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A Step-by-Step Guide:
Summoning the Strength To Take on Hard Issues
By Neil Chethik


HE SUNDAY SERVICE is over, and coffee hour has begun. Mug of coffee in hand, you seek an out-of-the-way corner for a moment of quiet. Then you see him across the room: the Social Action Coordinator. He has a pencil behind one ear, a stack of papers in the crook of his arm, and a determined look in his eyes. And he's headed your way.

The following organizations are the ones whose leaders were interviewed for the Global Trends stories:

Amnesty International USA
322 8th Ave., 10th floor
New York, NY 10001
(800) 266-3789
Founded in 1961. Mission: to free prisoners of conscience, ensure fair trials for political prisoners, abolish the death penalty, and end cruel treatment of prisoners.

Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy
Anabel Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853
(607) 255-5027
Founded in 1971. Mission: to foster vital and caring communities, thereby providing a foundation for peace, mutual understanding, and respect for diversity.

Council for Responsible Genetics
5 Upland Rd., Ste. 3
Cambridge, MA 02140
(617) 868-0870
Founded in 1983. Mission: to encourage public debate about the social, ethical, and environmental implications of the new genetic technologies.

Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural 
539 Siesta Way
Sonoma, CA 95476
Founded in 1996. Mission: to support and nurture UUs who are people of color.

Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility
475 Riverside Dr., Room 550
New York, NY 10115
(212) 870-2293
Founded in 1971. Mission: to influence the actions of corporations by encouraging religious and other organizations and people to make investment decisions based on corporate social responsibility.

National Conference for Community and Justice
475 Park Ave. S.
New York, NY 10016
(212) 545-1300
Founded in 1927. Mission: to fight bias, bigotry, and racism through advocacy, conflict resolution, and education.

801 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Ste. 460
Washington, DC 20003
(202) 547-5556
Founded in 1971. Mission: to work for legislation that promotes ecological justice and racial, ethnic, and cultural inclusion.

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
130 Prospect St.
Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 868-6600
Founded in 1940. Mission: to advance justice throughout the world.

Urban Institute
2100 M St. NW
Washington, DC 20037
(202) 728-0232
Founded in 1968. Mission: to sharpen thinking about societal problems and efforts to solve them, improve government decisions and their implementation, and increase citizens' awareness about important public choices.

Worldwatch Institute
1776 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20036
Founded in 1974. Mission: to foster the evolution of an environmentally sustainable society through research and education about global environmental issues.

A shudder runs through you. You'd like to help, but your life already feels overwhelming. You've got a stressful job, two teenage kids, a home improvement project that's halfway to nowhere, and a spouse or partner urging you to pay more attention to your relationship. You've been trying--not very successfully--to tune out the news that the earth is warming, racism is flourishing, species are disappearing, sweatshops are thriving, and politicians are being bought and sold like pork belly futures.

You bring your mug to your lips and avert your eyes. But it's no use. The social action guy is upon you, smiling with an earnestness that sends your guilt index soaring into what's left of the ozone layer. "Would you be willing to chair our task force on multinational labor conditions, analysis, and solutions? We could really use your help."

It's a hypothetical scenario, of course, but it contains more than a hint of reality. As the information age races forward, we know more than ever about the tremendous problems facing people, nations, and our earth. And yet so many of us feel powerless to do anything about these problems, caught up as we are in our own intense lives.

Unfortunately, as the new century and millennium begin, the challenges will only grow, in number and intractability. New issues are emerging, seemingly at lightning speed: cloning, nuclear terrorism, the new slave trade, weather control, nanotechnology, the uses of genetic mapping.

How can we UUs step into the fray, better our world, and live out our Unitarian Universalist values? Recently, the UU World asked a dozen social activists--some UU, some not--how average people can motivate themselves to tackle the issues of our times. Here, condensed into step-by-step suggestions, is what they had to say.

"For some people, activism begins in a radicalizing moment," says Martin Teitel, executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics. "You go out, join a protest, and get shot with a rubber bullet--suddenly, you're an activist. But the more common model is gradualism." Teitel, a member of the UU Church of Marblehead, Massachusetts, suggests that people who want to do social justice work should begin not by trying to save the world but simply by noticing what's going on in it.

As easy as this sounds, it may be the hardest step of all.

