I want to begin by thanking the Center for Neighborhoods, and each of you for allowing me to be a part of this evening.
I always like to begin with ‘full disclosure,” so that you can appropriately discount anything I say thereafter. I direct a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization providing legal and strategic assistance to low-income individuals, community groups, and local governments on air, water, waste, land use, energy and utility policy matters. No one calls KRC when they’re having a good day – when the air is pure, the brook babbling, the land uncontaminated. I get the call from the person living in a home in Harlan County, Kentucky who says “Mr. FitzGerald, the state told me to call you. There’s a man in a moon suit digging dirt and putting it into a baggie, and I asked him what he was doing and he said ‘There’s nothing to worry about, ma’am’ and Mr. FitzGerald, I don’t know whether to trust him!” People come to KRC because those things they value most – home, family, health, have been put at risk.
There is a typical cycle to environmental and community crises – people come together, usually led by one or two individuals who bear the brunt of the work necessary to educate the community and to learn the serpentine processes of government regulation and permits, licenses and approvals, and people learn and share skills. Those who are involved are transformed in the process – their initial anger and dismay over the failure of the processes to adequately protect their interests gives way to voices raised demanding accountability.
And then it is over. The crisis is resolved, for good or for ill, and everyone goes back to the day-to-day struggle to feed, clothe, educate, heal, and generally tend to their family and themselves.
And all of that knowledge, those skills, all of that communal power and talent, is lost, and must be recreated again when the next crisis arises. Reaction rather than action is the rule, and the work is at a “retail” level, not usually focused on the transformation of the processes and institutions that allowed the crisis to occur in the first instance.
It is remarkable that each of you has devoted twelve weeks to becoming better advocates for community-building. You each have different stories and different challenges that brought you to this place, but you share some things in common.
You understand and value the importance of each person.
You understand that what diminishes one diminishes us all.
You understand that, in answer to Cain’s question, we ARE our brothers and sisters’ keepers, each ultimately accountable to each other and to our children and parents for what we contribute to the common good – towards building and sustaining community.
Now, you move forward to the next stage of your civic vocation.
It is customary at commencement exercises that the speaker attempt to convey generally useless advice to the captive graduates, and tonight is no exception. I have distilled some unwanted advice from 35 years of advocacy, and will share it with you now.
Don’t ever despair that you don’t have the ability to effect change. Change occurs incrementally, sometimes in dramatic but more often in subtle ways, as Mother Teresa said, “one soul at a time.” You will face apathy, criticism (sometimes harsh and personal), barriers built of indifference or the insular agendas of some in power. Remember what Frederick Douglass wrote in his treatise on West India Emancipation:
“If there is not struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggler. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”
Anthropologist Margate Mead was right when she observed:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.” Our recent history is replete with examples of how people of good will can become so much more than the sum of the individuals when working together as co-conspirators for positive change:
You ARE a group of thoughtful committed citizens, and through the efforts of organizations like the Center for Neighborhood Change, you enter into a group of alumni that includes others like yourselves who have come before to take lessons on how to improve their community voice.
Use the myriad tools that you have – as a voter, a citizen, a mentor, a student, a consumer, a neighbor, a parent, a child.
We must move beyond merely reacting to crises and look to transforming the institutions and politics that allow neighborhoods and families to be put at risk. We must become more focused on the institutions, on the economic policies, on the politics that create such a disconnect between what we profess to value and believe, and the policies and priorities of elected and appointed officials and institutions.
You’ve already taken the first step – you’ve gotten wet plunging into civic activism.
What else can you do?
* Build coalitions. Retail (issue or crisis-centered) organizing campaigns are exhausting and unsustaining. Durable (wholesale) change comes through the creation and recreation of institutions to meet community needs and to sustain and uplift communities. Work with other neighborhoods, progressive church, civic and volunteer groups, to create a broad base of community support for change.
* Connect the dots and work for reform in governance. When offices go to the highest bidder and the wealthiest candidate, decisions reflecting the broader public interest over the insular interests of those investing in the candidates are rare. When we aspire to mediocrity in governance, when democracy isn't working, the poor, children, the environment, the public's interest suffer.
* Get your hands dirty. Roll up your sleeves and run for office.
* Quiz candidates on their platforms related to investment in community. Go door to door for those who share your values. Educate or replace those candidates who don't.
* Hold your elected officials accountable. Justice in all of its many facets – racial, economic, environmental, generational, should be the defining issues for your votes in the upcoming election cycle and beyond.
* Bear witness at the risk of being thought a fool, lest your silence in the face of injustice be regarded as complicity. We must reconnect our policies with our moral values. Our policies must be driven by values more enduring and more robust, than the quarterly bottom line. Reflecting on a life of advocacy for children, Marian Wright Edelman penned this prayer:
God did not call us to succeed, but to serve. Not to win, but to work. Not to be happy, but to be hopeful. Not to fame, but to faith. Not to seek power, but to seek peace. God did not call us to loot the earth and each other, God called us to love our earth and each other.
* Mentor. Margaret Mead was right when she said “Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.” Think about the behaviors you pattern, and sit at the feet of those who came before you, just as you mentor those who follow. Learn from the past in order to make sense of the present and to inform the future.
The alumni of the Neighborhood Institute here tonight, and the others in this community, are here to be your resource. Use them, learn from them.
How do we build a more sustaining, a more just political and economic community environment? Marian Wright Edelman penned this prayer
Lord, help me not to be a taker but a tender, Help me not to be a whiner but a worker, Help me not to be a getter but a giver, Help me not to be a hindrance but a help, Help me not to be a critic but a catalyst for good.
You ARE catalysts for good, and your community will be better for your efforts.
* Be creatively intolerant of mediocrity. Just as accommodating injustice never made an unjust person more just, tolerating mediocrity in governance never made an indifferent politician more caring. Remember, as Margaret Mead said, “it may be necessary to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good!”
* Approach problem-solving with an open mind, since it is in dialogue, in engagement, that we arrive at solutions.
Neighborhood Institute Graduating Class of 2007, let us go forward together and face our tomorrows with hope and humility, and continue together in struggle and in fellowship to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods and the legacy we will leave to our children’s children.