April 2nd, 2018
While this post is a personal reflection, it is implicitly a call to action by those of us in the philanthropy world as well. It joins the growing chorus of those who argue that our sector no longer has the luxury of reticence in the face of the most profound challenges to the institutions of democratic stability since the McCarthy era.
The year was 1967. A friend and I were sitting on a Broadway bus in New York City. Sitting in front of us, apparently each minding his own business, were a hirsute college student and an older man. [Now that a lot of years have gone by, I realize that I have no idea how “old” that older man was at the time.]
The bus came to a stop, the older person stood up to leave, but before doing so struck the younger one in his face with a fist. He then got off the bus and ran away. The young man was not seriously hurt, but he was shocked and surprised. All the rest of us on the bus could only surmise that the older gentleman was so threatened by this long-haired college student that he literally lashed out. [Thank goodness the destructive belief in the unrestrained and extreme interpretation of the 2nd amendment was still in the future. I shudder to think if this blind rage had been accompanied by a gun. A point to remember toward the end of this essay.]
By 1967, most of us who had not rushed off to careers on Wall Street looked very much as this young man did. Indeed, between 1965 and 1968, the preferred attire for most had switched from buttoned down to denim-ed up. On university campuses, and in most of the trans-Atlantic big cities, the confluence of the counter culture and political activism [two very different motivating dynamics that converged in time] meant that what was normal then was profoundly different than it had been a scant 5 years earlier.
This is not the place to rehearse all of the changes, some fleeting, others more lasting, of those years, but one thing is certain. By 1968, it didn’t take much courage to protest. I don’t want to diminish the killings at Jackson State and Kent State, nor the “occupying” police presence on many university campuses and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But they were, it appeared to many, the last gasps of a political enterprise that resisted the changing rules, the challenge to the mandatory draft, the protests against a despised war, the legal and moral insistence of racial and gender equity, and the transforming personal mores.
It was a movement, or in retrospect, several interlocking movements, that were young-person led. Some in the political power structures tried to ignore or squelch things at the time, but changes prevailed, even if radical Change may not have.
Over the next decades, many of us rested on our activist laurels. I know I did. We assumed, wrongly it now appears, that while there were still significant skirmishes to be fought in the areas of women’s rights over their own bodies, or fairness in hiring and education of minorities, or the degradation of the environment – to take but three, the big battles of a society that could hold its elected officials and big business accountable for misconduct were won. And there were governmental entities in place that would enforce these principles.
I cannot speak for everyone else, but I know that I never changed my political leanings even as my attire became more bespoke, and my hair – well, let’s just say that is long gone. However, what I discovered on numerous occasions over the years was that very few knew that I had those views. There were even occasions when I would speak up or write something or attend an event that incurred surprised reactions by other attendees or readers. But on the whole, I let others, too few others, take the lead in these and other important battles.
I don’t want to impugn others, although I don’t think these behaviors were mine alone. Activism, even when safe, is never easy and requires great tolerance for failure and disappointment. And it requires a lot of time, and even more social risk. How ironic, I now realize, that my passivity was during the very time when I, in fact, did have leadership positions -some ascribed, others earned. I had the opportunities to influence others, to articulate larger visions, to be more politically active, but didn’t.
Activism became less and less appealing as the political ethos deteriorated into money and partisanship and ugly personal nastiness. In 1967, the risk was a fist in the face; in 2018, there are opponents trolling our sites and toting guns. Even when it is socially safe, it is not without real risk.
Voting or sending an occasional letter or making an even more occasional phone call to an elected official is not that hard or risky. But getting in the trenches requires a different level of commitment, and that wasn’t what I did.
And if it is true that I am not alone, we are all a bit guilty of negligence. We have tolerated, mostly by our silence, this abysmal state of affairs, the erosion of confidence in our democracy, and the willful self-indulgent atomized existence of far too many.
The Parkland kids shook me out of my facile passivity. Yes, I did participate in recent marches – to respond to climate change, for women, for immigrants, and more – but there was something different this time. It resonated with the dormant part of my activist soul. And challenged me and hopefully us.
It may well be that my own personal opportunities to influence others are largely over, but that doesn’t exempt me from raising my voice, being a visible advocate, and choosing involvements that demand a restoration of a commitment to ethics and justice as bedrock principles of empowerment.
We didn’t quite accomplish what we hoped to in our last youth-led movement, when I was still young-ish. Now that I am 2 generations older, it is time to follow the young once again. And this time, we cannot leave it to them alone to finish the hard part of the work.
They and we and the nation as a whole deserve no less.