Stories from the March: Impressions from the Front Row

I had a front row seat for a miracle Sunday night. I went to the Trinity Methodist Church and heard from two dozen women of all ages, colors and backgrounds who marched in DC and Savannah the day after the inauguration. It was inspiring. I cried several times, laughed twice as many times, and came away feeling recharged and exhausted at the same time.

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The stories weren’t all focused on the march – they were as much about why these women marched, which ran the gamut and some of the stories are too sacred and personal to even attempt to restate here. If you can carve three hours out of your day, I highly recommend watching the video. I hope it captures some of the spirit of the event and what we felt in the room.

It felt like the beginning of something much larger than a trip to a protest. And to explain why, I think I need to take a step back and explain Savannah, at least my understanding of Savannah, a little bit. Savannah is a city of silos that have been built up over almost 300 years. They’re well guarded and imposing, but invisible to the casual observer. They keep us separated by race, class and industry without most of us even knowing they exist.

But, in and around those silos exist a lot of energetic, creative, passionate people doing good important work in the community… and until the march, I think a lot of them were unaware of each others’ presence or their common cause. The march brought them together and introduced a lot of them to each other for the first time, and then the energy grew.

Sunday night, all those powerful nasty women came together again to show us the power of those new connections and share that energy with all of us. I wish you could have been there. It was electric. It was positive and full of love. Even when an unplanned speaker said very unplanned things, the audience was respectful and quiet (and uncomfortable). And when it was clear she was unwell and something needed to be done, a woman near the rear of the chapel stood up and started singing Amazing Grace. We all joined in. She was gently led away from the podium and off the pulpit and then wrapped in loving embrace by some of the very people she’d just insulted.

It was something I’ll never forget, that energy of being around committed women of conviction and energy, surrounded by art and the sacred (and just enough of the profane to make it interesting).

But.

Sunday wasn’t the end of something. Sunday felt like the beginning of something larger than a single march. I sat next to a woman I’ve known for years, but had no idea she’s involved in an organization that works to get women elected to local and state office (and, fingers crossed, national). I sat in front of the first African American woman to be elected mayor of Savannah, and got to listen to her affirm what the speakers said with a simple “Alright” or “That’s right.” This is a woman who’s seen some things, who’s been through more than most of us will ever understand. The way she said it was so loving, so full of understanding. I’ve never heard anyone utter single word and have it feel more solid or understood.

Where do we, where do I, go from here? For a long time, I’ve felt what I can only call a calling to run for public office. After Sunday, I came to a realization – in order to make our representative democracy actually representative of all of its citizens, it needs to look more like America. White men make up 30% of the US, but make up over 60% of Congress. It doesn’t need another white guy, not even one as handsome as me. It needs more powerful women and people of color. So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to work with organizations like Georgia’s WIN List to get more women elected. I’m going to continue the work of breaking down, or at least infiltrating, Savannah’s silos and cause as much #goodtrouble as I can.

There’s good work being done. We don’t need to start something brand new, but join efforts led by women and people of color already in progress and lend a hand. We need to change our perceptions of leadership. Men, white men especially, don’t need to lead everything. There are more, and more effective, ways to lead an organization than the way we’ve done it in the past, and the way we’re watching our new President do it in the White House.

Last topic, and it feels unrelated, but it’s not. I talked to a wise friend yesterday about Sunday night and tried to make sense of my feelings and what to do next. He mentioned to me that the pastor of the church that hosted us put himself on the line. He asked if I’d be willing to join, and do more than just show up on Sunday, because those churches can’t survive to do good work if no one’s in the pews on Sunday or filling the collection plate.

I left my church in 2008 over California’s Prop 8 because they asked me to do something I felt went against the core tenets of our faith. I think a lot of people my age and younger have drifted away from religion as their churches became less about loving our neighbors and more about what our neighbors do behind closed doors. I never imagined I’d consider going back, but what if there’s a place for progressive worship? What does that look like?

My friend asked me to think about it, and I am. If the church can feel like it felt on Sunday night – a place of love, inclusion and action, then I could see actually putting on a tie and showing up.

Religion has done a lot of harm, and I don’t want to minimize the pain its caused, but it can also be a place of refuge. Throughout history, churches have sheltered the weak, weary and afraid from the angry mob. They’ve also been places communities have rallied around to change the world for the better.

I can’t think of a combination more needed today than that.

Savannah’s own First African Baptist was a stop on the Underground Railroad and a place where civil rights leaders and their allies could meet and plan: one of the first truly desegregated places in Savannah.

Parishioners like Bob and Philippa Paddison and many others at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation were pivotal in the early days of Savannah’s civil rights movement.

First Presbyterian Church on Washington Avenue has harbored and hosted refugees for decades. Their story is one of quiet steady persistence. The Catholic and Jewish communities of Savannah each have stories of welcoming people forced from their homelands by prejudice and injustice.

That effort isn’t free, and can only be undertaken with the consent and financial support of the congregation. It was risky dangerous work, undertaken with the full understanding of the potential consequences.

