Sometimes unknown people do big things. Take Virginia Ramirez. Virginia lived near an elderly widow in a dilapidated house in San Antonio, TX. and, for years on end, Virginia saw the woman get sick each winter. The widow couldn’t afford to fix her home, so Virginia sought the aid of city agencies. The agencies provided little help and ultimately, the widow died of pneumonia. Enraged at the senseless death, Virginia went to a community organizing group, saying she wanted someone to do something. “What are you going to do about it?” a group member asked her in turn.
A 45-year-old mother with an eighth-grade education, Virginia felt there was little she could do. But after a little prodding, Virginia held a house meeting to discuss the issue. Nine neighbors showed up. Together, they researched why the widow had gotten little help and discovered that money earmarked to repair homes in their barrio – funds that could have helped the widow – had been diverted to a more affluent neighborhood. Virginia led a force of 60 neighbors to a city council meeting, to protest how they had been denied the funds. There, she spoke her truth. The city council gave them back the money. And, without even knowing it, Virginia had become a community activist.
Virginia said, “I never knew I had it in me.” She may not be alone. All over – in small towns, in crumbling cities, in the boonies – people who don’t think they have anything special inside may have some little spark that, given the right conditions, can grow into a roaring, steady flame. And if you need more examples of empowered people, Paul Rogat Loeb’s your man.
In books such as “Hope in Hard Times: America’s Peace Movement and the Reagan Era” and “The Impossible will Take a Little Time,” Loeb has sought ways to help ordinary people dust off their cynicism and disbelief in society – not to mention themselves – to see how they can become agents of change. Don’t think of it as a self-help strategy: It’s a call to social activism. And he calls to readers with stories of people like Virginia.
A wealth of these stories appear in “Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times” (St. Martin’s, $16.99), a reissue of a 1999 book that uses compassion to invoke the need for a return to social activism. As guides, Loeb mixes the tales of people like Nelson Mandela with Virginia Ramirez, to show how little steps have changed people’s lives.
The book’s reissue means that Loeb, whose writings also appear on The Huffington Post, has to hit the road to do a publicity tour. But before he took off for the East Coast, the Seattleite had a little chat about ordinary people and extraordinary change, touching on the lives of Rosa Parks, local fisherman Pete Knutson, Nelson Mandela and his own next-door neighbor.
Rosette Royale: In the intro to this book you start off by recounting an appearance you had on CNN with Rosa Parks. You mention how she’s often portrayed as this lone pioneer, but that’s actually not the case.
Paul Loeb: She’s coming in from remote, I’m sitting in a studio in Atlanta, so I don’t actually meet her, but how can you not be totally excited? They say, basically, one day Rosa Parks started the Civil Rights movement, and I’m just kinda groaning. What they’re stripping away to me are three really key elements for change. The image is here’s this lone activist (who) acts completely on her own, acts in isolation — you know, she was tired and her feet hurt — and if you look, there’s a whole community around her: She was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter and the mentor to the youth section. The portrayal of Parks in isolation strips away this community who made it possible, after that day on the bus, for that whole boycott to occur.
The second aspect is conscious action: You see something immovable, you push and suddenly the mountain moves. So when Parks took the stand on the bus, she had already gone to training sessions at this labor and civil rights center that is still going today in Tennessee, and she’d strategized. None of that is unconscious, but the image is, “Oh, I’ll just sort of waltz into history, lah-de-dah, when I take a courageous stand.” Well that’s not how it works.
And the third aspect is perseverance: If she gives up in year 5 or 10 or 11, we never hear of her. But she perseveres for a dozen years, until the stand on the bus, and then it’s another 10 years ’til the Civil Rights Act (of 1964) is passed.
R.R.: You’re talking about the Civil Rights movement. We can say there’s a (women’s) rights movement, gay rights movement and now the so-called Tea Party movement. Do you consider that a social change movement?
