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Soul of a Citizen has become the handbook for budding social activists, veteran organizers, and anybody who wants to make a change big or small in the world around them. At this critical historical time, Paul Loeb's completely revised edition and inspiring message is more urgently important than ever.
Paul Rogat Loeb, an associated scholar at Seattle's Center for Ethical Leadership, has written on social involvement for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Psychology Today, Utne Reader, Redbook, Parents, The Christian Science Monitor, Mother Jones, Salon.com, The Village Voice, National Catholic Reporter, and the International Herald Tribune. He has been interviewed on CNN, NPR, PBS, C-SPAN, NBC, the BBC, and national German, Canadian, and Australian radio, and has lectured on over 200 college campuses. Loeb is also the author of Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus, Nuclear Culture, and Hope in Hard Times.
How do we challenge our culture's pervasive cynicism? Paul Loeb presents an alternative vision of hope and courage in Soul of a Citizen. Based on thirty years of studying the psychology of social involvement, Loeb describes how ordinary citizens can make their voices heard and their actions count in a time when we're often told neither matter.
Soul of a Citizen explores what leads some people to get involved in larger community issues while others feel overwhelmed or uncertain; what it takes to maintain commitment for the long haul; and how involvement can give back a sense of connection and purpose rare in purely personal life.
Writing in an engaging and evocative style, Loeb offers profound lessons: "Our efforts can do more for ourselves and for the world than we may ever imagine. We don't have to become saints or wait for the perfect situation to take action. Change happens little by little, step by step. We can savor the journey of engagement, even though our ultimate destination is unclear. The impact of our efforts will often ripple outward in ways we cannot predict."
At the heart of Soul of a Citizen are profiles of a broad range of people who have learned these lessons. They include: A Maine housewife helps lead a path-breaking campaign finance reform initiative "so my kids won't grow up in a cynical world."A Seattle environmental activist celebrates her hundredth birthday, still passionately involved. "You do what you can," she says. "Then you do some more." A fisherman forges new links between environmentalists, fishermen and Native American tribes to restore Pacific salmon habitat. "It's draining to convince yourself you're powerless and swallow whatever's handed to you," he says. "You get a lot back when you work with a good group of people to take a stand."An African American man serves seventeen years in the California prison system, then initiates a pioneering drug rehabilitation effort to give people "the support they need, in a language they can understand."An eighth-grade dropout joins a community group in her San Antonio barrio, helps design an innovative job program and eventually testifies before the U.S. Senate. "The group found some spark in me," she recalls. "I never knew I had it."
Soul of a Citizen is a highly personable story of integrity and commitment, a testament to our often-unrealized ability to lead lives worthy of our convictions.
Paul Rogat Loeb has spent thirty-five years researching and writing about citizen responsibility and empowerment. Paul lectures widely at colleges and conferences and is the author of five widely praised books.
Please visit WWW.PAULLOEB.ORG
Table of Contents
|Introduction to the New Edition||p. 1|
|Making Our Lives Count||p. 21|
|We Don't Have to Be Saints||p. 42|
|One Step at a Time||p. 64|
|The Cynical Smirk||p. 82|
|Unforeseen Fruits||p. 105|
|The Call of Stories||p. 125|
|Values, Work, and Family||p. 161|
|Village Politics||p. 195|
|Widening the Circle||p. 228|
|Pieces of a Vision||p. 257|
|Coping with Burnout||p. 287|
|The Fullness of Time||p. 316|
|Continuing the Journey||p. 355|
|Postscript: The Ten Suggestions||p. 357|
|About the Author||p. 379|
|Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.|
Making Our Lives Count
Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.
We’re often taught to view our lives as a zerosum game. With all the pressures we face, we barely have time for family and friends. How could we possibly take on some demanding cause?
Yet for all the frustration we expect, when we do get involved, we get a lot back: new relationships, fresh skills, a sense of empowerment, pride in accomplishment. “A rich life,” writes philosopher and theologian Cornel West, is fundamentally a life of serving others, “trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. . . . This is true at the personal level . . . [but there’s also] a political version of this. It has to do with what you see when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you are simply wasting time on the planet or spending time in an enriching manner.”
Again and again, I’ve heard active citizens say that what motivates them the most is the desire to respect what they see in the mirror. The exercise isn’t about vanity, but about values, about taking stock of ourselves and comparing the convictions we say we hold with the lives we actually lead. It’s about seeing ourselves from the viewpoint of our communities, the earth, maybe even God. If eyes are windows to the soul, and faces reflections of character, looking in the mirror lets us step back from the flux of our lives and hold ourselves accountable.
Sound a bit daunting? It can be. As the saying goes, not one among us is without fault. But such self-examination can also be enormously rewarding. For it’s equally true that not one among us lacks a heart, which is the wellspring of courage (the word is derived from coeur, French for “heart”). At the core of our being lie resources many of us never dream we possess, much less imagine we can draw on.
