Tag Archives: activism

Changing The World–For Better Or Worse

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with that famous quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” If you are inclined to doubt that observation–inclined to dismiss as ineffective the efforts of small numbers of activists–I’ve got news for you. 

Very small groups of people can have a very large impact, for good or not-so-good. Case in point: those proliferating book bans.

The Washington Post recently did a “deep dive” into the growing number of parental challenges to books in the nation’s classrooms and school libraries, and they found something counter-intuitive and very interesting. It turns out that a large percentage of the complaints come from “a minuscule number of hyperactive adults.”

And when the Post says “small,” it means small.The majority of the 1,000-plus book challenges analyzed by The Post were filed by just 11 people.

The Post requested copies of all book challenges filed in the 2021-2022 school year with the 153 school districts that Tasslyn Magnusson, a researcher employed by free expression advocacy group PEN America, tracked as receiving formal requests to remove books last school year. In total, officials in more than 100 of those school systems, which are spread across 37 states, provided 1,065 complaints totaling 2,506 pages.

Other findings from the Post’s investigation are unsurprising–the great majority of challenges focused on books with LGBTQ content, followed by those dealing with race.

The Post analyzed the complaints to determine who was challenging the books, what kinds of books drew objections and why. Nearly half of filings — 43 percent — targeted titles with LGBTQ characters or themes, while 36 percent targeted titles featuring characters of color or dealing with issues of race and racism. The top reason people challenged books was “sexual” content; 61 percent of challenges referenced this concern.

The people filing these objections evidently consider the identification of gender to be “sexual.” And I suppose any mention of race is “woke” and evidence of the incursion of that dreaded Critical Race Theory (which none of its critics can define).

In nearly 20 percent of the challenges, petitioners wrote that they wanted texts pulled from shelves because the titles depict lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, homosexual, transgender or nonbinary lives. Many challengers wrote that reading books about LGBTQ people could cause children to alter their sexuality or gender.
“The theme or purpose of this book is to confuse our children and get them to question whether they are a boy or a girl,” a North Carolina challenger wrote of “Call Me Max,” which centers on a transgender boy.

The objections are to “sexual” content, but the Post reports that in “37 percent of objections against LGBTQ titles, challengers wrote they believed the books should not remain in libraries specifically because they feature LGBTQ lives or stories.”

The article is lengthy and very informative, but I continue to be fixated on that finding that, essentially, eleven people have managed to terrify teachers and librarians, exclude books (many of which have been read by students for decades without appreciably increasing the population of gays and lesbians or triggering psychotic episodes of racial regret…), and producing an enormous national culture war debate centering on censorship.

This is our political problem in a nutshell. The MAGA Republicans who are making government difficult or impossible represent distinct minorities of Americans. A significant number of the gerrymandered Congressional districts that send whack-a-doodles to Washington wouldn’t be safe for the GOP if most of the Democrats in that district came out to vote. 

We bemoan the disproportionate influence of Fox “News” and its clones, but the  audience for Rightwing media is a small proportion of the overall number of American viewers. 

I keep insisting that if enough Democrats and sane Independents get sufficiently active, we can lance the MAGA boil–and I am increasingly convinced that “enough” just requires a relatively small activist base that focuses on a much bigger number: voter turnout.

Or look at it from another angle: If every Democrat and disaffected Republican could identify and register just one previously apathetic non-voter, and could get that non-voter to the polls, reasonable people could retake America, and we could return to the days of (relatively) boring arguments about policy.

Margaret Mead was right: the actions of small groups of thoughtful, committed Americans can send the MAGA warriors to wherever it was that former Americans sent the Whigs.




Activism In The Time Of Social Distancing

I don’t know how other people respond to problems, but over the years, one thing I have learned about myself is the huge difference I experience between problems I can do something about and those I am powerless to remedy.

No matter how dire XYZ may be, if there are steps I can take to ameliorate it, I may be sad or frustrated or temporarily overwhelmed, but I don’t feel defeated. When there is no readily apparent action I can take that will solve whatever problem XYZ presents– or when the only actions I can take are highly unlikely to make a dent in the problem– my ulcer flares. My head hurts. I do feel defeated.

The current broken-ness of American governance is a prime example.

I doubt that I’m alone in that response, and it’s why so many of us get annoyed with comments that pooh-pooh the efficacy of get-out-the-vote campaigns and declare that those efforts aren’t nearly enough–without ever suggesting concrete alternative, effective actions in which individuals can engage.

