Thursday, November 20, 2008

What can we do for our country?

In his post on expectations for Obama’s presidency, Douglas Rushkoff says:

The election of Obama is itself a cue. It’s a cue that America can elect a smart, capable, and caring person as its leader. That we are capable of transcending the logic of short-term self-interest, fear, and even racism. And if we are capable of doing this, it means we are better than we act most of the time. This moment is the bang of the starter’s pistol – an awakening, an opportunity.

But this new narrative is not the story of how we are led by some new person. It’s the story of how we lead ourselves. It’s about how we accept the cue to act.

No, the opportunity is not to create the next great website for modeling bottom-up community activity, but to go and actually do the stuff. It is to participate [in] the public school, work towards alternative energy possibilities, design and install bicycle lanes, argue at work for equal pay for women, assist local agriculture projects, develop complementary currencies and non-profit credit unions.
Seizing this opportunity requires our taking actions, as individuals and in groups, that will actually reclaim our country as ours.

I had long wanted to be an observer at a polling place, to guard the individual right to vote. What I rediscovered on Election Day was that I had an even clearer view as a poll worker. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is about going ahead and participating, not just wishing or wondering or commenting. Sure, tell those in power what they are doing wrong. You can be vocal about more issues than you can dive headfirst into. But speaking up is not a substitute for action.

In the years since 2001, Michael and I have often talked about the dangers of not speaking up when you disagree with a government’s policy. What can you say, and where do you say it, in order to make a difference? It’s nice to think we can set that conversation aside for a more hopeful one: what can we do to make our world better? Is it enough to get paid for creating content that we hope will improve student outcomes in the classroom? Does it require helping individual students? Can I count uprooting invasive weeds in other people’s yards and strewing flower seeds around as a piece of doing my part? How do we find time and energy to lead when life has become so very complicated? More questions than answers, but at least the questions are more fun to ask.

Particularly when our government started sanctioning torture, I wanted a way to say “Not in my name.” With the distance of history, we say with broad strokes that a population was silent. How can we avoid that future judgment on us? Speaking up effectively requires determining our audience. Are we trying to reach our elected officials, our neighbors, our distributed communities, those beyond our borders, or just crying out to the future?

The new and eternal question of how we can make our world better also involves determining who we are trying to reach. The collective answer must be everyone, but we must also each come up with our own approaches. You scatter flower seeds, and I return shopping carts, and Roberta leads a more communal approach to child care, and our neighbor digs out his neighbor’s car, and that’s how we extend our sense of home by a few more blocks. And that’s how we must approach our communities and our world as well.

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