From noon to 1 p.m. most Fridays, you’ll find people with hand-painted signs standing at a prominent street corner in Cook. Some contain relevant messages about the issues. With an important election coming up, some have names of political candidates. We know that good government needs “good citizens” — people who don’t just complain about its shortcomings, but actually do something to change it. So we’re here to encourage everyone to make sure they’re registered and ready to vote on November 8th. Good weather, bad weather!
I sometimes wonder what the drivers think when they see us. We are encouraged by people who honk their horns and show their “thumbs up” in support. There are occasional drivers who “knock” in disagreement, adding their exclamation point with screeching tires. Most people keep their eyes pointed straight ahead, either focused strictly on driving or unwilling to commit. Our hope is to connect with those who want to engage but may not know how. We’re here to push them gently to first base. Today, I remember people who pushed me on the basics of “civic engagement” by giving me reasons, tools and coaching.
It started with my family. They taught me to be proud of my heritage. They did it with stories. Grandfather Mac made sure I knew about the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s, as well as the near-genocidal regime of the English, which sent his parents and hordes of other Irishmen fleeing to North America. Painfully, they discovered that things weren’t much better here. Grandpa explained the meaning of the signs that said, “Irish need not apply”. Later, I would learn that similar placards were circulating with the names of other undesirable groups to replace the “Irish”. My understanding of “oppression” and my identification with “the oppressed” were the seeds of empathy sown by my grandfather.
Frequently, my mother would tell the story of her father’s arrival at Ellis Island. During one of Greece’s brutal civil wars, his grandmother lifted steerage to embark her 15-year-old son on a freighter bound for New York. She knew she might never see him again, but she did it to protect her son from conscription by the Greek army to fight a war she knew would surely cost him his life. My mother explained to me that despite YaYa’s fears that young George would leave her, she chose to give him the chance for a better life. Every holiday, my mother honored her YaYa’s faith in America and her father’s pride in his citizenship by placing the American flag in his standard outside our front door. It was as important to her as any religious ritual could be. (The seed of patriorism.)
Before going to kindergarten, we had our first television. It was a big deal. The evening news has become another family ritual. The Huntley-Brinkley report played regularly in the background while Mom cooked dinner. I remember the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, the first of a long series to follow. Of course, we swore loyalty to Kennedy. In our home, the prancing donkey was as iconic as the crucifix. (The seed of party affiliation.)
Over the next decade, television broadcast reports of clashes between blacks and whites rising across the country. Images of racial conflict rivaled images of a different conflict taking place in the jungles and rice paddies of Viet Nam. Both battles eventually came to my neighborhood and then inside my house.
A rebellion sparked by unbearable poverty and discrimination against blacks erupts in 1967 on the streets of Detroit. Emotion ran high throughout the community. That year, my brother enlisted and served on an ammunition ship bound for the Mekong Delta. While my brother in uniform was crossing the Pacific, my sister was meeting peace activists from across the country in Madison, Wisconsin. They were strategizing for the growing anti-war movement. Holiday dinners have become fraught with heated debates. Tempers flared so much that I thought the differences might tear our family apart. I remained silent, trying to decide who was “right” and who was “wrong”. Once I left the house, I started to understand the difference between “Right” and “Left”! I realize now that our dining room table served as a staging area to develop my “critical thinking” skills. (More seeds planted.)
In 1970, the nation celebrated its first Earth Day. Mom offered to organize a neighborhood cleanup. So we hung posters on the lampposts, inviting children to bring rakes and garbage bags. Mom made cookies. She offered treats every time we left another bag of debris at her pickup site. At the end of the day, she praised the difference we had made and told us how proud we should be of what we had accomplished. This was my introduction to the joy of organizing something, inspiring others to participate, and seeing the results. I never stopped loving it!
My sister continued her militant influence. She shared mimeographed copies of brochures on the issues. These tracts have increased my understanding of systemic causes and needed changes. They always included a call to action. Through her, I began to learn the “nuts and bolts” for positive social change. She shared how to get there and how to stay inspired. (Skills development before YouTube.)
They say: “We need a village!” So here is my shoutout to our high school civics teacher who clearly explained how our complicated democratic system works; to university professors who transmitted a curiosity for history and research that helped me understand why society looks and acts the way it does; to the dozens of people I have worked with throughout my career, from diverse racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds, who have shared their stories, challenged my assumptions, and opened my mind to new ways of seeing the world . Their knowledge and ideas have strengthened my passion for ‘community’ and broadened my definition of ‘love’. I thank them all.
Sharing stories has become more important than ever with the myriad challenges we face in today’s world. As I write this reflection on the origins of my thirst for civic engagement, I want to discover what young people today need to value themselves enough to truly care about their future. I am deeply concerned by reports describing their experiences of depression and anxiety at levels never seen before, and the hopelessness that contributes to increased incidents of self-harm. We cannot give up and believe that we are helpless. Because it’s not true!
There are things we can do, and should do, when so much is at stake! And we must do it with young people on our side. It’s their world as much, if not more, than ours! We can experiment with ways to shape a future that will meet their needs and match their vision. We do not have time to lose !
My life has taught me that anger can be a powerful “emotion of action”. He stimulates us with his intense demands for something different. “Doing” can serve as a healing balm for unchanneled anger and despair. Taking action can also be fun and a wonderful way to build friendships. It might even be an elixir for some of our country’s worst heart problems (perhaps starting with our empathy deficit).
We can start by revering our youth and respecting the leadership roles they will soon inherit for our future. Do not be afraid of their ideas but listen and be receptive. In them are the answers. We need to share our own ideas and beliefs with love and respect so that we can chart the way forward. Remember, we are in this together, preparing our young people for the day when they will be in charge. I say, it’s a good day to plant seeds.