Because everything we know about the Trump Administration is so awful–and because so many of us feel helpless and angry–I was really happy to come across an article in The Guardian focusing on what appears to be an explosion of new forms of activism in the time of the pandemic.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the world was experiencing unprecedented levels of mass mobilization. The decade from 2010 to 2019 saw more mass movements demanding radical change around the world than in any period since the second world war. Since the pandemic struck, however, street mobilization – mass demonstrations, rallies, protests, and sit-ins – has largely ground to an abrupt halt in places as diverse as India, Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong, Iraq, Algeria and the United States.

The near cessation of street protests does not mean that people power has dissipated. We have been collecting data on the various methods that people have used to express solidarity or adapted to press for change in the midst of this crisis. In just several weeks’ time, we’ve identified nearly 100 distinct methods of non-violent action that include physical, virtual and hybrid actions – and we’re still counting. Far from condemning social movements to obsolescence, the pandemic – and governments’ responses to it – are spawning new tools, new strategies and new motivation to push for change.

The article lists a number of those “new tools”–car caravans, walkouts from workplaces, community mutual aid pods, crowdsourcing–and technical efforts like adaptation of drones to deliver supplies, disinfect common areas and monitor high-risk areas.

The article also notes that many “movements”–political and philanthropic alike– are moving their activities online, with digital rallies, teach-ins and information-sharing.

Although many of these methods may seem to have little visible impact, these activities are likely to strengthen civil society and highlight political and economic issues in urgent need of change. In Chile, women have launched a feminist emergency plan that includes coordinating caring duties and mutual support against gender-based violence. In Spain, more than 15,000 people have joined a rent strike this April demanding the suspension of rents during the lockdown. Many have engaged in dissent without leaving their homes. As the Washington Post recently highlighted, many youth activists are moving their weekly global climate strikes online, conducting tweetstorms, developing toolkits for civic action, organizing teach-ins and developing accessible websites about climate change. Organizers in the UK have developed a series of seminars on movement building and mutual aid. Groups engaged in these activities now will improve their capacity for impact and transformation once the global lockdown is behind us.

If, as the article suggests, movements around the world are adapting to remote organizing, “building their bases, sharpening their messaging, and planning strategies for what comes next,” perhaps the end result will be the creation of concrete, useful mechanisms available to citizens who want to make a difference.

In the interim, there is one thing we can definitely do that will make a difference: we desperately need to get out the vote.


Other Than Voting Blue, What Can Good People Do?

A recent article in The Guardian reminded me of a long-ago discussion with my mother.

The article was about a Japanese trader named Chiune Sugihara, who saved the lives of 6,000 Jews during the second World War.

Over six weeks in the summer of 1940, while serving as a diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara defied orders from his bosses in Tokyo, and issued several thousand visas for Jewish refugees to travel to Japan.

The discussion with my mother followed a television show about the Holocaust, and the German citizens who stayed silent while their Jewish neighbors were subjected, first, to official demonization, then required to wear yellow stars, then deprived of their businesses, and finally dragged from their homes and transported to death camps. My mother declared that she would not have been one of those who pretended not to see–that she would have resisted, even at the risk of her own life and the lives of her family. I remember responding that I wished I could be so sure that I would do the right thing.

At the time, of course, it was all hypothetical.

Suddenly, it isn’t.

We need to recognize that we’re at the beginning of what threatens to become a very dark time in America. Under Trump, we already see (brown) children in cages; we already see the deliberate encouragement of white nationalism, and the demonization of immigrants, Muslims, and “others”; we already see reckless and dangerous foreign adventurism; we already see disdain for–and noncompliance with– longstanding democratic norms and the rule of law; and we already see  concerted, persistent attacks on the media outlets that report these things.

We don’t face the equivalent of SS troops in the streets (although it is worth noting that a number of Trump supporters have threatened civil war should he lose in November), so the costs of activism are minuscule in comparison to the risks run by people like Sugahari or Schindler.

Several commenters to yesterday’s post made a valid point: the time for sharing dismay is over and the time for action is here.

The question is: what does that action look like?

I am assuming that most Americans appalled by what is happening are already working to get out the vote–volunteering for candidates, bringing lawsuits to counter the GOP’s constant efforts to disenfranchise people who might vote Democratic, calling their Senators and Representatives, writing letters to the editor and posting opinions on blogs and social media. I hope–but do not know–that marches and demonstrations are being planned; if they are, even old folks like me will participate.

