Hooray for Jackie Robinson!
Activism and Volunteering
Not being reactive is not being passive. It’s not a kind
of stupidity, holding back or being uninterested, removing
oneself from the world. Real equanimity isn’t indifference.
It’s the capacity to be present with your whole being and
not add fuel to the fire.–Jack Kornfield
I had my first taste of “activism”–terribly naïve, but well-intentioned–when I wrote letters to “Dear Chairman Mao Tse-Tung,” the first on May 23, 1956, as well as letters in support of the Civil Rights Movement which absolutely captivated the attention of a few of my grammar school teachers, nuns, who gave me books to read. It was the year of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. I was 12 years old, living far away in Norwalk, Connecticut. Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization solicited letters of support from many churches, including our Catholic church. A few nuns were very active in asking for letters of support, but only from those who really believed in the cause. I learned so much from their attitude of not imposing their activism on others. Several of us jumped at the chance in addition to write letters to China to ask for the release of innocent prisoners. The nuns knew that letters had to be respectful but very definite in listing the names of the prisoners & stating in the opening that China’s government passed the deadline promised to release the prisoners. Then the rest of the letter appears to just kiss Chairman Mao’s ass, but maybe that is just diplomacy. The nuns encouraged us to write something original and brief. We wrote the letters very carefully in pen.
When I woke up to “activism,” the most pressing social issue for me was the African -American Civil Rights Movement, in the middle 50’s.
In 2017 DNA testing showed my father’s genes to be mixed: I discovered I was about half black Haitian and half Iberian on my father’s side. I never knew how intimately connected I was to black roots, which we all have most basically. We arose from Africa, mother of our common humanity.
When, as an elementary school student, I was writing letters in support of Civil Rights, I would never feel piously righteous about other countries’ lack of human rights (such as in China), because of the obvious lack of human rights for African Americans in my own country at that time.
Human rights is both a local and a universal issue. I’m told it’s none of my business to talk about other countries. An activist aligns his or her voice with others, against what is felt as abuse of human rights, in whatever country. Writing a letter was so small, but many people, inspired by Dr. King, were throwing tiny pebbles into the lake of change.
A great hero of my youth was the gallant and dignified, yet tough, Jackie Robinson, and–with awe– I visited Ebbets Field to see him play with the Dodgers. My abiding memory of him: stealing-sliding across home plate in the 1955 World Series, with my beloved Yankee’s catcher, Yogi Berra, going crazy. The Bums–to my dismay– finally won!
Jackie’s plea was for an inclusive humanity. In 2007, it was sixty years since Jackie courageously started playing ball professionally, breaking the “color barrier,” despite vicious racist taunting and facing segregated hotels, restaurants, transportation, water fountains.
In the early 60’s, I became aware of Cesar Chavez (whom I first saw sitting serenely at the Jesuit seminary in Los Gatos, California) and later I would san po kong office volunteer with the United Farm Workers Union Movement organized by Cesar and Dolores Huerta who has carried on the work for so many courageous and enthusiastic years.
“Activism” was coined around 1915 to denote the doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action (as mass protests), some active forms of opposition/call for human rights, such as marching for civil rights, picketing to organize a union. Now activism includes much more humble–but needed both by the student & the community–efforts such as a high school student helping the local library or school. Unlike the time of my high school, volunteering is an essential part of most high school students’ experience, not only as a requirement on a university application, but also growing as a person who is learning to give as well as to take, to be interested in others as well as in himself. Though I’m writing about some of the more jazzy stories, actually most of my volunteering has been as simple as collecting clothes, books, visiting a convalescent home or being on a soup kitchen line.
One of the students recently came back from a tour of Alcatraz which he found fascinating. I was teaching high school boys in San Jose, Bellarmine High School (1969-71) when a buddy, Marcus Holladay, called me and asked if I’d help the organizing effort of getting clothes, blankets, food for American Indian people who had “occupied” Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay (November 9, 1969) to make people aware of contemporary Indian people and how they feel treated in the U.S. society. They were in Alcatraz for 17 months, supported by donations.
