In the social justice arena there’s a term that is often thrown around. The term is “intersectionality” and Google definition describes it as the “interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”. In common language it means that I’m not fighting for just my own place at the table but I’m fighting for a place at the table for everyone because all fights for freedom and equality are interconnected.
Today is the day we’ve set aside to honor the late Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the day we look back at his legacy and how he pushed the civil rights movement forward. Dr. King knew about intersectionality but he called it by a different name. In Letter From A Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
People look at Dr. King and think to themselves that they could never be like Dr. King. We have become a people where most but not all of us choose to remain silent because we think we cannot make a difference. I only have one voice and my voice will not be heard so it doesn’t matter is what the voice in our head tells us. We know we want change and that things can’t continue the way they are but we don’t know what to do or where to turn. I’ll confess that I often find myself in that place, that place of knowing I need to do something but not knowing how to take the first step. After the presidential election I became disillusioned by the electoral process and the poltical infighting within the political party I support. I’m already disillusioned by state level LGBT rights organizations, the cause most dear to me. I’m facing an incoming president that has rhetoric unfavorable to the causes I support and a political party in charge eager to strip away basic human needs without having a replacement ready. I have become hollow and I know there are others like me. Then, a few nights ago, President Obama gave his farewell speech to the nation and, like always, his words fanned the little flicker of hope that remains within me.
“…I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it. After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government. It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.
What a radical idea. A great gift that our Founders gave to us: The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.
For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima, Iraq and Afghanistan. And why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs, as well.
So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional — not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow. Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It’s always been contentious. Sometimes it’s been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some…”
Later the president would go on to remind me that “…Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning. With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.
In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.” And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.
America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.
It falls to each of us to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen.
So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.
Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed…”
Finally, President Obama wrapped up his speech with a call to action. It is a call that I had forgotten about but a cause that I once again take up. It’s the call that those escaping the tyranny of King George heard. It’s the call that Lewis and Clark heard when they headed west. It’s the call that Harriet Tubman heard as she followed the northern star. It’s the call that Rosa Parks heard when she refused to give up her seat on the bus. It’s the call that the drag queens at Stonewall heard. It’s the call that Cesar Chavez heard out in the fields. It’s the call that Richard and Mildred Loving heard as they sued the government for the right to marry and it’s the same call that April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse heard as they sued the government for the right to marry and to keep their family together.
“…I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans, it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference — to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.
Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America. You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.
My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.”
I only have one voice. That is true. But my voice can be added to your voice and our voices can be added to a choir singing out that we will no longer be bystanders, that we will no longer be brushed aside, ignored. We will sing out that love will not be ignored, that everyone has a place at the table and that we the people, together, can put action to the call heard by those that came before us and we will be so loud that our action will be the call for those that come after us. On this day let us hear the call and be motivated into action.