|The following article I composed was adapted from an interview and became the cover story for the July 6, 1999 StreetWise.
“How can we comprehend the moral implications of a world in which Nike pays Michael Jordan more to appear in its ads than it pays all the workers at its Indonesian shoe factories combined?”—Paul Loeb, Soul of a Citizen
I showed up for a morning interview with Paul Loeb after plowing through his latest book, Soul Of A Citizen: Living With Conviction In A Cynical Time. The book is “an antidote to the twin scourges of modern life–powerlessness and cynicism”–and has received acclaim from a wide range of activists, including novelist Alice Walker and John Sweeney, president of the AFL/CIO. With slight prompting about parts of the book that stood out, Paul was able to fly off the cuff. An associated scholar at Seattle’s Center for Ethical Leadership and an author, Paul is an engaging, enthusiastic speaker who gets a lot of motivation from the many activists who are used as examples in his book.
One of the many activists on his mind was Rosa Parks, awarded the Congressional Silver Medal of Honor and a subject of a tribute from President Clinton the day before this interview.
Paul Loeb: “I was interested to know what story they portrayed about (Rosa Parks). Hearing her described as suddenly out of nowhere, deciding to take her stand, refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama and helping to start the Civil Rights Movement. And what bothered me about that, is that in fact, she didn’t come out of nowhere. She’d been active for about 12 years with the NAACP in Montgomery, Alabama trying to challenge things, working with other people.
“When I look at that what I see is a lesson of you jump in, you persevere, keep working for 12 years, and then finally one of the many things you do works and suddenly history changes.
“But if you just sort of depend on having the courage to miraculously come out of nowhere and take a heroic, courageous stand you might wait forever, so to me Rosa Parks’ story, the real story, (is) you work with other people, you try. It’s an uphill fight, it’s a difficult fight, you have to keep going; you try for 12 years, nothing seems to work, then all of a sudden something does work. That’s an infinitely more powerful story than the media myth that we usually get which says, “She came out of nowhere one day, she just decided to act.” This was a conscious movement.
“The media culture prefers it to be (that) if anyone ever does something, it’s sort of naive, innocent, out of nowhere, and in fact, what that does is that prevents us from trying to consciously act.
“Most people have never heard of Miles Horton, who was the founder of this labor and civil rights center where Rosa Parks and other longtime civil rights activists who’d been continuing long before her (came from)… And so we know, Parks… And this is to take nothing away from her, a wonderful, courageous woman… (but) she doesn’t start out in this impossibly heroic state. She started out just an ordinary person trying to get involved. She is part of a movement and she is part of a movement that continues over time. And we should be able to identify with trying to be part of a movement, and in a way, that’s easier to identify with than just coming out of nowhere, doing something impossibly heroic and suddenly changing history…
“Saul Alinsky did a lot of his work out of Chicago. They called him the godfather of community organizing, and he founded a network of organizations around the country. One of the stories I tell in Soul of A Citizen is in San Antonio, Texas where there’s a woman named Virginia Ramirez, a Latino Woman, a traditional housewife… Her husband has a tiny taxi business, and one day an old woman in her neighborhood dies from the cold. Her house… (is) so run down that the wind will just whip through it every winter. She gets sicker and sicker and finally paramedics carry her out and she dies. They said she’d be alive if someone fixed up her house. Virginia gets really upset about this and she goes to a meeting of COPS (Communities Organized for Public Services) and said, ‘What are you going to do about this? This woman died!’ and they said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And Virginia gets really upset and says, ‘I thought you were supposed to help!’ and she storms out. And then a few days later a nun who works with the group knocks on her door. Virginia said, ‘I only let her in because she was a nun.’ So she lets her in and the woman says, ‘What are you so angry about?’ Virginia says, ‘I’m angry because this woman died!’
” ‘And what else?’
” ‘I’m angry that my father picked crops all his life and never got any money and never got any respect. And I’m angry that my kids don’t have a good education. I’m angry that our community is scorned and ignored.’
“Virginia starts being involved in this group. At first she is very hesitant. She timidly takes one step then another. The first time she speaks at a meeting she can barely get the words out. Then she gets a little more confident and then she feels, ‘I’m just telling a story about the community.’ Then she ends up speaking at a city council meeting. She ends up testifying before Congress on this wonderful Job Training Bill that they developed. And what she says is, ‘Everything I learned, I learned from the University of COPS.’
