Carole Levine June 1, 2022
These are not good times. I wake up with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and it certainly does not get better as I turn on the news. As a long-time activist, I am frequently asked by friends about what they should do now. Should they march? Should they give money? Should they write letters? Should they call others? And when I say yes, they ask: “But will it do any good?” And that is the question which stops me in my tracks.
Like so many of you, I have been working on these issues for years. And I have seen both victories and defeats. I am lucky to live in a very Blue state (Illinois), but I was raised in Ohio (not always so liberal), went to school and taught school in Missouri (before things got really restrictive) and even lived in Texas and birthed two of my three children there (who do not like to admit that they are native-born Texans!). But for more than 40 years, I have been able to take advantage of Illinois’ more liberal perspective when it comes to supporting civil and human rights.
This week I did my final volunteer shift (after 8 years) on the ACLU’s Judicial Bypass for Abortion Hotline; on June 1st because of a recently enacted law women under age 18 will no longer need to notify their parents in order to receive an abortion in Illinois. I was never more grateful to be “fired” from a volunteer job! A bit a sunshine in a gloomy skyline. But I think there is more to be found. And I know that finding it will take hard work.
We are facing a highly organized, very well-funded and very patient opposition. The far right did not just jump into their plans willy-nilly. If you look at the history and development of organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the years of building their plans and their recruitment of young people, targeting law students, you can see how their success in helping Trump stack the federal courts with conservative, right-wing justices was successful. Now we are seeing the results of that patience. If you survey the website of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), you will see a site that is dedicated to providing state legislators with sample legislation that they can use to build conservative laws on voting rights, economics, taxes, reproductive rights, civil rights, health care and more. And if you compare legislation from state to state where the Republicans dominate, you will see similarities in the laws they are passing. This is the influence of these highly organized and very targeted organizations.
So, what ARE we to do now that I have painted a picture of gloom and doom? Well crawling back into bed and pulling the covers over our heads is definitely not an option (although it does seem to be one that many of our legislators may want to choose). We have to realize that our opinions are actually the majority opinions on issues of gun control, abortion, separation of religion and state, and on fair taxation. Given that, we now have to exert control.
The question is how. As the writer and consultant Peter Block so brilliantly pointed out in his 2003 book: The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters where he talks about shifts, I find some directions. Here are two of them:
“‘How do we do this?’ becomes ‘What refusal have I been postponing?’”
When we are seeking deep change, knowing what NOT to recreate helps us determine what truly creative innovation we should pursue because it captures what really matters.
“‘How long will this take?’ becomes ‘What commitment am I willing to make?’”
Block notes that we will always make time for what we are truly committed to. We need to shift the question of time to the question of importance.
But there is more to consider. With Buffalo and Uvalde fresh in our minds, think about how we have fought for gun safety and gun control over the past decades. We seem to be tinkering around the edges and hoping that the Republicans will “come around”as we witness continued growth in the purchases of weapons of mass destruction by everyday people and then mass killings using these weapons. Writing the New York Times, Charles Blow address this issue directly, saying this has to stop. As Blow says, “Why can’t everyone just be upfront? We have too many guns. We need to begin to get some of them out of circulation. That may include gun buybacks, but it must include no longer selling weapons of war to civilians.” Blow bravely states what our legislators on both sides of the isle are too weak to do – “We have to stop all the lies. We have to stop the lie that fewer gun restrictions make us safer. And we have to stop the lie that gun safety can be accomplished by one law or a few of them rather than an evolving slate of them.”
This is not the time for us to reminisce about the “good old days” and wait for things to change. This is the time recognize that we need to fight on differently and be energized by the voices and presence of so many young people who are part of this ongoing fight. We must listen to those young voices and allow them to lead as they are our future. We need to think long term. We need to support one another and we need to create an even stronger movement for change so that the real majority opinions will dominate this nation.
Vu Le, a social justice writer and speaker posted his weekly piece and it seemed to address much of what those of us who work on social justice issues feel at this moment. While he addresses this to the world of nonprofits and philanthropy that he serves, his message is much broader. Vu wrote:
I don’t know what to say here. I feel hopeless. Hopeless that anything will change. I feel defeated and numb. Republicans will block every attempt at gun legislation. They have been excelling at advancing an agenda of hatred, racism, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, transphobia, ableism, climate denialism, corporate greed, war on the poor, and gun violence, while many Democrats remain entrenched in white moderation and civility politics.
I know so many of you are also feeling hopeless and despondent right now. We are not built to endure this much despair for this long. Most of us who come into this line of work do so because we want to make the world better. To see ongoing injustice against innocent people, against children, it breaks our hearts. And our hearts have been broken so many times now.
It’s been too much to hold. Our sector, nonprofit and philanthropy, is supposed to be making the world better. But lately I question whether we are. Are we making a difference? Are we bending the arc of justice? Or is this arc so far bent the other way that it’s now just futile and we’re just delusional thinking we can actually change things? If you’re feeling despondent, know you’re not alone. I’m there with you.
But I’m not giving up, and I hope you won’t either. We did not get into this line of work thinking it would be easy. We are here precisely because the world is fucked up and we are determined to do something about it. We cannot let ourselves be consumed by the relentless pain and despair that we don’t have the strength to fight. We have people out there who need us to keep going, to keep pushing against the tides of injustice.
I am not giving up. I may allow my anger to drive my work for a while and I may look for some new venues that will keep me focused. But I intend to hold all of my legislators’ (and some who are not mine) feet to the fire to do what is right. And I intend to listen to the voices of young people because they have fresh, new ideas and deserve to lead us. And I will keep talking to everyone I know to join in and to vote like their life and their rights depend on it, because they do. And I will remind myself often of the quote from the Jewish sage Rabbi Tarfon, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We have much work to do.