Of Safety Pins and Paperclips

I’m conflicted about the whole safety pin thing. It’s an easy gesture and I’m afraid that it will provide comfort only to the people who wear it, not to those actually in need of comfort. I’m afraid that the people who wear it will think their work is done because they put on their safety pin, when it should be just the beginning. I’m skeptical because we’ve made these gestures before and not followed through, not finished the work, and we’ve abandoned those in need because our attention spans are short, and there’s always a shiny new cause to support that makes us feel better about ourselves.

I wanted to find out more about its origins and found an article about the Norwegian version – the paperclip.

Like a safety pin, the paperclip works as a symbol because it binds things together. Like the safety pin in the Netherlands, wearing a paperclip became a crime; there was real risk in wearing one.

The thing that struck me from the story was in the “bonus facts” below. The paperclip was just the beginning. Ordered to teach Naziism in school, 12,000 Norwegian teachers went on strike. Many were sent to prison camps. The Nazis realized having kids out of school hurt more than the teachers not promoting their cause, so they relented.

The clergy was ordered to teach obedience to the “leader and the state”. When every bishop and 90% of the clergy in the country resigned, the Nazis again relented.

More than 1,000 Jews were smuggled into Sweden by the resistance.

The Dutch were no slouches either. They carried out repeated demonstrations and non-violent strikes against the deportation of Jews from the Netherlands. No other country had as may strikes and protests as the Dutch – and they faced harsh reprisals from the Nazis each time.

The Dutch had a massive underground press with over 1,100 different titles, some of which are still around and are major papers in the country. They set up underground financing and had a massive social services network that provided financial, medical and other support to the Dutch people.

All of that is to say, they didn’t just wear safety pins and paperclips. They got to work and did what they could, under terrible conditions and at great personal risk.

I like the idea of the safety pin, because it’s meant to be temporary until you actually repair the damage.

I think donating, and setting up a recurring donation, to national non-profits is a great thing to do. The ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Human Rights Campaign and others will be kept really busy for the next four years, as we can expect the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department to be gutted like it was during the Bush years or worse (probably worse). But, while you’re donating, please look for a local non-profit to donate money and time to.

I’ll elaborate… This election came as a shock to a lot of us who thought we were farther along as a country than we really are. It was easy to call ourselves progressive and cheer on those doing the work from the sidelines, post to social media about the issue of the day, and feel like we’d done something of value. It turns out, no one was listening, and we didn’t change any minds.

Before anyone still reading this post and starts tutting… I accept the results of the election:

  • Two very unpopular people were the two major parties’ nominees for president.
  • One of them got over two million more votes and lost to a man who (this is a partial list) called immigrants racists, criminals and terrorists, called for the banning of an entire religion from the country, denied knowing anything about David Duke or the KKK, openly mocked a disabled reporter, called for protestors to be beaten, has said (and probably done) terrible things about women, and that almost seventy percent of the country feel is unfit to be President.
  • A lot of people stayed home because they couldn’t decide between two people they didn’t trust.

That result is real, and it’s not going to change. Me being sad about it will not change it. Me being angry will not change it. Me trying to decide who’s to blame for the result will not change it. All I can do is decide what I do about it after accepting that I can’t change it.

For me, this is a wake up call. If I sit on the sidelines now, and assume someone else will do the work, I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror or call myself a progressive.

I could shake my tiny fist at the sky and lament what’s happening in Washington, but that won’t change anything. So, I’ll be watching them, but I’m going to act locally. My neighbors will be affected by the policies enacted in the next four years. Many of them are afraid and a lot of them are already being targeted by hate.

I wasn’t doing nothing before, but that no longer feels like enough.

There are already great non-profits in Savannah working on things I care about: poverty, education, technology literacy. There are probably great non-profits working in your community too. I’m trying to resist the urge to start something new – because that’s alway my first instinct. Starting things is exciting because I can design it from scratch, and I don’t have to understand an existing dynamic – but it’s a waste of time. Starting things is expensive, both in time and resources, and we don’t have enough of either. So, I’ll pick something (or a few things) with the biggest overlap in the Venn diagram of things I care about, things I can help with, and what will have the biggest impact.

Because we won’t make this country a better place by having another comment duel on Facebook, favoriting a tweet, posting a pithy meme, or by standing on the sidelines of democracy or of our communities and watching people do the work. The world has enough cheerleaders and more than enough pundits. The world needs more people to roll up their sleeves and serve; there’s a lot to do.

I don’t think I’ll wear a safety pin on my collar… I’m going to learn how to sew.

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