She Speaks: Show up, don’t give up

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“Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.” – Alice Walker

When I first read that quote, I realized that sentiment is what lives behind my drive to Do Something. To make my position known, to stand for what I believe is just, to change the things I can while I have time. While there is still time.

In fourth grade, at Huntsville Public School, they sent the students out to Main Street to do a litter clean-up on Earth Day, April 22nd. I remember walking in front of the theatre, wearing flimsy plastic gloves that were way too big for my hands, filtering through dirt to find trash and put it into a plastic bag. I remember all the cigarette butts—countless. People still don’t consider these to be litter. One of them was still smoldering when I picked it up, and I burned my finger right through the plastic glove.

I remember the feeling I had at that moment. I didn’t have the language for it then, but now I know it was helpless rage. I have felt this feeling often, deep in my gut. It wants to spread to the rest of my body, but it seems to get halted at my heart and shoved back down. I can’t access it to scream or cry or explode, which I sometimes feel like doing. I had to learn to let the feeling flow through my heart and do something productive, instead of destructive.

Which is how I came to become involved in activism. Many of the projects I started have concluded, whether they carry on without me, or came to a natural ending. Many are ongoing, including my vision for a Women’s Land Co-operative in Muskoka. For a while, I just kept at it, head down, barreling forward via as many avenues as I could find or create, saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity to be Active. There finally came a point where I felt as though I was doing Enough. I could finally stop feeling horrified and guilty because of my participation in a system that was contributing to the destruction of the planet.

For a long time, every bite I ate was laden with sadness because of the treatment of the animals or the workers involved in bringing it to my table. I couldn’t travel as close as Bracebridge because the spectre of my carbon footprint immobilized me. I couldn’t watch TV because of the sexism and racism in so much of the media we view. I was a nightmare to be around and I just wanted it all to stop. I felt hopeless.

When I started choosing to do activism, to take my spare time and work to make the world closer to the one I know is possible, that state of hopeless inertia faded away. I’m more aware than ever of the injustices involved in nearly everything we do—under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption. The system isn’t broken; it was built this way. But now I know there is another way. And that’s where I focus my attention. It doesn’t make sense to stop eating because our food industry is rife with waste and abuse. I need food to fuel me so I can work to change it.

We need to fight the collapse into apathy, into overwhelm. We have to stop looking away because it’s so daunting and we are so small. I can’t count how many conversations I’ve been a part of that start with passion and righteous indignation at the problems we face as a society, go a couple rounds, then drop into helplessness and usually end with someone looking at their phone. I understand the temptation to say ‘it’s all too much, it’s too big, it’s not possible.’ To just focus on myself as an individual and remain motionless, like prey. I’ve been there. I’m still sometimes the one that looks at her phone when it gets too scary to keep talking, when marching or blogging or meeting or whatever just isn’t good enough, isn’t enough. I forgive myself for those times, because I remember I am one person. It is not up to me, or you, to demolish the systems of oppression that have thrived for millennia. But it is not okay for us to look away, either.

I like this quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”  We just have to start somewhere. Start by recognizing that humans created these systems that cause destruction and suffering to people, animals, and the planet; and because people created them, people can destroy them. They are not universal truths.

Find the thing that makes your gut churn—the thing that makes you wish you could look away but you know you can’t—find the burning cigarette butt pressed against your flesh that you can still smell whenever you think of it. Find that, and decide: I will do what I can to make this better.

Then find the ones who are doing the same. Show up. Speak up. Don’t give up.

The word activism is so lovely. It just means that we act in accordance with our values. That we do something. Part of my role as an activist is to activate others. To wake others up and show them the power they have if they decide to channel it. When is one voice insufficient? When it forgets it has never been one voice.

At the Women’s March, a woman I respect asked me for a hug and told me that I make her want to do better, to do more. I told her she is already enough. But I saw the fire in her and I realized that that was my activism—her activation. I have made many signs, I have marched in many streets. I will make more, march more. But maybe my real role is to show people how easy it is to stand on a soapbox when you really believe in what you’re saying—when you really believe you can make a difference. When, despite odds or evidence, you have hope.

One last quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (attributed to Margaret Mead)

Indeed.

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Photo by Kai Rannik

Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you Kathleen! All of the things happening around the world can seem so overwhelming that it is tempting to just give up. But really we can all “act” to change something. And when we look at some of the good things in the world, we know that they are the result of someone’s or some group’s actions.

