If you haven’t yet read “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” I recommend it highly. I’m about half way through this incredible account of the emergence of the civil rights movement right now.
There’s a moment described in the book where E.D. Nixon – an African-American civil rights leader and union organizer in Montgomery – calls Martin Luther King Jr. on the phone. It was 1955, Rosa Parks had just been arrested for refusing to vacate her bus seat and the idea for bus boycott was hatching. After working frantically to secure Parks’ release from jail, Nixon started rushing through a long list of people to call to recruit. At 5:00 am, he called King, told him about the arrest and the plans for a bus boycott. Nixon asked him to endorse the plan and get involved. King replied: “Brother Nixon, let me think about it and you call me back.” When they next spoke later that morning, King not only endorsed the plan but jumped right in to help with the rest of calls. He was soon chosen to lead the organization formed to coordinate the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the rest is history.
I wonder about that time period between Nixon’s request and King’s decision to take action. I don’t know what went on in King’s head when deciding whether or not to get involved, but I am guessing it is not unlike what goes on in our heads every day. We weigh the cost and hassle of getting involved versus not. We weigh the angst and disempowerment of not getting involved versus taking a stand. We weigh the seriousness of the ongoing environmental deterioration against the vision of what we know is possible. And then we decide to get involved, or not.
As I read about that incident and other stories, I am scouring for lessons that can help current day activists build as strong and as powerful a movement for environmental protection, social justice and a healthy fair economy. What made some people turn a blind eye to the injustices of segregation, while others committed themselves to making change? What can we learn from them to guide us in tackling today’s challenges?
This may sound obvious, but the main common denominator, the factor that cut across all participants, is that they decided to get involved. They decided to move from being worried, angry, disrespected, or fearful to action. Like Martin Luther King Jr., they made a decision and took that first step.
Each of us can either decide to get involved in making the world a better place, or decide to stand by. I want to make the case for getting involved.
First, it’s fun. Social scientists studying happiness have found that the things that make us most happy aren’t things. They are the quality of our social relations, having a sense of meaning and purpose in our life, and the act of coming together with others towards shared goals. Guess what? Getting involved in making the world better provides all those things!
Second, it works. There are enough of us who want a better world – one with a clean, safe environment, the real security that comes with good jobs and vibrant communities, quality education and healthcare for all – to make it happen. We can chart a better path in this country and around the world if we take a stand, if we make that decision to get involved.
There are already millions of people working for a better world on many fronts. But it’s not enough people…yet.
That’s where you come in. I am asking you to get involved. I am inviting you, urging you, welcoming you to join the movement for a better future. There are an infinite number of forms your involvement can take and lots of groups to connect with for guidance and company along the way. The important thing is not which issue we choose to work on but that we each decide to do something. To get involved.
On Monday, many people celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a day off. From now on, I suggest we instead consider it a ‘day on’ for sustainability and social justice, for peace and equity, a day to take that next step in making change.
Annie Leonard has spent nearly two decades investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues. She has traveled to 40 countries, visiting literally hundreds of factories where our stuff is made and dumps where our stuff is dumped. Witnessing first hand the horrendous impacts of both over- and under- consumption around the world, Annie is fiercely dedicated to reclaiming and transforming our industrial and economic systems so they serve, rather than undermine, ecological sustainability and social equity. Annie is currently the Director of The Story of Stuff Project. Prior to this, most recently, Annie coordinated the Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption, a funder collaborative seeking to address the hidden environmental and social impacts of current systems of making, using and throwing away all the stuff of daily life.
This post originally appeared at StoryOfStuff.com, you can view it here.