I NEVER KNEW I HAD IT
Virginia Ramirez, of San Antonio, Texas, could easily have lived out her days without ever discovering her hidden inner strength. She left school after eighth grade to get married. “That was what most Hispanic women in my generation did. My husband went to work after sixth grade.” Although dropping out seemed normal at the time, she felt frustrated when she couldn’t help her children with their homework, and she dreamed of resuming her education someday. Virginia wasn’t completely detached from her community: She was active in the PTA, “not running the meetings, but making the cookies and punch, carrying out the tasks.” She’d babysit for her neighbors, help in what ever ways she could, “doing basic community work without realizing it.” Mostly, though, she focused on private life, raising her five children while her husband worked for a taxi company.
When Virginia was forty-five, she realized that an elderly neighbor was getting sick every winter. The neighbor was a widow who lived in a house so dilapidated that it couldn’t retain heat. “She was one of those people who always paid her taxes on time, always faithfully making out her little money orders. But she couldn’t afford to repair her house, and everyone around here was just as poor. So I went with her to city agencies trying to get help. They kept sending us from place to place, from department to department. Finally she died of pneumonia. The paramedics said she’d never have died if her house hadn’t been so freezing cold.
“I was very angry,” Virginia recalls. “I’d never been so angry in my life. This woman had done everything she was supposed to, and now she was dead because no one could help her fix her house. Someone said there’s this community organization called COPS, and maybe they could help. I’d heard of them before, but thought they were too radical, a bunch of nuts.”
At that time, in the early 1980s, the largely volunteer-based Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) had been around for eight years. The organization grew out of a network called The Industrial Areas Foundation, established by the late Saul Alinsky, the godfather of modern community organizing (who also inspired the community organization that Barack Obama worked for in Chicago). COPS began by working through churches to organize San Antonio’s desperately poor Latino population. The group successfully pushed for municipal investments in storm sewers, parks, and schools in the town’s long-neglected barrios, and got major downtown businesses to hire their residents. COPS eventually secured over a billion dollars of public and private resources for their community through a combination of grassroots organizing and innovative protests. During one series of protests to get downtown businesses to hire more Latino workers, lines of COPS members endlessly exchanged pennies to tie up traffic at local banks, and sympathetic nuns tried on bridal gowns at local department stores to put pressure on their staff. But Virginia had paid the organization little heed.
So it was with some hesitation that she attended a COPS meeting at her church, where she raised her hand and said, “I have this problem. This neighbor lady of mine died because it was cold and they wouldn’t fix her house. I want someone to do something about it.”
“What are you going to do about it?” the COPS organizer asked. But Virginia didn’t know what to do. That was why she’d come to the meeting in the first place. “I thought you people were supposed to be able to help,” she said, and walked out of the meeting in anger.
A few days later, a COPS organizer knocked on Virginia’s door.
She was a nun, and that was the only reason Virginia let her in. “All I want to know is why you were so angry,” asked the nun. Virginia was angry, she said, because she’d tried to help the old lady and failed. But that wasn’t all. She also was upset because her kids weren’t getting properly educated in school. Because she’d given up on her own education and dreams. Because she’d had to watch her father, whom she’d adored, be humiliated again and again by police and store owners when they drove from state to state to pick crops. She was upset because no one seemed to care about her community.
The nun didn’t advise Virginia to do anything in particular. She just asked if they could talk again. When she returned, she suggested that Virginia hold a house meeting, to see if her neighbors had concerns, too.
Nine people came. Virginia had never conducted a meeting. Her stomach felt hollow and clenched. Her legs shook so much she almost fell over. She could barely open the door. But gradually people began to talk of their problems and experiences. Their neighborhood had been thrown together at the cheapest possible cost, built for workers at the nearby slaughter houses, which were now closed down. It lacked sidewalks and adequate sewers. Most of the houses were crumbling. As she listened, Virginia realized that more was at stake than the needless death of her neighbor; this was about the future of her community.
Convinced that the neighborhood hadn’t received its share of public funds, Virginia and other COPS members painstakingly researched documents at City Hall. And they were right: The city had built a street in a more affluent area with money actually earmarked to repair homes in their barrio. The next step—testifying before the City Council—took even more courage. When Virginia walked to the podium to protest the diversion of funds, she was so nervous she forgot what she was going to say. “I didn’t remember my speech. I barely remembered my name. Then I turned around, saw the sixty people who’d come with me, and realized I was just telling the story of our community. So I told it, and we got our money back.
“It was hard to stand up to politicians and tell them what we wanted, because it’s been imbedded in my mind to be nice to everybody. It seemed rude at first. But I began to understand the importance of holding people accountable for what they promise.”