  2. This is a hopeful article Kathleen. What I admire about the current generation of social activists is that you are working to develop a more sustainable, emotionally-intelligent movement. Direct action places one in vulnerable situations and I think that your generation seems much more prepared to acknowledge that.

    While I can’t speak wholly for my generation ,I know that personally I have often fallen into the all or nothing trap and succumbed to despair. I think that today’s activists seem able to take up a healthier response with times of intense engagement followed by stepping back, reflecting and administering some self-care.

    Like everything activism needs to be sustainable, which enables it to accept that within a movement poor outcomes are acceptable and that continuing to work to make a difference is vital. Even if you can’t do it all, the goal can be to continue to strive for the least-worst results and leave the planet in a better place than you found it.

  3. Wonderful, as usual, Kathleen! Having known you (at a distance) since you were that fourth-grader, I am also extremely proud (at a somewhat lesser remove), of the very fine person you have become. As you know, I’m interested in attending the meetings of your Women’s Group; but I won’t chance offending/intimidating some of your members.
    .
    I quite realize that your time is severely circumscribed, but what I hope is to form an Environmental Activism Group; coalescing around yourself (and like people who you know), Judith Blanchette (and her Green Team), and myself (and acquaintances). Your commitment would be as little or as great as your schedule permits. What with climate change, little or no sustainability to even the best programs, the new planetary diet (which requires far more publicity), our lack of a Muskoka Food Charter, no true recognition or celebration of Earth Day, etc.; we would only be limited by our inspiration and our available time.
    .
    If you’re interested, or know others who may be, please contact me.

  4. Kathleen,

    What you point to as injustice is not sourced in “capitalism”. Capitalism is an engine of prosperity–plain and simple. Had it not been invented long ago, we would be inventing it today. The real problem with world economies is that a small group of extremely wealthy individuals have formed private central banks which control the engines of prosperity and the nation-states which house them. The massive amounts of money that the banks control, corrupts all the central government officials who are willing to be corrupted. Some of Hilary Clinton’s biggest contributors were the huge banks of Wall Street–they do not give their money out of the goodness of their hearts. The “banksters” also wield enough power to buy other means to suppress those who are NOT willing to be corrupted. Any political leader who defies those central banks, does so at extreme peril and any historian who is worth the title is well aware of the pernicious stranglehold that those banks have had on the course of history. Nothing has changed of course. Some naive souls wonder why no bankers were ever indicted for what was clearly egregious fiduciary irresponsibility during the 2008 near failure of the banking system. The enormous investment banks (“too big to fail”) privatized the profits they made from their risky ventures in derivatives, and then left the taxpayers saddled with their failures. The Federal Reserve Bank of the U.S. (which is not controlled by the Federal government, nor do they possess any reserves) is a private central bank and it rules from on high because it controls the money supply and the flow of credit. After signing the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 (which put the bankers firmly in charge of the money supply), and foreseeing its ravages, President Woodrow Wilson wrote:

    “I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated governments in the civilized world. No longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men…”

    A maxim of powerful banking figures could well be, “Let me control the issuing of a nation’s currency and I care not who makes its laws–in fact, I will determine who makes those laws.” Many U.S. Presidents and patriots have fought the private central banks–in fact, the dying words of President Andrew Jackson were, “I fought the banks”. By that, he meant that he successfully fought all the attempts of the European (private) central banks to put their harness on the tremendous capitalistic “horses” of prosperity that the U.S. was already nurturing. The power of the bankers over Europe was well-cemented and more or less absolute. Even European kings were wary of upsetting the bankers with their actions and knew that it was the bankers who kept them from suffering the fate of Louis XVI of France.

    Early Americans understood that if their experimental republic was to survive, they must keep the European bankers out of the fledgling nation, but the bankers were able to buy support in the new republic. Alexander Hamilton was the European bankers’ agent in the U.S. Hamilton was opposed by Thomas Jefferson in his efforts. President, Thomas Jefferson later wrote: “I believe that [private] banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [these banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their forefathers conquered…The issuing power of currency shall be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.” In fact, that principle of the issuing of the currency belonging exclusively to the people, is enshrined in many passages of the U.S. Constitution.

    A number of historians have suggested that Lincoln’s refusal to bow to the European central bankers in order to finance the Civil War was responsible for his assassination. He instead ordered the Treasury Department to issue the “green back dollar” to finance the war, charging no interest to the government. If he had gone the route of financing it under the usurious rates proposed by the European central bankers (they wanted from 24% to 36% interest per year), the U.S. would still be paying the debt incurred during the Civil War–if indeed it had even survived.

