGT issues, community-building. Among them were an Asian, a gay, a Hispanic, numerous women. Most, if not all of them, attend or graduated from college. They spoke about their work, with fire and passion.
I want to talk a little about the last two speakers on that panel. Elandria Williams represents the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. Established in the '30s, it was first a training ground for union organizers, then the civil rights movement and now focuses on environmental issues and economic recovery in the rural South. She pointed out that the people at the conference did not look like her or reflect her experience or history. She spoke movingly about what life is like where she is and it's a radically different picture from my reality, I must tell you. I felt a seismic shift as it became clear to me that when I think of people this age, I think suburban, middle-class, college, mostly white. She was gently but firmly reminding me that's only part of the picture. I felt like I had woken myself up by falling out of bed. I was totally unaware of my narrow perspective. It was definitely an eye-opener.
The last speaker, Juan Pachaeco, is a Hispanic from Barrios Unidos. He sat at the table wearing a blue bandana topped with a blue cap. Being such a creature of suburbia, I was oblivious to these gang colors. He proceeded to discard his headgear and pull various things out of his backpack, including a red bandana, legal papers, a graduation gown. He was toying with the stereotyping we often engage in. As his story unfolded, it turns out that, yes, he had been in a gang, had three felony convictions, had been in jail five times, had pulled himself together and finished high school and is now in college, in pre-med. The last thing he took out of his backpack was a stethoscope. He talked about his goal is to become a doctor and to help youths avoid the gang/jail/unemployment dead-end cycle that the inner city often delivers.
"Our vision is to serve as a positive model for inner city youth and families across the nation. We will utilize our experience, status and programs as platforms to encourage community development, volunteerism and leadership."
Juan can look to these three for inspiration since they traveled the same path a few steps ahead of him. I liked making a connection with him as well as hooking him up with something tangible and potentially useful.
While for the most part I was extremely frustrated with the basic obliviousness of the mainstream Dems to the urgency for real election reform, I felt that I did connect with numerous people at the conference. That sense of connection was a welcome antidote to the isolation and desperation I often feel in my many solitary hours spent on the computer or staring up at my bedroom ceiling in the still of the night. This connectedness affected my actions in another sphere in a small but significant way. While this has nothing directly to do with the conference, it has everything to do with who we are and why we do what we do. Bear with me.
I live in a Chicago suburb. I grew up in a different Chicago suburb. I do not spend a lot of time in the city nor have I spent much of my lifetime in any city, for that matter. When I do, I am disturbed by the number of homeless people wandering the streets. It is very distressing to me. It makes me angry, and helpless and often results in my tuning out in order to keep myself together.
People living in the city, who see homelessness every day grow a thick protective shell around themselves. It's like a Plexiglas bubble. When you go long enough not seeing something that is right before your eyes, it's inevitable that you begin to lose bits of your soul. I have been experimenting lately. Even though the average person is gruff and dismissive when we pass on the street, I still offer a smile. It's not as easy as it sounds. Many times I am rebuffed and it becomes more difficult to keep at it. But there are occasions where I get a surprised smile in return. This is inordinately gratifying. People don't think about connecting when they're hurrying to work. They're on cruise control, armed with cell phone, coffee, briefcase and that invisible Plexiglas shield. Even so, sometimes you can break through and remind them, for a second, of their humanness.
As I walked back and forth to the hotel this week, I conducted my experiment. My decidedly unscientific study showed that I was more likely to get a response from Black men, Hispanics of either genders, and the homeless. On the final day of the conference, I again took the same route back to my friend Diane's apartment near Dupont Circle. There was a man asking for spare change. People were walking past him, averting their gaze. That is not unusual. I recalled hearing about someone who had been told that homeless people often squander their money on drink or drugs. I'm sure that in some cases this is true, but it becomes a convenient rationale to do nothing. In order to avoid hardening his heart, he invited a homeless individual for a meal, supplying actual food instead of money and circumventing the excuse for not getting involved. I had never tried this approach but I instinctively liked it. I am basically a shy person, however, and although I will often be the first to smile or say hello, collaring total strangers is not my thing. But, I thought to myself, I have an opportunity before me. Am I going to just walk away and wonder or take a chance and see what happens? No matter what, I'm leaving town in a few hours. That realization was somehow very liberating. What did I have to lose?
So, I approached this man, whose name turned out to be Jake, and asked if I could buy him lunch. He agreed. I introduced myself and we shook hands. We went into the store and he picked out a sandwich and a drink. He took a cookie too and I told him that I was treating him to a sandwich and drink, but if he wanted to buy the cookie, he was more than welcome. I just didn't feel comfortable about it. I don't usually go out for lunch myself so I am instinctively frugal in this regard. Afterwards, I started second-guessing myself. Was I a cheap creep? I 'm still not sure. We went outside. I told him to enjoy his lunch and we said goodbye. I actually would have liked to keep him company while he ate so we could talk a bit. Maybe I could have learned something about him. But this felt intrusive and I didn't like the idea that buying him lunch should somehow obligate him to speak to me. I'm still working that one out. I think it's important to have these conversations with ourselves, even if we end up with more questions. It shows that we haven't completely tuned out the suffering of others and that's a good thing.
There was a dark time several years ago, shortly after the 2004 election when I felt cast out and isolated. Anyone questioning the election results in those days was promptly marginalized and branded as a lefty loony or sore loser, or worse. There's absolutely nothing that can delegitimize like the accusation of being a conspiracy theorist. Visions of flying saucers and people completely unmoored from reason come to mind. Each of us doubters hunkered down in our personal bunker, cut off from one another. It was pretty awful. The right-wing spin machine masterfully framed any dissent as unpatriotic. In the last number of months, that airtight façade has begun to crack. Teflon Man no longer has a free pass with the press, although they certainly are not bringing to bear a fraction of the skepticism necessary to do their job adequately. But, opposition to the war, to the excesses and inhumanities of this administration is picking up steam and volume. It's easier to connect with others, to see our commonality. It's like the first days of spring after a particularly long and brutal winter. It's a breath of fresh air and it's good for the soul.
Connection is good. It's critical for the health of our psyche, nationally as well as individually. If we don't feel a connection to others, we can't join together to bring about change. Which brings me back to what it is exactly that I'm attempting to do. Virtually every session that I attended addressed the question of how to bring about change. Speaker after speaker pointed out that we must look to ourselves to get what we want– to stop the war, get health care for everyone, reverse global warming. We need to create a huge groundswell of public support to demand change from our leaders. We can't afford to wait for them to finally wake up and take the initiative. Change begins at the grass-roots level; it percolates from the bottom up. Look at American history: the suffragettes, the Civil Rights era, the peace movement, opposition to the war in Iraq. Through our involvement and activism, we make our leaders listen to us, follow our lead. Only then, will change be possible. Democracy demands a well-informed and engaged citizenry. Are we up to the challenge?