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
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.
STEP ONE: NOTICING
"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
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.
STEP TWO: CONNECTING
"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."
STEP THREE: JOINING
"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
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."
STEP FOUR: FORGOING
"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.
STEP FIVE: SUSTAINING
"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
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
UU World XIV:6 (November/December 2000): 23-27.