As they did with other newly energized community members, COPS trainers helped Virginia reflect on each step she took in every campaign, and acquire the skills to research, negotiate, articulate a point of view, analyze people’s needs, and channel her anger. They also introduced her to a new community of people who were similarly involved. One of these new colleagues, a sixty-eight-year-old widow, became her inspiration. “Even though she didn’t know English and couldn’t read or write,” Virginia recalls, “she spoke out and stood up for her beliefs. She talked to other families. And she kept telling me, ‘Go back to school.’ She always said, ‘You have to represent us.’ ”
Even with this support and inspiration, Virginia’s journey into public life wasn’t easy. She often prayed over whether her newfound path was right, asking God for guidance, “like what am I doing with these crazy people and where is it going to lead?” Yet her involvement also strengthened her faith, giving new meaning to biblical lessons that had once seemed more remote and abstract. “Suddenly you read these stories about injustice from thousands of years ago,” Virginia says, “and it seems like they’re talking about today. You feel like you have a chance to be one of God’s instruments, to do His work by helping your community. You feel closer to Him in the process.”
Yet Virginia’s choices still raised difficult tensions, particularly in her family. At first her husband was critical of her involvement, saying “That’s not your role” and telling her she was neglecting her house hold. “My kids were mostly grown, but Hispanic women weren’t supposed to do these things. It was hard for him to understand that I was becoming a totally different person—going out of the house, going to meetings, wanting to talk about the things I was doing. Then my mother would call every day and say, ‘This is not for you. What are you doing to your family?’ It was like twenty-four-hour guilt. You’re torn between your home and your desire to grow as a person.”
Eventually, Virginia returned to school and acquired her GED. Then she enrolled at a community college. Studying for a college test—her first test in over forty years—Virginia was sitting with books spread across the kitchen table, and no supper ready, when her husband came home. He ran his finger over the furniture to show her the accumulated dust. “Look at this house!” he yelled. “It’s going to ruin. You’re not taking care of anything.”
“I’m preparing my future,” she responded, her voice trembling. “If you don’t like it, that’s too bad, because I’m going to do it.”
She’d never talked to him that way, and he was shocked. “I’m sorry,” Virginia said, “but this is a priority.” It took her husband a long time to get used to her new attitude and concerns, “to realize,” as Virginia says, “that I was going to keep on going to school and to my meetings.” But he slowly accepted Virginia’s transformation and even took pride in it. “I’d begun to think of myself as a person. I’m Virginia Ramirez, not just someone’s wife, mother, or daughter. My husband realized I was getting involved for both of us.”
College gave Virginia the credentials to secure a new job, training and supervising over 300 volunteers who do health education outreach in low-income neighborhoods. During more than twenty years with COPS, she’s moved up in the organization, first training people in her parish, then working with other local churches to develop their members’ leadership skills as well. She’s focused particularly on women like herself—working to inspire them, as others had spurred her to action. Using her own unexpected journey as an example, she’s taught them to find their own voice and speak out for their communities, despite any doubts or hesitations they might have, and even over the initial resistance of their husbands. “At first all the men in the neighborhood said they had a lot of respect for me, ‘but just don’t get my wife involved.’ After a while they began to come around.”
Virginia has also negotiated with the mayor and bank presidents on major community development projects, pressured local corporations for decent jobs, and worked on after-school literacy projects. “We have a new business incubator and a teen center so kids have someplace to hang out besides the streets. The city gave people money to fix up the crumbling houses. Now they take so much pride in it. We’re still a poor neighborhood but we finally have hope.”
Virginia realized how far she’d come when she went to Washington, D.C., to testify before the U.S. Senate on an innovative job-training program that she and other COPS members had helped develop. The night before, she “prayed to God that I wouldn’t make a complete fool of myself,” but was far more afraid, she said, “talking to my neighbors the first time, and speaking at that first City Council meeting. By the time I got to the U.S. Senate I was used to it.” Afterwards, she thought “about how this process had changed me, developed potential I’d never dreamed of. I tell people I learned all my talents and confidence at the University of COPS. The people there found some spark in me. I never knew I had it.”
STRETCHING THE SOUL
“Heart,” “spark,” “spirit”—whatever word we use for the mysterious force that animates us, its full potential cannot be realized in isolation. Indeed, according to developmental psychologists, individual growth is possible only through interaction with the human and natural world, and through experiences that challenge us. “Souls are like athletes,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, “that need opponents worthy of them if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.”
Many of us may already know the value of stretching our souls in personal life. We know the virtue of learning to voice our needs, fight for our choices, recover from psychological intimidation. This process may require acknowledging painful truths, withstanding conflict, standing firm on what seems like shaky ground. We may need to question familiar habits, overcome self-doubt, and begin to separate who we really are from the roles we’ve been taught. Jungian analysts like James Hillman would say that by taking these steps we reconnect with what the Greeks called the daimon, the “acorn” of character at the core of our being. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck described spiritual healing as “an ongoing process of becoming increasingly conscious.”