“What’s interesting is that COPS isn’t like UIC, or Northwestern, it’s not like Loyola; it’s not a college, it’s a community group. But what she means by that is that it functions to teach her what it meant to be involved, to teach her what her voice was.
“By being involved it gave her the strength and it gave her the voice and that allowed her to act. She got something profound from being involved. One of the lessons of Soul Of A Citizen is that you get so much back when you’re involved in community and you take a stand. Even if it’s difficult and even if you’re frustrated. You need patience to be able to act. You need patience and you need community. Virginia was isolated at first. Only when she joined a community group did she get something done.
“You never know what the ripple effect is. There’s a friend of mine who in the early ’60s was in this very lonely vigil against the nuclear arms race and nuclear testing. There was less than 100 women in the rain in D.C. with their kids. They just felt pitiful. They were like, ‘Here you are. Nobody is obviously listening. None of this is going to make any difference. Why are we even doing this?’ Their kids were crying and they wanted to go home. A few years later she’s at a very big rally. Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor who died last year, is speaking. His presence is a wonderful addition, because every kid in the ’50s and ’60s was raised on Spock’s books. He’s a major national figure who starts speaking out on public issues and has a huge impact. And he talks about how he got involved. He says, ‘Well here’s the issues and this is why I started speaking about them.’ Then he says, ‘What really got me was that one day in Washington D.C., I was walking down the street and I saw this little raggedy group in the rain, and the ink on the signs was running and they’re dealing with their kids, and I thought, if they care this much to be involved with this, I ought to go check it out. I ought to take it seriously.’ And so my friend was watching this and realizing that in this moment of apparent powerlessness, she is making a difference. Her actions were actually mattering, and what a wonderful feeling, because you don’t always know that until later.
“The cynicism says you can’t make a difference, don’t even try. Just give up. Watch TV, shop at the mall and buy as many things as you can. If you don’t like it, too bad, because that’s the way the world is. We’re really told that consistently. It’s historically false. If I look at any of the great struggles in this country, to abolish slavery or get women the vote, to fight for the 8-hour day, the Civil Rights Movement… the Anti-Vietnam War Movement… in every case it was frustrating. It often took years and years and years, but it worked. It may not have achieved every final measure of justice, but it certainly changed society. When I hear people say you can’t do anything, what they’re really doing is accepting what they’re being told, and that’s very convenient for the powers that be, because if people are all passive, nothing will happen.
“There’s another person I write about, Hazel Wolf, who is 101 years old. She wanted to play basketball when she was 11 years old. She said, ‘I want to play basketball.’ The coach said, ‘Girls can’t,’ and she said, ‘Of course we can’t, because you never give us any balls or hoops. Give us that and we’ll play basketball.’ He kind of looked dumbfounded and he says, ‘Alright, if you can raise the teams by this afternoon, you can play.’ And she did. And then she goes on in the 1930s (to fight) for organizing unions. She helps push through one of the first pension systems that became a model for social security, and that’s a good thing because she was a secretary her whole life and never made any money and she’s been living on social security for almost 40 years. She would be in the streets if people had not pushed through social security. One of the lessons of Soul Of A Citizen is that you not only get back in sort of an emotional way, but sometimes in a very practical way. Especially if you stick around long enough that you can see the benefits of the things you fight for. In her case, that’s been critical and I don’t know what she’d be doing otherwise. In the last 40 years she’s been working on environmental issues and building coalitions of environmental justice in low-income communities and Native American tribes, again, very far-sighted stuff. When I ask her how does she keep going, she says, ‘You do what you can, and then you do some more. You can’t do everything, but you can do what you can and then you can do something else and then you can do something else. That you can do your entire life.’
“Basically she’s saying, ‘You don’t have to take on everything’ but, if you start, and whatever it is you care about–homelessness, violence in the streets–you do something and then you continue on and you just learn a step at a time as you go, and if you keep on long enough, you can look back over a life of 30, 40, 50, 60 years of involvement and feel like, ‘Yes, I’ve done something.’ “