In the late 80s, when I was in my early 20s, I was somewhat of an activist. Or so I thought. I had cared, as a young woman, about being a woman, so I subscribed to Ms. Magazine and went to see Gloria Steinem when she came to town. I was suspect of my mother, who didn't work (until later in life) and instead chose to care (generously and wisely, I know understand) for her family of six. Eventually I redirected that energy to the environment. I read everything Edward Abbey wrote and I got a job with the Sierra Club. I wanted to torch large construction equipment, like they did in The Monkey Wrench Gang. I was angry that people were treating our beautiful world the ways they were treating it and I was intent on doing something about it.
I was disappointed to learn that the Sierra Club was mostly a large bureaucracy, with layers of management, people working in offices and earning a lot of money, people designing slick posters and calendars. There wasn't a lot of rallying or opportunities to face the opposition, as it were. I was young, I wanted to use my body and my voice to tell the monsters damming up our rivers and cutting down our trees and building more buildings where to go with their greed and their wanton disrespect for our limited natural resources.
In time my activist tendencies morphed. I got married and had children. I was busy cooking chickens and painting walls and changing diapers.
Like you, I am wondering what our world will be like when the 45th president takes office one week from today. Unlike many of you, however, I am not mad, nor am I much surprised by the outcome of the last election. As far as I can tell, this country and all of the major seats of power in it have been run by rich, white men ever since this country was born. All of the Ivy League schools were founded by men and are still largely run by men. A paltry 24% of the Fortune 500 companies are operating under female leadership and the 115th Congress of the United States is composed of 19% women; there are five female governors in this country. Five. It's been 241 years since this country declared its independence from Britain; those numbers are embarrassing. When you start looking at the realities of who holds the power in this country, it's no surprise at all that a man like the one poised to take the reins of the Oval Office became elected.
A couple of other things happened to me in the years following my activist/vegetarian/angry phase of life. I worked as a teacher and I travelled to every state (except Hawaii), visiting many of them several times. I spent days on end driving across the vast plains and through the deserts, up and down the coastlines, through the great National Parks. I went everywhere, from Alaska to Florida, Maine to Louisiana. I also spent time living in the south and the west. This is a very big and very diverse place and you can't really come to understand that until you spend an entire day driving across North Dakota or an hour talking to the owner of a diner in Texas or a sunny morning chatting with a kid working at Mount Rushmore for the summer. You have to wake up on the northern shore of Lake Michigan or spend a day trekking to Hidden Lake in Glacier. You have to have a huckleberry milkshake afterwards to start to understand: this country is enormous in size and enormously diverse. And the people who live here are, for the most part, deeply proud of the places where they live.
So there's that.
We can and should feel sorrow and anger and fear when those who are running the major institutions of our country are misguided and self-serving. But there is good news. And there always has been in this land: you are free, every single day, to do something about it. If you are unhappy with the outcome of the recent election, on any level: local, state or national, then you should be, today, planning your campaign strategy. The froth created using social media outlets to voice one's dissatisfaction is useless noise. A few strokes of a keyboard and then a return to business as usual will not get you any closer to the world in which you wish to live. If anything, times of crisis of faith in the establishment are a wake-up call to action. And anyone who hears that call and doesn't respond has no right to complain.
I have worked in schools and hospitals. I understand first-hand that the major systems of this country are broken. In some cases, deeply, embarrassingly broken. What passes for education in some of the schools I have been in recently is shameful. The condition of the vast majority of the people laying in hospital beds is shocking. How did this happen? How did we come to be a nation of people who are willing to put up with mediocre educational practices and food, air and water that are killing us?
If you are angry, then you must act. If you are worried, then you must act. Standing on the sidelines and tossing rocks is for cowards and we are not, by any measure, a nation of cowards.
It begins in very small ways. Treat yourself and those around you with kindness. As best you can, stop tending so much to your own self-involved habits and tendencies. From a place of reverence, for your own life, for the lives of those around you and for the world that sustains us all, take action to make all of those things better and our lives here more meaningful. You must! It's why you're here. And every single one of you knows exactly what that means. It is one of the most beautiful things about life here in the United States of America. You can walk out your door this very morning intent on making the world a better place and then you can make it happen. You can run for office, volunteer at a school, become trained to help in a crisis. You can feed the hungry and clothe the homeless. You can teach a refugee how to drive. You can sit with someone dying in the hospital. You can, have I mentioned this yet? Run For Office.
You can use your one very important life to build a better world. Consider it, on this day, not an option, but both a blessing and a directive. Amen.