We are slower to attempt such transformations in the public sphere. Self-assertion there requires us not only to modify our outlook and behavior but also to confront a bewildering and often disorienting maze of institutions and individuals, powers and principalities. So we stay silent in the face of common choices that we know are unwise or morally troubling. We keep our opinions to ourselves, because we doubt our voices will be heard, mistrust our right to speak, or fear the consequences if we do speak out. We feel we lack essential political skills. Like Virginia before she attended her first COPS meeting, or Rosa Parks before her first NAACP meeting, we simply do not know we have it in us.
Yet coming out of one’s cocoon in the public sphere is just as necessary to self-realization as it is in the private. I once told a young Puerto Rican activist about the notion, common among many of his fellow students, that they’d lose their identity by getting involved—find themselves “swallowed up” by the movements they joined. He laughed and said the reverse was true. “You learn things you never knew about yourself. You get pushed to your limits. You meet people who make you think and push you further. You don’t lose your identity. You begin to find out who you really are. I feel sad for people who will never have this experience.”
You begin to find out who you really are. The implication is clear enough: We become human only in the company of other human beings. And this involves both opening our hearts and giving voice to our deepest convictions. The biblical vision of shalom describes this process with its concept of “right relationships” with our fellow humans, and with all of God’s creation. The turning point for the Buddha, writes James Hillman, came only “when he left his protected palace gardens to enter the street. There the sick, the dead, the poor, and the old drew his soul down into the question of how to live life in the world.” As Hillman stresses, the Buddha became who he was precisely by leaving the cloistered life. A doctor I know works in a low-income clinic because, she says, “seeing the struggles of others helps me be true to myself. It helps me find out how people in very different circumstances live out their humanity.” Community involvement, in other words, is the mirror that best reflects our individual choices, our strengths and weaknesses, our accomplishments and failures. It allows our lives to count for something.
THE COSTS OF SILENCE
Twenty years after Harvard Law School hired him as its first full-time African American professor, Derrick Bell took an unpaid protest leave, refusing to teach until the school hired a minority woman to its faculty. It was not a decision made in haste. Bell had long campaigned for this. But each time a new position opened, the Law School somehow could find not a single minority female candidate in the world who was worthy enough to hire. The school’s resistance continued despite Bell’s stand. After three years, the school forced him to resign. His conscience had cost him a tenured job at the most prestigious law school in America.
Yet Bell didn’t feel defeated. Quite the opposite. His public stance had preserved his core identity and integrity. “It is the determination to protect our sense of who we are,” he writes, “that leads us to risk criticism, alienation, and serious loss while most others, similarly harmed, remain silent.”
What Bell means is that silence is more costly than speaking out, because it requires the ultimate sacrifice—the erosion of our spirit. The toll we pay for stifling our emotions in personal life is fairly obvious. Swallowed words act like caustic acids, eating at our gut. If the condition persists and the sentiments are sufficiently intense, we grow numb, detached, dead to the world around us. When, however, we take steps to redress our private losses and sorrows, we often feel a renewed sense of strength and joy, of reconnecting with life.
A similar process occurs when we want to address public issues but stay silent. It takes energy to mute our voices while the environment is ravaged, greed runs rampant, and families sleep in the streets. It takes energy to distort our words and actions because we fear the consequences of speaking out. It takes energy, in other words, to sustain what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls “the broken connection,” splitting our lives from our values. Like autistic children, we can blank out the voices of our fellow human beings. But if we do, we risk the decay of our humanity. When we shrink from the world, our souls shrink, too.
Social involvement reverses this process, releasing our choked-off energy, overcoming the psychic paralysis that so many of us feel, reintegrating mind and heart, body and soul, so that we can speak in one voice—our own—and mean what we say. There’s even a physical corollary to this integration. In The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks describes various studies that confirm what he calls the “helper’s high”: People who volunteer in their communities experience significantly greater physical plea sure and well-being in the process of their work, a general sense of increased energy, and in some cases an easing of chronic pain. A Harvard School of Public Health study found that African Americans who challenged repeated discrimination had lower blood pressure than those who did not. So taking stands for what we believe may help us save more than our souls.
Sociologist Parker Palmer describes the resulting unleashing of truth, vision, and strength in the lives of people like Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Dorothy Day, who’ve acted on their deepest beliefs. “These people,” he wrote, “have understood that no punishment could be worse than the one we inflict on ourselves by living a divided life.” And nothing could be more powerful than the decision to heal that rift, “to stop acting differently on the outside from what they knew to be true inside.”
Excerpted from Soul of a Citizen by Paul Rogat Loeb.
Copyright © 2010 by Paul Rogat Loeb.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.