There are pastors willing to take those kinds of risks for justice today – but if their congregations aren’t on board, they can’t.

I’m not sure where my heart is right now on this, but it’s worth thinking about. If we can build a worship that’s more Beatitudes than brimstone, and more Samaritan than Pharisee? Is that worth giving up all my anger and joining? What can we accomplish working within the body of the church that we can’t working outside of it, or against it?

I know that’s a lot of questions. I don’t have the answers – but it feels like finding them is vital to making progress.

To wrap up, here’s a list of ideas of things to do to get some energy and make some progress. It’s not comprehensive. It’s just a start, but it’s better than nothing.

  • Get involved with organizations that are working to elect women and people of color to local, state and national office. The League of Women Voters is a great place to start. For me, I’m going to ship an email to the local head of Georgia’s WIN List as soon as I finish up here.
  • Pick one or two things you really care about and find an organization that works on those things. Join the fight. If we all pick one or two things and put in the work, we can collective work on all of the things. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the undertaking, but if we can all collectively make progress by each picking those one or two things, we make progress on everything.
  • Go be around passionate people. I’m an introvert, and even I felt completely energized by the event on Sunday.
  • Be kind to yourself. No one can do this alone, and no one expects you to. Bring a friend. Bring lots of friends.

I’ll leave the last word for Annie Dillard, who is more eloquent than I’ll ever be:

Make connections; let rip; and dance where you can.

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.

Interest and Concern

I’m still processing what happened last night and how I got it so very very wrong (it’s really no consolation that almost everyone else also got it wrong). I was looking for something to cheer me up this morning, and I found this quote from FDR (emphasis mine).

But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens – a substantial part of its whole population – who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life… I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. But, it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope – because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, propose to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. Franklin Delanor Roosevelt

I don’t know how to fix any of this or how to help, but I think it starts with conversations: in person and across divides. If we can at least show “interest and concern” for each other in our communities, we can make some progress.

Running Unopposed

Looking at my sample ballot for November, and I’m depressed at how many people are running unopposed. Out of 14 races, 8 incumbents are running without competition. They don’t have to debate. They don’t have to defend their records. That’s now how democracy is supposed to work.

We need to figure out how to get more people involved at the local and state level so people can get the experience to effectively serve at the national level. I’ve done some research and it’s economically impossible for most people to run for local or state office, or serve in even “part time” elected positions because of the time requirements and lack of pay. That means that only those who can afford to serve get the opportunity, which then means our government doesn’t represent all of us.

This is how we get ineffective, unrepresentative, unstatesmanlike, and uncompromising behavior from our elected officials – we don’t hold them to account. We don’t run against them. We don’t do anything but complain on social media or claim a “rigged” system, when we don’t even involve ourselves in it beyond cheering on our favorite team.

How do we “fix” this? We all need to look at how we’re participating in government at all levels, and pay more attention. We need to encourage qualified people to run. We need to make sure that our elected officials know we’re paying attention. We need to respectfully (and with actual facts) call them to account when they’re wrong. We need to state our cases for the issues using persuasive language, and not threats of violence or intimidation.

We get the system we let develop. If you don’t pay attention, it will be built and run by the people that are. Want something else? You gotta work for it. You have to do more than complain. You have to build a coalition of people who agree with you and provide actual solutions.

Voting is literally the least we can do to change things. It’s time we all took a long hard look at how we got here, how we’ve behaved this election, and what we’re going to do about it.

Stop Spreading Hate

When you share ignorant myths about trans people, minorities, share racist, sexist, xenophobic memes, support politicians who advocate (and sometimes pass) legislation to push already-marginalized people out of public life, you’re encouraging people with just slightly less self control than you to hurt other people.

When you support bullies, strongmen, and bigots, you’re continuing the cycle that ends up in people getting hurt and killed.

Stop and think about the people affected by this stuff. They’re actual real human beings with families and friends who will miss them if they’re gone.

I’m tired of losing friends and having friends afraid to go out in public as themselves because some asshole might kill them just for being who they are.

These people are fighting for their rights to be seen as full members of society. You’re fighting for your right to continue to keep them in the closet (which isn’t a right, it’s a privilege, one that we should all be willing to give up so others can enjoy the same rights we do), and to not have your precious beliefs challenged. There is a huge difference.

History is not on your side, nor will it be kind.

Letters to My Congressman

My local congressman, Buddy Carter, sends out a weekly newsletter and this week’s was a doozy. I don’t normally write to him, because I’m not sure it does any good, but I had to in this case.

Here’s what I wrote. Feel free to use it and write to your representatives.


In your latest newsletter you say the following: “I believe committing this horrific act removes all civil liberties and they should be investigated in whatever way is necessary. This is now an issue of national security and it is ridiculous that Apple is not participating in the investigation of known murderers and terrorists.”

