December 26, 2023
“Stop writing all these depressing articles and find something happy,” my wife and editor instructed me as I told her this morning that I’m going to try writing a new piece for Change Counts.
Now that’s a challenge!
The day began with headlines about a refugee camp in Gaza where the death toll from a Sunday bombing had now risen to more than 100 in a war that is now approaching more than 80 days long and that seems to be no closer to an end than it was when it began.
As I sat down at my keyboard, I glanced at the stories I had clipped and wanted to focus on:
- Iowa’s Republican Governor Opts Out of Summer Food Program for Kids
- Homelessness Rose to Record Level This Year, Government Says
- US child poverty doubled in 2022, thanks to Joe Manchin. We must reverse course
Easy to get depressed with those as my inspiration.
2024 will be an election year. That should inspire and provide a vision of good things ahead of us. But if I wrote that I’d be lying. That’s not how I am feeling about it. The thought of again having to choose between candidates I do not like, looking for the least bad person to vote for leaves me pained. And that’s what I think we will face with Joe Biden running against Donald Trump.
It is easy to look at the steepness of the hill we have yet to climb and miss seeing that we need just keep focusing on the work in front of us. Sitting in a Birmingham jail cell in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the fullness of the struggle before him. “Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
As this year ends and we are ready to begin a new one I push away the gloom because in 2023 I have seen that I am surrounded by folks still believing that it is worthwhile taking on those “strong, persistent and determined” actions.
The past year has let me work alongside a growing group of younger folks who have not given up on their future. On issues ranging from immigration to homelessness to income inequality to Israel/Palestine I have had the joy to see that they still think the work of building a progressive, humane city, state, and country is worth their time and their hearts.
They have given a 2,000-year-old adage attributed to the Greek historian, Herodotus, a new context. “Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail” kept them from doing the hard work of engaging their neighbors and building support for the changes they are struggling to enact. They are not always successful in this work, but they are willing to do it nonetheless.
There have been some incredible successes to look back on in the year now behind us which bring a smile. A Chicago city election turned out differently than most elections I remember. A progressive mayor supported by a progressive City Council was elected. The new system of police accountability that had been part of our advocacy work in 2022 came to life with elected local Councils beginning to meet and with the new City oversight commission working actively to make the administration of justice more transparent and more accountable to all of us.
Bring Chicago Home legislation designed to increase funding for the unhoused was passed!
And just days ago, a City Council Committee passed a resolution calling for a Gaza cease-fire, moving it to the full City Council for a 2024 vote.
Each of these was the end result of that hard work of building support, helping elect officials who will listen and act and turning out communities to ask, even demand, action.
These are people who much resemble me almost 60 years ago. Idealistic. Seeing a world where all deserve dignity and respect. Seeing a world that has the ability to help make life better for those who are struggling. And willing to stand up, speak and act.
They have given me hope that while we are still struggling to fix many of the problems that were in front of us back then, we have not lost the battle. They have helped me see that while some mistakes were made and some wrong turns were taken we are not lost and need not just be depressed over our failures.
In 1964 Dr King ended his speech accepting his Nobel Prize with a reflection that captures this moment.
“Let me close by saying that I have the personal faith that mankind will somehow rise up to the occasion and give new directions to an age drifting rapidly to its doom. In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period something profoundly meaningful is taking place. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away, and out of the womb of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. Doors of opportunity are gradually being opened to those at the bottom of society. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are developing a new sense of “some-bodiness” and carving a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”21 Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world, the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.”
This has been a year when I have been surrounded by colleagues who have reminded me that it is that vision of the future that keeps us moving forward. That there is hope for a better world.
They have also made it clearer that my job now is to do what I can to let them take the lead. There is value in the wisdom gained from experience but there is also value in the energy of youth and the ability to look at problems with new eyes. This is what I wanted in the ‘60’s and this is what I have to be ready to give this year.
So, even with the headlines that are so gloomy, we have reason to look ahead knowing that we just need to keep on going forward, knowing that we can build a world we want despite the obstacles.
It is not time to step back, shut up, and become resigned to darkness. It is time to stand up and walk forward knowing that we are not alone.