Sunday, February 05, 2006

Pierre, Part 2: A Little Activism Never Hurt Anyone

So, my trip to Pierre, which I posted about earlier, was motivated by a day of lobbying for comprehensive sex ed, reproductive rights, and so on. Over 200 men and women from around the state showed up wearing purple t-shirts, handing out cookies and other goodies to legislators, and taking the opportunity to inform them that we care about women's rights and we expect them to protect these rights.

On the one hand, it was an awesome day. Overall, the entire event was planned well and things ran smoothly. We made an impact; they hadn't before seen such a large group of South Dakotans all revved up in favor of these issues (usually, they hear only from those in opposition). Everyone there felt empowered by our strong showing, and I think that there were many in the crowd who had never before experienced this form of collective action and who found it uplifting and inspiring.

On the other hand, it was diappointing to me that with such hard work and excellent planning, only 200+ people showed up. This is not a reflection of the planners, I don't think, but rather of the population of South Dakota. People don't often have the chance to see collective action in...well, in action, so they don't see its successes. There is instead a focus on personal responsibility and individual behavior. People here care deeply about issues, but they often refrain from contacting their elected officials or taking part in any visible movement.

I suspect that part of this is due to Midwestern, or more particularly, South Dakotan, culture. Politeness, the feeling that one ought to give others the benefit of the doubt, the desire not to call attention to oneself...these things work against collective action, which is fed in part by anger/frustration, the realization in certain instances that the opposition is corrupt, and the willingness to take risks in order to accomplish change.

But I am noticing a change, slowly but surely. I think it's not by accident that this was the year that people showed up at the Capitol. In large part, it's due to people like my comadres at Planned Parenthood who are doing an incredible amount to raise awareness and to build an activist network simply by making activist projects out of social events (and vice versa). It's also due to the increasingly repressive administration we are all living and chafing under.

I hope that what I witnessed in Pierre gave all of us hope that we can make a difference. We did a "Burma Shave," standing in a line by the roadside holding signs and chanting, and we were pleasantly surprised that a large number of motorists who passed by honked and cheered for us to show their support. And whether we were marching, Burma Shaving, or standing on the Capitol steps, we were awed by our numbers - we were a force to be reckoned with!

But no matter how much resistance and inertia had to be overcome to get us all there, once a year is not enough. If we care about these issues, we need to be there continually. We need to make this a priority. A lot of us disagree on some of these issues while we agree on others. For instance, many of us who disagree on abortion agree that abstinence-only sex ed is a BAD IDEA. Yet, there is, as I write this, a bill on the floor that would mandate abstinence-only sex ed in the SD public schools. We saw this coming months ago when our local school board was beset by a small yet vocal percentage of angry parents who protested the new sex ed curriculum, but many parents did nothing and allowed this group to dictate to the schools what should be taught. At the time, we warned them that abstinence-only education would be next, but they still did not act. Now, they are shaking their heads sadly, but are they contacting their legislators?

We can argue that individuals have the power to make a difference, and I believe that they do, but it is in community that we create lasting change. Rosa Parks was not a woman acting alone; she was working with a whole community who had decided that she should pick that one day to stage her protest. Dr. King was not acting alone; his successes were only made possible because of an entire community who had been working together before and during his own efforts. Major social change is only possible if we stick together and make a commitment to prioritizing the struggle in our daily lives.

So, don't sit while others are standing up for the things you believe in. Your voice counts. Make it heard.

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