P.L.: I would say yeah. Social change movements don’t necessarily have to be progressive: There can be regressive populist movements that are acting to defend powerful interests. It’s a complicated one, because I’m not sure where they’d be without FOX (News) and Glenn Beck and Rush (Limbaugh). I mean, would it have self-organized? I would say there are sincere participants, but it’s a complicated movement because some of that raw anger against the banks, I share. I don’t want to just completely dismiss them. I would say there’s legitimate grievances, and then large amounts of misinformation.
One of the things that I stress continually in “Soul of a Citizen” is you’ve gotta look for unconventional allies, because sometimes that’s what allows you to win. I tell a story, here in Seattle, of my closest friend, activist fisherman Pete Knutson. He’s gotten the fishermen involved in environmental issues, and because that involves environmental accountability, some of the huge industrial interests are basically gonna try and wipe out a family fisherman. In the process of (Knutson creating) this coalition, they involve some usual suspects: the Sierra Club, Audubon, Friends of the Earth. They also involved Native American tribes who had previously been hostile (to fishermen). They also involved some of the fishermen who are members of the Assembly of God Church, which are about as conservative as you come. I don’t believe in, “Oh, let’s all be friends.” On the other hand, every time you can build a coalition with somebody who’s unexpected, it’s very powerful. That was true with the fishermen.
R.R.: Talking about different sides makes me think a lot about Congress and our little health care (bill). It seemed like it took forever.
P.L.: It did.
R.R.: One thing you’re talking about in the book is time and how long something can take. What happens when you feel like you don’t have enough time?
P.L.: I think all of us who’ve been involved in any kind of social movement have had the phenomenon where we’re desperately racing to get something done and we’re always behind. I use the example (of) global climate change because we don’t have indefinite time. If we don’t start making some serious headway in the next several years, we may not be able to reverse it. So how do you deal with something like that? Part of me thinks you just need to have this urgency and deal with it now. Yet at the same time if you get so frantic and desperate, it ends up working against you. My favorite King essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” talks about the way we become patient with injustice. Time doesn’t necessarily work automatically in our favor. It’s neutral: It can work for us, it can work against us. I think we need to strike the balance, not sit back saying, “Oh, well, everything will work out.” That’s what people did during the first year of Obama. We need to be committed, be engaged, but also not beat ourselves up.
R.R.: Obama’s had a year, and a lot of people who seemed so hopeful in November 2008 seemed pretty cynical in November 2009.
P.L.: I saw them being cynical in July, in June.
R.R.: All right, some of them might have been cynical in May. (But) I want to get to this word cynical. The original (subtitle) of this book was—
P.L.: “Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time.”
R.R.: You changed “Cynical Time” to “Challenging Times.” Why?
P.L.: In 1999 when I wrote that, it was in the Clinton years and people were cynical. Bush didn’t make them cynical: Bush may have made them more so. But it was NAFTA, it was welfare reform, it was all that kind of stuff and it was well before Monica.
R.R.: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
P.L.: Yeah. It felt like the defining mood of the country. Then Obama comes in and there’s this wave of hope, and then much of it starts crashing down. With Obama, you have a president who I think is basically sympathetic to a lot of social justice impulses. But he’s also cautious, a little bit conciliatory by nature. So rather than say, “OK, he’s betrayed us,” the good response is to say we have to create this popular grassroots movement – which, to be honest, we really didn’t create in the past year – to push the culture, the country, the politics, the Congress, the Senate, the president to do what needs to be done. That’s our task and it’s really on our shoulders. I mean, the health bill: There’s parts that are really good. Thirty million people having health insurance is huge, having it basically paid for with progressive taxation is huge. Not having a public option, that’s not so good.
R.R.: You have this phrase about the gated community of the heart. Talk about that.
P.L.: What do people do to prevent engaging with difficult realities? They slam the doors.