For many of us, each day is a wall-to-wall commitment. Even when we manage to stop and notice the issues of the world, we often don't want to linger long. As the bureaucrats and technicians of the new economy, most Unitarian Universalists are making money, spending money, saving money. Do we really want to dwell on the fact that others are going hungry? As UU minister the Rev. Marilyn Sewell says, "It's easy to be in denial when you have two cars in the garage."

Even if we overcome our denial, we may be intimidated by the apparent bigness of the problems the world faces. What can we really do about holes in the atmosphere, sex slavery in Thailand, child labor in Indonesia? It's enough to make even the most ambitious person feel helpless and small.

To find our social action energy, Teitel suggests that would-be activists--before they make commitments to any causes--engage in "focused or directed reflection." This may involve reading about issues, visiting websites devoted to them, or talking with experienced activists. By reflecting in these ways, Teitel says, we can demystify the issues--bring them down to size--and begin to see where our efforts might actually help. We may also discover we're directly affected by what we once thought of as other people's issues. For example, we might ask, does the export of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries depress our own incomes?

Reflection may also involve looking at how we contribute to the problems confronting our world. The Rev. Richard Gilbert, a longtime UU activist from Rochester, New York, says that in the noticing phase, it's important to look at "who we work for, buy from, and invest in. We have to educate ourselves about our own economic life."

By examining which stores we patronize, for example, or which brands we buy, we may notice how we inadvertently support companies whose employment or environmental practices we object to. In the long run, this might lead us to change our shopping habits.

In the noticing phase, it may also help to focus some attention on our ethical foundation. Kathy Thornton, national coordinator for NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization, says that "each religious tradition has a social justice mission," and that thinking about how we are or are not connected to that mission can be a spur to action. Of course, the UU social justice mission is wide ranging, based on such broad goals as equity, liberty, and world community. In any case, says Thornton, Unitarian Universalists should familiarize themselves with the UU principles and open themselves to whatever those principles call them to do.

"If you go directly from noticing to action, you make mistakes," says Teitel, who cautions that there must be a middle step: connection. Too many people become activists out of guilt, Teitel contends. They leap into battle and then lose interest quickly; some even start resenting the causes and people they've gotten involved with. Activists who want to be effective must first gain "a sense of affiliation" with issues and the people they affect, says Teitel.

Clearly, those who are themselves discriminated against--or in some other way directly affected by an issue--are already connected. But what about those who would work on behalf of others? Teitel advises these would-be activists to "relocate themselves." Visit a homeless shelter, a women's shelter, an Indian reservation, a rural school, a landfill. Soak in the conditions, talk with the people.

Richard Gilbert calls this "education for empathy." In his hometown of Rochester, he says, one organization offers an "urban immersion experience," where suburbanites are invited to live in the inner city for a few days. Sewell says she was radicalized by becoming minister of an urban congregation, the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon. "I could not help but notice what was happening on the street," she says. "There were teenagers sleeping in the doorway of the church. When you are there, you can't miss it."

"Technology tends to isolate us, put us more in our own cocoons," says Sanford Cloud, president of the National Conference for Community and Justice, which fights bigotry in the US. "We really thrive when someone is bringing us together, building spirit." While Cloud and other activists look kindly on recycling, helping a neighbor, and other solo activities, they say that more than ever the problems of our time demand communities of activists, and broad collaboration among these communities.

Why? First of all, communities nourish activists. Anke Wessels, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University, says that in an age when people spend more and more time staring at computer screens and vying with each other in the workplace, social justice work can be a sanctuary. "It's an opportunity to hang with a nice group of people who are focused on something important," Wessels says. "It's a real relief to find a place where people aren't competing all the time." Robette Dias, president of the Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), agrees. In her antiracism work, she says, "there are days I get depressed, and I don't want to get out of bed." But she adds, "When I get really discouraged, there are loving arms to hold me. Any time of the day or night, I can pick up the phone, call a [fellow activist], and say, 'Help. I'm falling off the curb here.'"

Dias cites another reason for activists--and social justice groups--to band together: to get the attention of the people who have political and economic clout. A multibillion dollar corporation may pay no attention to a single customer or even to a small local organization. But bring hundreds or thousands of people together, and corporate leaders tend to open their eyes and ears.

