The upside of intractability

Thinking much this morning about intractability, or what seems like it. Of our nation’s leaders and the environmental crisis we are facing. Of university administrations and the inability to deal with student concerns and protests effectively. Of our public school system’s mandatory SOL testing of our most vulnerable young students. Of those daily moments when I fear I am that teacher in “Charlie Brown” and this is all people hear when I talk:

(And I’m not usually referring to my classroom experiences here…)

Of those things that lead to moments when you feel every day that you are banging your head against your desk, and shouldn’t you maybe think about stopping that now?

How do we change the message?

But maybe that’s not the question. Social change IS ugly stuff. The things that we forget (or never learn) about great periods of upheaval in our history are that they seem like such obvious ideas now, but they didn’t at the time. We always have the benefit of hindsight to think that upheaval and change was an inevitable result of great ideas and ideas making themselves heard, when people in the middle of these events are never certain change is going to happen. I recently finished the fabulous biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks — impoverished and neglected long after her famous bus stand, not listened, not respected, not asked to speak again and again because of her gender, told her conduct was unbecoming for a respectable middle class Negro lady. Only really revered after her death, and then frequently for the wrong reasons. Reading that book I could never figure out how she managed to hold it together, especially when there was the very distinct possibility that she herself would never personally benefit from it.

But she did.

Maybe great change can only happen after periods of great intractability, after much individual pain, losing or not being able to keep jobs, being treated as a pariah, being told you are loud, messy, and in the way, not being heard year after year after year, going to work every day and doing your job well without proper recognition, and yes, going to jail. There are big moments, but most of social change is surviving tiny injustices that happen every day.

I have a quote in my office from James Baldwin that is hanging there because I have to turn it again and again: “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

We’re doing that – we are doing that. Let’s keep doing that, and once and a while, go play softball.

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