One of my favorite teachers in high school was Mr. Wirth, a history and social studies teacher. Long before multiple intelligences techniques were regularly employed in education, he handed out colored-paper packets for each study unit that had hand-drawn cartoons on one side of the photocopied page and a blank space for students’ notes on the other. Corresponding images and blank spaces were on the gray-green chalkboard in front of us. It was a kind of low-tech Powerpoint note packet and projected images — long before that was a thing.
In addition to the clarity of his presentations and delightful amateur cartoons, he had a big personality with gestures to match, which became even bigger when he got excited talking about U.S. government, history and sociology. Almost everyone loved his classes. Students signed up on a waiting list for some of his advanced classes.
Even with his engaging and memorable presentations, and obvious passion for what he was teaching, he often said to us, “I don’t care if you remember anything that I’ve taught you. The most important thing I want you to remember is to vote.” His ultimate goal wasn’t to make highly knowledgeable historians or political scientists — he cared most about making involved, active citizens.
I’ve never forgotten that lesson. And I’ve rarely forgotten to vote.
Though Mr. Wirth’s class inspired and engaged me into becoming a good, voting citizen, the harder but equally engaging lesson of 2020 (really the previous four years) is that voting is very important, but it is not enough.
Being an engaged citizen means understanding the issues and advocating for what you what you want government to do and how you want it to change by writing emails, making phone calls, even attending non-violent protests. It means being actively engaged in your community — paying attention to the effects that policies and programs have not only on you and your immediate circle, but on everyone in your community. We should be especially certain that the poor, the marginalized and the suffering are considered most of all.
Confronting multiple pandemics in 2020 — the coronavirus, racial justice and climate change — highlights our communal issues even better than Mr. Wirth’s note packets. It’s harder to ignore the suffering that’s long been happening in shadow and silence because the problems have been drawn out by loud shouting voices carrying signs in broad daylight.
One of my biggest lessons of 2020 is that our basic responsibilities in our roles as citizens, as family members, as people of faith, as artists and creatives, as activists, extend well beyond what we thought it meant. We have to vote and advocate for government to do more, of course. But, we also need to lean into what we can personally do to help our neighbors and communities to survive and thrive.
Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” at the March on Washington in 1963 that our destiny, freedom and liberation are tied up with one another: “For many of our white brothers [and sisters], as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
Yes. Our destinies and our freedoms are inexorably linked, so we must march forward, responsible for each other’s care, helping one another to thrive. When one is lifted up, we are all lifted up. When one fulfills their destiny, we all fulfill our destinies. When one is liberated, we are all liberated.
I’d like you to ask yourself the question, “How might I be responsible as a neighbor and citizen of this country and world?”
Meditate and reflect on this question, and whatever your answer — go do it.
Take it a step further: Taking responsibility will certainly be a key part of my upcoming coaching group series, Tackling Tough Conversations, starting Jan. 26. Space is limited to only seven participants in this group that will help you set boundaries, advocate for yourself and others, facilitate change, and work toward justice in your workplace. Get one of the remaining spots by registering by Jan. 25.