American Indians started having some fights among themselves (“being their own worst enemies” said one of the organizing leaders). On June 11, 1971, one of the leaders was arrested for stealing copper from Alcatraz. It was over, but they had gotten some people thinking a bit more broadly about Indians whom we’ve come to see as complex, full of nobility as well as treachery as in us all.
On April 6, 1930, Mohandas Gandhi (born October 2, 1869) manufactured salt from sea water, publicly breaking British law (“civil disobedience”) in a movement to bring political freedom to the Indian people. Indians were only supposed to buy British salt.
Salt water from tidal marshes was collected in pots. The sun then evaporated the water, leaving salt behind which was put on sale. “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” India became independent seventeen years later.
It’s October 2, 2000. In India, thousands gather at a sweetly incensed park on the Jumna River at Delhi where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. Today hymns are sung, verses from the Gita, the Koran and the Bible are recited. Stories, poems, prayers, people blend into each other; pleas for peace in the Middle East. Cotton thread is spun on small spinning wheels (as our ever-changing stream of life) to recall Gandhi’s virtue of simplicity.
At the end of April, 2007, two hundred and eighty of their neighbors’ Chongquing, China properties have been leveled, but Yang Wu (a martial artist) and his wife, Wu Ping, stand alone on a shaky dirt hill in their brick family home (since 1944 and completely re-built from the ground up in 1994). They’ve refused to give up to developers who want a mall and luxurious apartments. They’re surrounded by a huge, bull-dozed pit. Wu Ping says: “People must live with dignity… if you are right, you must stand up for yourself and not allow your rights to be trampled.” A local court has ruled that the house must be vacated. Yang is hanging a protest banner while Wu Ping sadly says: “I am losing hope.”
In May of 2007, peasants from counties in Guangxi province, protested against China’s one-child policy. They protest forced sterilizations and mandatory abortions. Fortunately such coercive government action is much less common than in the late 70’s and 80’s.
The Internet reported (June ’07) the cry for help from 400 fathers looking for their sons who were made slaves at brick kilns in Henan province. Some of the dads even went “undercover” to see for themselves the terrible working conditions at some kilns where the grueling day might start at 5 a.m. and end at midnight. Outraged Chinese citizens sparked the government to raid about 11,000 kilns. More than 500, including some children, were gratefully released from the pernicious grip of forced labor. President Hu Jintao ordered a thorough investigation.
I’m in Rowland Heights, California listening to Chinese Falun Gong members–Bin Li, Jie Li, Hongwei Lu, Lingyun Zhao, Fengling Ge– who are talking about being in Chinese labor camps and prisons for practicing their beliefs. They are speaking out to put pressure on the Chinese government and Communist Party to stop persecuting Falun Gong members in China.
They are asking for support. Bin Li with tears in her eyes recounts: “All of us were brainwashed. We were beaten, insulted so gradually you think, why are you here? At some point I thought I shouldn’t exist in this universe.” She says she’s grateful to have come to the U.S. in 2004, with a visa as a visiting scholar. An AIDS activist who was previously banned from leaving China was recently allowed to receive an award in the United States. Activists continue to ask for reform of the extensive use of detaining civil rights activists without trial. They advocate for the end of censoring the Internet.
Former student and friend, Dong Fong Liu, just came back from China. He is interested in highlighting the need of the Chinese government to protect coal miners, to keep improving work safety in the coal mining industry which provides 70% of China’s energy needs. Also there is a movement to provide a minimum wage. Government officials need to enforce new government policy; 60% of 5.5 million coal miners are rural immigrants who are more vulnerable to exploitation. In 2006, 4,746 miner lives were lost in accidents, gratefully down 20% from the previous year. June 5, 2012, marks the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. I saw a picture of thousands and thousands of people in Victoria Park (Hong Kong) holding candles to remember the pro-democracy student movement in an earlier memorial. Activists continue to ask for deeper political reform in China.