I don’t remember the year, but the memory is very clear. I’m guessing it happened in 1968 or 1969. My classmates and I took a school field trip to Washington, D.C. We visited the monuments and one or two of the Smithsonian Museum buildings. What stood out most was the encounter at the Capital. As we made our way up the steps, at the top was a man sitting in a bamboo tiger cage.
The US war in Vietnam was being fought and demonstrations occurred throughout the country. Of course, demonstrations were a daily event in D.C. As I recall, the man in the tiger cage was on a hunger strike. He was living out the experience of prisoners of war in Vietnam.
As we walked around the Capitol building, a demonstration began on the lawn below our vantage point. People sang, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” They had signs and blew whistles. A socio-drama was acted out with people playing the roles of airplanes bombing villages. Demonstrations like this went on for years. Finally, in April of 1975, Saigon fell and the US left Vietnam.
This was just one of the historic threads woven into my youth. There were many others like the Civil Rights marches I watched on TV with my parents. Walker Cronkite brought the events into our living room each evening at 6:30. We were shocked by what we saw. There was also the moon landing. Sitting on the floor near the TV, I was wrapped in awe. How amazing what we, as a nation, had done. Of course there was the development of computers. I remember using a kind of typewriter used to make key punch cards and then feeding them into a machine as big as my bathroom. In my lifetime, computer technology grew much smaller, much more intuitive and became part of our phones, cars, and, well, most every device we use today.
I’m very much aware that these events have shaped the way I see the world. I grew up in a world in which it was evident that social change was possible. People made change happen. People brought about improvement for the good of society. We dreamed dreams and aimed for the stars. Yes, our dreams came true. There was forward progress in society.
This belief in the ability to bring social change continued to be part of my life as an adult. Around 1982, while working as a hospital chaplain, I met the first person I would know with AIDS. This encounter would lead me to begin organizations that provided services to people with AIDS and become an activist. I worked for change. I lobbied, demonstrated with ACT-UP, spoke on radio and TV, and did all that I could to change government policy, funding, medical treatment, and end social stigma. I was part of the change that occurred despite the odds being stacked against us.
I recognize that others did not grow up in my era. Younger people haven’t been inspired by activism that resulted in Civil Rights laws, the ending of a war, or turning a pandemic to a chronic illness. For many people younger than me, this is all just history and is disconnected from life today.
Yet, we live in a time when social change is needed. While the ways in which social change will occur may be somewhat different from the past with today’s advantage of social media and networking, the basic lesson is the same: change occurs when enough people take a consistent stand to demand something different. It’s not about one march, one phone call, one letter, but years of multi-dimensional advocacy. Change does occur.
It’s my assessment that effective strategies for change are not born out of anger. That’s the important lesson of the tradition of non-violent resistance rooted in Gandhi’s life and mirrored by Martin Luther King, Jr. Rather than violence, consistency and resolve lead to change. That’s because anger rises up, explodes, and is gone while leaving a trail of damage. To be consistent in a non-violent response and resolved to see the change occur results in persistence that provides opportunities for actual change.
I believe that we all have a moral responsibility to work toward the common good for all people. The common good likely means that people who are used to privilege and the benefits of the current social structure will see their privilege and benefits diminish.. It will be difficult for them to let go of these benefits. They will do all they can to stop change. That’s evident today. But with persistence, change will occur and the outcome will be a society where people are valued for their humanity rather than for their social status.
Yes, I believe that social change is possible. After all, it’s been part of my life. In these troubled times, I am looking forward to see more positive change for the common good become a reality.
Photo credit: elycefeliz via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.