Yet none of this seems adequate to the challenge.

I ended yesterday’s post with a question asking readers to characterize the last decade. I will end this one with a far more important question: what should we be doing that we aren’t doing? What additional, specific actions can ordinary people take that will be effective? 

Our current situation is the result of the deterioration of democratic practices and civic participation that has been going on “under the radar” for a number of years. But I am convinced that, once the Trump administration made the consequences of that deterioration too visible to ignore, most Americans have been appalled. I continue to believe that–no matter how unAmerican the behavior of our federal government , no matter how contrary to our ideals and self-image– the majority of Americans are good people who do not and will not endorse policies grounded in stupidity, hatred and bigotry.

The question is: What are the concrete steps those good people can take to ensure that “it can’t happen here”?


Rubber, Meet Road

In the wake of the election, a number of commenters to this blog—here and on Facebook—have asked a simple question: what can we do? How can Americans of good will mount an effective resistance to Trump and the Congressional Republicans?

It’s a question that has been asked on a number of other venues as well.

There is a big difference between sharing concern and disapproval on social media with friends who are likely to agree with us, and actually engaging in productive activism. A decision to make a genuine difference, deciding how to do that and actually following through is where the rubber meets the road, as the old saying goes. So it will be interesting to see who steps up to engage with the forthcoming “Activism Engine.”

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my sons lives in Manhattan, where he is a free-lance web designer and developer. Since the election, he has spent countless hours creating a website geared to people who want to make a difference, but have no idea how to start—people who are not “web savvy,” who have not necessarily been politically involved before.

The site is very simple to use: you can choose your state (or entire country, and eventually, your city), choose what most concerns you from a relatively short list of issues (the environment, reproductive rights, elections and voting rights, etc.), and see what legislation is pending in Congress and/or your state and what direct actions—marches, petitions, protests– are being planned by organizations focused on those issues. There is a place to keep track of your involvement, and even share it on social media if you are so inclined.

Perhaps the most impressive—and useful—part of the site allows you to effortlessly contact your elected officials. Put in your address, and a list comes up of everyone who represents you from your City-County Councilor to the President, with contact information including telephone numbers. No need to go elsewhere to find out who your congressman or state legislator is, no need to look up address or phone number.

My son plans to roll out a beta test in Indiana later this month. BUT—and this is a big BUT—the usefulness of the tool he has worked so hard to create absolutely depends upon the information it will contain. In Indiana, that means that people who are knowledgeable about bills filed in the General Assembly need to insure that information is included and current; people aware of upcoming “direct actions” need to convey that information via the site.

This tool is free to use. The site will never have advertising, it is not an “organization” that will fundraise. It will never share private information about its users. It is meant to be an added “outreach” mechanism for organizations like Hoosier Environmental Council, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU—among many others. We hope–and expect–that those organizations will share information through the Activism Engine as well as their own websites.

As I mentioned, the plan is to “beta test” the site in Indiana, to see how it works, solicit feedback, and to fix any bugs before taking it national.

If this “one-stop-shop” for activism is to work, however, it needs dedicated volunteers who will post the necessary information. If you are interested in being one of those volunteers, or at least finding out what is involved, Please go to this url and fill out the form: https://ae.stephensuess.com/

Be the rubber that meets the road.

Lavender Graduation

Last night, I was honored to give the brief keynote at IUPUI’s “Lavender” Graduation–a celebration of LGBT students who have earned diplomas and advanced degrees, and are graduating this May. This is what I told them.


Graduations are wonderful times—I know that each of you is breathing a sigh of relief that you finally got through it all. You are savoring the thought of no more papers, no more juggling classes with work and family, no more putting up with picky professors…So I do want to encourage you to enjoy this moment. Have a drink—or three. Congratulate yourselves. You deserve it.

Then tomorrow, I expect you all to get up and begin a different “assignment”—one that will probably last for the rest of your life. Starting tomorrow, I want each and every one of you to be an activist for social justice.

Before you roll your eyes, let me describe what I mean by social justice, and what being an “activist” requires. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t mean taking up arms in a revolution, or taking to the streets in protest—although you might end up doing those things, they certainly aren’t required by my definition.

So—first things first. Why should you care about some expansive concept called “social justice”? Why not limit your activism—assuming you bother to engage in it at all—to those causes that focus upon advancing rights for LGBT folks—to the causes that will benefit you most directly?