    Lincoln’s “defiance” did not sit well with the powerful bankers of London and Paris. Day after day, The Times of London (you can still read those editorials online) railed that Lincoln was a “scoundrel” and that England should do something about him, lest his “rebellion” travel to other nations. One of them was quite pointed. I quote it in part:

    “If that mischievous financial policy, which had its origin in the North American Republic, should become indurated down to a fixture, then that government will furnish its own money without cost. It will pay off debts and be without a debt. It will have all the money necessary to carry on its commerce. It will become prosperous beyond precedent in the history of civilized governments’ of the world. The brains and the wealth of all countries will go to North America. That government must be destroyed or it will destroy every monarchy on the globe…”

    The British Parliament was under so much pressure from the private Bank of England on the matter, that the Parliament finally approved the formation of a British naval expeditionary force which was to go to U.S. coastal waters, (along with a French expeditionary force) in order to break the Union sea blockade of the Confederacy. (The super-wealthy elites have always favored a “divide and conquer” approach–thus the carefully propagated extreme “left-right” divides of today.)

    Lincoln, understanding that the powerful European central bankers would not abide his actions for long, knew what he was up against and planned for their reaction in advance. He appealed to his friend, Czar Alexander II of Russia for help. Alexander was fascinated by the American republic. He had urged Lincoln to free the slaves, and hoped to follow the Americans’ lead, by eventually freeing the serfs in Russia and making modernization a high priority. Alexander agreed to send the mighty Imperial Russian Navy to Lincoln’s aid. When the English and French naval commanders (who had spies in the Lincoln administration) understood that they would be opposed by the Russian navy, they fled back to Europe. Thus the Union blockade held, the Confederacy failed and the nation was preserved from sliding backward into being colonies of the Europeans (the real goal because powerful moneyed interests were still smarting over the American Revolution). It is thought that Lincoln paid for his actions with his life. There is much evidence that John Wilkes Booth was an agent of the Bank of England. Alexander II was also assassinated–perhaps it was for aiding Lincoln. The Russians have recently taken to reminding Americans of how Russian aid saved the United States from almost certain division and conquest.

    An historic tale which illustrates the point of why the issuing of the currency needs to stay in the hands of the people: A European friend of Benjamin Franklin, at Franklin’s invitation, decided to visit Franklin “in the colonies”. During his sojourn at Franklin’s home, the European remarked on the industry, prosperity and cheerfulness of the Pennsylvanian colonists and wondered aloud to Franklin about the contrast to the average European. Franklin replied, “It’s simple, we Pennsylvanians don’t have a private central bank. Our money is issued directly from the colonial government of Pennsylvania.” The Pennsylvanian colony had already, for fifty years, been issuing the paper money called “colonial scrip” which was tied to an estimate of the total value of land and labour of the colonists. In all that time, there had been no inflation or deflation–just steady increases in productivity and prosperity. No wonder that the Pennsylvanians were so cheerful–they had a system which worked for them–instead of the European model where all but a few worked as virtual slaves of the wealthy aristocrats. By the way, Pennsylvania, peopled largely by Christians (Quakers) insisted on the God-given right to freedom and many Pennsylvanians spearheaded the drive to abolish slavery in the South.

    Abolishing capitalism will only make the chains more binding on the people as there will be much less to go around (as the communists discovered to their dismay). What needs to fall are the monopoly power of the private central banks and their control over governments. By the way, the last two nations which resisted forming a private central bank which would be tied to the international banking establishment were Saddam’s Iraq and Gadaffi’s Libya.

    • An addendum on Franklin. The Bank of England became incensed over the American colonial use of various colonial scrips. They got the British Parliament to outlaw the use of any money other than the British Pound as legal tender. The Pennsylvania colony along with its neighboring colonies were plunged practically overnight into a severe recession. Unemployment, unknown until that time, became a severe problem–creating massive poverty. Franklin always maintained that one act of Parliament was the REAL reason for the American Revolution. He said further that the colonists would have resentfully put up with a paltry increase in the tax on tea but invalidating and removing their money caused them to fight. Franklin never retracted his assessment and to his dying day swore it as absolute truth.

    • Emmersun Austin on

      “What you point to as injustice is not sourced in “capitalism”. Capitalism is an engine of prosperity–plain and simple.” Plain & simple: beyond capitalism & the transformation of the world.

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