Dear young revolutionaries the world over, I love you. If no one has told you so today, I’m glad that I did.
These are exciting and uncertain times everywhere. I am a witness to young people’s activism and organizing in Chicago on a daily basis.
It fills me with immense hope and a lot of joy to be able to contribute in various ways to supporting some of these wonderful human beings. But I admit to also sitting with worry. I worry about violence that can be/has been directed at these young activists. I worry about their physical, emotional, spiritual health and well-being. I worry about whether they can sustain the fire of social justice without being incinerated. I worry…
I began to take action around the conditions of my oppression(s) as a teenager. That was a very long time ago now. I’m not a particularly reflective person but I have decided today to look back in order to look forward. It’s been 30 years since I attended my first protest on my own. Ironically, the action was called after an incident of police violence in New York City. Earlier this week, I stood in the cold in front of Chicago Police Department (CPD) headquarters speaking at a protest that I had co-organized partly in response to Darren Wilson’s nonindictment. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
In the intervening years, I learned that social change and transformation is a long, hard slog. Howard Zinn is right that: “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.” There are setbacks mixed with some terrific highs. What’s most important though is that we act. Alice Walker puts it well:
“I have learned to accept the fact that we risk disappointment, disillusionment, even despair, every time we act. Every time we decide to believe the world can be better. Every time we decide to trust others to be as noble as we think they are. And that there might be years during which our grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope. The alternative, however, not to act, and therefore to miss experiencing other people at their best, reaching toward their fullness, has never appealed to me.”
I agree in large part with Walker’s words about the importance of action (however one defines it). I believe, however, as Audre Lorde has written that: “Despair is a tool for your enemies.” The key to life-long activism and organizing, in my opinion, is to rededicate oneself daily to hope. As has been said, hope is a discipline. In his life-giving essay “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Howard Zinn underscores the value and importance of hope in movement-building. I often share this essay with young people who ask me for advice about how to stay awake in the world when it would be easier to be complacent. Zinn writes:
“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.
An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
“The future is an infinite succession of presents…” I relate deeply to these words. To transform the conditions of our oppression(s), we can only do what we can today, where we are, in the best way that we know how. Ethical action as part of our daily lives is an important path to social justice. Mistakes are a given. Disappointments are many. But we keep moving forward. Palante young leaders, Siempre Palante!