This paragraph shows an amazing lack of understanding of the Constitution and our fundamental civil rights, and a failure to grasp the most basic facts of not just what the FBI is asking Apple to do, but the FBI’s own actions that led to where we are right now.

I’ll leave the constitutional questions to someone else, but the technical ones are simple:

  1. Creating a backdoor, ANY backdoor, for the FBI means that Apple will have to give that backdoor to any government in any country they do business in. Submitting to this request of our government means that they have to give that back door to repressive regimes in China, the middle east, etc.
  2. Creating a back door, ANY back door, in encryption or security means that back door can be exploited by any one – good guys, bad guys, terrorists, etc.
  3. The FBI wouldn’t be in this situation if they hadn’t asked local law enforcement to change the suspects’ Apple ID password. If they’d left it as is, Apple could have gotten into their account and given the FBI whatever they wanted – as they have done in many many cases.

This isn’t a simple case, but just demanding that Apple do what the FBI asks denies the complexity of the issues and weakens security for everyone.

We need strong encryption, unfettered by ill-informed and ill-advised government demands, for ALL of us to be safer. Any weakness at all can be exploited by the bad guys just as easily as the good – and like people are so fond of using the 2nd amendment as a “check against unchecked tyranny” – strong encryption is an even better check against that tyranny, and not just in the US.

I ask that the government get smarter, that our representatives gets smarter, about thinking about how to perform their duties and catching criminals than asking the innovative companies that drive our economy to get dumber.

Thank you for your time,

Kevin Lawver

On Manly Men

I’m tired of what scared man-children are doing to my industry, to social media, to my country and to women. It’s self-defeating. It’s wrong. It’s violent and it’s cowardly.

SO… Men. Stop being cowards. Stop treating people like crap. Stop threatening them. Stop lashing out like toddlers having tantrums because you’re afraid for no reason. Stop making up reasons to be scared and start living.

Look at your behavior. If you really think that threatening women, doxing them, swatting them, demeaning them, pushing them out of your communities because you’re threatened by them… if you REALLY think that makes you a manly man – you’re an idiot.

Being a manly man means being comfortable with yourself and not being threatened when someone else wants the same.

Being a manly man means being courteous, debating on the merits and not throwing tantrums when someone else wants a turn to speak. It also means admitting when you’re wrong.

Being a manly man means not being afraid of people who are different just because they’re different. It means being curious and adventurous – and not afraid to treat people like you want to be treated – or better, how they wish to be treated.

Bullies aren’t manly men. Bullies, at their core, are afraid and have to use intimidation and violence to project power. But, they have no power. Once a bully is outnumbered, he’s just a coward again.

Be a manly man and welcome everyone into your communities. You’ll find you’ll have more fun, learn more, and your community will be stronger for it.

Let’s make stories like this one a thing of the past.

And in case you’re confused, there’s nothing wrong with being a man. There is something wrong with thinking that your gender means you’re somehow entitled to affection, attention, recognition or leadership. If you really believe in a meritocracy, you’ll judge people by their results and not by what they look like, how they worship or where they’re from – and that means untangling centuries of bullshit about ability, the meaningless signifiers of “success” (for example, all our presidents have been men, therefore to be a good president, you have to be a man – or the funny bit of trivia that almost all Fortune 500 CEOs are white men over 6 feet tall). Just because historically, someone hasn’t been allowed to do something doesn’t mean they can’t. And just because this is how we’ve done it in the past doesn’t mean that’s the best way going forward – especially if it’s a cultural affectation that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the outcome.

So, being a man – it’s not bad. But, it’s not the only thing. Being kind is more important than your gender.

We’ll Never Understand

So far, I’ve seen statements from at least 3 politicians, who have no problem expressing strong opinions about people outside their religion and race; who never let their own ignorance keep them from pronouncing judgement on others, say today that we’ll “never understand the motivations” of the monster who killed 9 people last night in Charleston.

Why reserve your whip-smart judgement now? Why be so “sensitive” and offer your “prayers”? Could it be because your ignorant ramblings maybe inspired this guy?

Media figures and politicians demonize entire races and religions all the time, saying, like Glenn Beck did, that people are “willing to lay down their lives” for whatever batshit crazy cause they’re spouting off about. And then, when some crazed lunatic actually DOES WHAT THEY SO SLYLY SUGGEST, they clasp their hands and say they’re praying for the victims and say we’ll never understand what drove them to do such a horrible thing.

We know. They were inspired by parents, by the talk radio hosts they listen to, by the politicians that pander to any loony zealot who will vote for them (or give them money), by the mentally unhinged bastards who say we’re at war with everybody.

So, maybe instead of just praying for the victims, we should stop being such assholes and preach the religion we say we follow? Preach peace. Preach understanding. Preach forgiveness and humility. Teach your kids not to be racist. Teach your kids to love their neighbors (no matter who they are).

These tragedies are avoidable, and praying for the victims is the least you can do. Condemn violence. Condemn racism. Condemn those who make targets out of innocent people. And if you are one of those people, stop it already. You’re the problem. Be a part of the solution.