Timothy Smith, director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), says his organization links 275 institutions (including the Unitarian Universalist Association) that control $100 billion in investment funds. Company executives usually return Smith's telephone calls. They know he can influence his members to sell stock in companies that set low environmental standards, pay workers unfairly, or are irresponsible in other ways. "We put corporations in touch with stakeholders--consumers, the media, stockholders," Smith says. "The companies respond because it's in their best interest." He adds, "By working together, [activists] can fight against the feeling of disempowerment."

"Conversion means letting go--letting go of a preoccupation with material wealth," says NETWORK's Kathy Thornton. "I'm not suggesting that activists be poor. I'm suggesting they pay attention to when they have enough." Thornton and others say one of the challenges for middle- and upper-income activists in the new century is to recognize the growing disparity between rich and poor, and be willing to share their financial resources.

Rochester's Gilbert speaks of a "theology of relinquishment," which he acts out by donating 5 percent of his annual income to his church and 5 percent to other causes. He also speaks and writes in support of changing the US tax system, which he believes is too kind to the middle and upper classes. One example, he says, is the mortgage-interest deduction, which provides billions of dollars in tax relief to homeowners. Renters, who tend to have lower incomes, get no such deduction. Gilbert supports raising government spending on housing for the poor, even if it requires lowering the mortgage interest tax break. "It's important to look at how the system benefits us," he says, "and to support systemic changes" that would create a more equitable setup.

Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group, says activists may also find it necessary to push for higher taxes on gasoline, pesticides, and other items they regularly use. With gasoline, he says "all you pay for now is getting the oil out of the ground, getting it refined, and getting it to your car." But there are other costs, including higher medical bills due to air pollution. "We need to get the price of fossil fuels to the point where it reflects all the costs," Brown says.

Another area of potential cost to activists involves retirement funds and other investments. Cornell's Wessels says investors should support companies that reflect the investors' values, both in what they sell and how they treat their employees. Of course, investing in socially responsible companies may result in lower returns, at least in the short run. "It takes a strong principle to be selective," she says.

"You're not going to save the world; don't try," says Marilyn Sewell. "When you understand that you're part of a continuum of people who are working for change, then you take your place and do your piece." Burning out is a significant danger for social activists. One of the reasons, Sewell explains, is that they expect too much progress too quickly. "All you're responsible for is doing what you know is right, and doing it with all your might," she says. "Then you let the chips fall where they may."

To cultivate this attitude, it helps to know the history of social justice movements. Gilbert points out that Susan B. Anthony worked her entire adulthood for women's suffrage and never won the right to vote. But her efforts were not in vain; in part because of them, the US Constitution was amended to give women the right to vote just a few years after her death.

"We are part of a living stream," Gilbert says. Of course, successes, even small ones, help sustain an activist's energy. And most of the activists we interviewed--people dealing with some of the most complex and threatening problems of our time--had had enough success to speak optimistically about humankind's chances of meeting the challenges ahead.

Smith, the ICCR director, pointed out that socially responsible investing rose 82 percent between 1997 and 1999. And corporations are beginning to respond. Last March, General Motors gave in to investor pressure by dropping out of the Global Climate Coalition, a group of corporations that argues that industry isn't causing global warming. A host of other US companies, he says, embarrassed by public exposure of labor practices in Asian countries, have adopted new, more humane workplace standards.

The Rev. William Schulz, president of Amnesty International USA and former president of the UUA, says national governments also are responding to pressure for change. When it comes to human rights, for example, the Turkish government is starting to make progress, Schulz says, because without progress it knows it cannot join the European Union. Schulz sees another victory in the arrest in Britain of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on charges of human rights violations. "There's a growing recognition," he observes, "that there are rights that transcend national boundaries, that people who commit crimes against humanity must be accountable."

Perhaps most inspiring to the activists we interviewed is what appears to be a rise in social justice activism among the young. This year, reports Wessels, large numbers of Cornell students taught themselves about the World Trade Organization and then traveled together to protests in Seattle and Washington, DC. The protests, which drew lots of media coverage, have spurred some politicians and business leaders to begin reassessing the WTO's role and powers. "I'm excited that young people are recognizing that their actions have ramifications," Wessels says.

In the end, it's not success that keeps most activists doing social justice work. Rather, they find themselves compelled to do the work. DRUUMM president Dias, a Native American, puts it this way: "It's not a question of whether I'm optimistic that things will change. I'm on the path that I need to be on. I'm showing the world, and my people, and my children, that I'm living a good and meaningful life."

UU World XIV:6 (November/December 2000): 23-27.

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