I’ll tell you why.

We live in a society with a lot of other people, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from our own. The only way such a society can work–the only “social contract” that allows diverse Americans to coexist in reasonable harmony–is within a legal system and culture that respect those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means laws that require treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives.

I know it’s hard for the Micah Clarks and Ted Cruz’s of this world to understand, but when the government refuses to make everyone live by their particular interpretation of their particular holy book, that’s not an attack on them. It’s not a War on Christianity. It is recognition that we live in a diverse society where other people have as extensive a right to respect and moral autonomy as the right they claim for themselves.

Ironically, a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is the only system that can really safeguard anyone’s religious liberty. Genuine equality is only possible in a “live and let live” system—in an open and tolerant society.

It is recognition of that fact that has brought many different kinds of Americans into many different civil rights battles: I’m Jewish and a woman, but in my own lifetime, I haven’t limited my participation to efforts to combat sexism and anti-Semitism. I’ve worked for racial justice, for LGBT rights, against efforts to marginalize immigrants—not because I’m some sort of noble person, but because I’m not. I’m actually very selfish, and I understand that my own rights absolutely depend upon equal rights for other people.

If everyone doesn’t have rights, they aren’t rights—they’re privileges that government can bestow or withdraw. In such a society, no one’s rights are safe.

So that’s the WHY. What about the HOW?

I said you don’t have to take to the streets to be an activist. What do you have to do? Let me just share a few examples of effective activism:

I wrote a regular column for the Indiana Word for some 25 years. In one of those columns, written just 16 years ago, I shared the story of a wedding attended by my youngest son. It was a lovely affair—formal, at an expensive Chicago hotel, conducted with meticulous attention to detail. The program book included a message from the bride and groom, reciting how enthusiastic they were to enter into wedded life, how sure they were that matrimony was the right choice for them. In fact, they said, there was only one hesitation, one fact that gave rise to a certain reluctance to marry: the fact that others were legally prevented from doing likewise. It seemed unfair that legal marriage was available to them, a man and a woman, and not available to others merely because they were of the same gender. The message concluded with a request that those present, who had shared the happy day with this particular couple, work toward a time “when everyone can enter into the institution of marriage and have their union recognized by society and the state.”

In that column, I speculated about what would happen to the pervasive bigotry against gays and lesbians if hundreds, then thousands, of heterosexuals added similar paragraphs to their wedding programs. I said it might change the world.

As we now know, actions like those and many others did “change the world.” Probably the most significant activism—the most consequential–was the courage of thousands of LGBT people who refused to live dishonestly and who “came out”–often with the support of their families and allies, but sometimes in the face of enormous hostility. Coming out was activism, and it was enormously effective.

Last year, marriage equality became the law of the land, and survey research tells us that solid majorities of Americans now endorse same-sex marriage and support the extension of full civil rights protections to the gay community.

Of course, we live in Indiana, where gays do not yet have civil rights protections. This state has a long way to go before LGBT folks achieve full civic equality . So look around, and you’ll see plenty of examples of social activism and plenty of opportunities to get involved.

Remember, in the wake of the passage of RFRA, the allies who started an organization and sold those now ubiquitous stickers that say “This business serves everyone”? What a great message. Putting that sticker on the door of your establishment –or encouraging a friend or neighbor to do so—is activism.

And what about the “Pence must go” signs you see everywhere? (I have one in my front yard—and so do three of my neighbors.) That doesn’t take much effort, but it’s activism that communicates to passersby that “here’s an Indiana citizen who doesn’t endorse bigotry.”

Speaking of time, the women involved in Periods for Pence are taking time to call the Governor’s office to remind him that he lacks the moral and constitutional authority to make women’s reproductive choices for them.

The bottom line is that activism can be expressed in many different ways. As we gather here, there are LGBT Republicans working to change the GOP state platform; there are lobbyists for Indiana Equality and Freedom Indiana and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce urging lawmakers to add four words and a comma to the state civil rights law, there are opinionated professors like me writing snarky blogs and columns…

Here’s the “take away.” A better world is a world where different people with different beliefs, living different kinds of lives, can co-exist without privileging some at the expense of others. That world won’t appear by accident. We all have to do our part to bring it into existence. We all have to be activists.

So celebrate tonight, and tomorrow, take your credentials and your accomplishments out into the world and use them to make that world a kinder, gentler, just-er place.

We old folks will be watching! And I personally will be cheering you on!