For most people their involvement in social change is very much step-by-step and it’s under their control. I use the phrase the “perfect standard,” which is this image that you have to do everything, be everything, be impossibly eloquent and confident and certain in a way that nobody is, and that’s a trap. We’re all gonna enter flawed, with our limitations. So if we open up this gated community of the heart, we end up in situations that may make us a little bit uncomfortable. I mean, dealing with people who are homeless, or dealing with climate change or dealing with wars: These are not always easy things to deal with. I would argue that most of us know those underlying realities, they’re out there, and if we simply deny them or simply say we can’t do anything, it leaves us more powerless. I use a famous Kafka story called “The Burrow,” about this little creature huddling in a smaller and smaller space. We’re encouraged to do that in our society: huddle in a smaller and smaller space so we cut ourselves off. But the world is still out there. Instead, when we try and tackle (our problems), it gives something back to us.
Think of the Civil Rights Movement and the veterans (who say) the best days of their life were in Mississippi, and you’re thinking this is crazy: They’re getting shot at, getting beaten up, getting jailed, every pickup truck that goes by you think is going to carry your death. How do you call these your best days? But they say that consistently. Why? Because they’re in a community. They’re fighting for something worthwhile, creating something better, and I think that gives so much back to us.
R.R.: OK, a personal question.
R.R.: How has a book like this helped your soul, as a citizen?
P.L.: This book, it’s somewhat in a continuum with my four other books. It’s not like there’s a Paul Loeb who writes about dogs and suddenly switched territory. But if I take the books as a whole, what they’ve done is they’ve given me the opportunity to meet amazing people.
There was a phrase I use: courage is transferable. Somebody acts in one situation and halfway around the globe, it can inspire somebody. Nelson Mandela uses a similar phrase: the multiplication of courage. I’ve never had the opportunity to hear Mandela speak, and yet by reading his autobiography, I can be inspired by him here in Seattle. So I think that the opportunity to pass on stories of hope is very good for me.
Right after the 2004 election, I, like many people, was enormously depressed that George Bush won. It was an ugly future, probably made uglier by the knowledge that in 2000, they basically stole it in Florida, and in 2004, they basically stole it in Ohio. The election was Tuesday and I had a talk to give to a conference of activist sociologists on Friday, and I thought, “Oh shit. I gotta be the person to give people hope?” Yet what happened was I joked, said it’s a helluva time to be talking about hope. I told the stories of people in even worse situations – under the Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, Mandela in a cell for 27 years – and (how) you could start thinking of places where people persevered and won. By telling those stories, people said, “This is so enormously helpful; this really cheers me up, I feel like I can keep working.”
I was corresponding last night with the daughter of my next-door neighbor: She’s worked with (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), and this group called Pastors for Peace. She’s now in her early 30s. I asked her how did she get involved and she said, “Well, you played a role.” I said, “I did?” And she said, “Well, one day I was delivering the West Seattle Herald and I knocked on your door and I said, ‘How are you doing?’ and you said, ‘Terrible: Clarence Thomas has just been confirmed and this is a disaster for the country, he’s awful.’” And she said, “I was about 12 or 13 and I’d never thought about things like Clarence Thomas or the Supreme Court and it kind of broke me out of my world and then I sort of followed up from there.” And this wasn’t myself being very eloquent. I was really upset because something had occurred that genuinely merited being really upset.
Going back to the books, it’s helped me to realize that our actions really do matter.
R.R.: Can you think of one story that gives you courage?
P.L.: Well when I was 15 years old, right after the (Six-Day War in 1967) when Israel took over the Occupied Territories, my rabbi did give a sermon about it. It was a liberal congregation and he basically said we’re all glad that Israel survived, but let’s be a little bit careful in our celebration because we’ve just entered into a new situation that – I don’t remember his exact words – but (it) is going to bring huge problems and challenges. People didn’t like it. I remember sitting there in that congregation, and they did not want to hear what he was saying. I remember thinking that something really important was going on and that he was taking a risk. Years later I interviewed him about it, and I said, “I’m sure you don’t remember this;” he said, “Oh yeah I remember. I knew that I was going to catch all sorts of grief for going out on a limb, but I had to do it. If I didn’t, why would I go in this vocation to begin with?”
So that moment of a leap of courage absolutely affected me. That would be one example of somebody speaking out and taking a risk. That’s the challenge for all of us.
Reprinted from Real Change News © Street News Service: http://www.street-papers.org