Sixteen year old climate activist Greta Thunberg has in one year gone from a solo protest to the impetus behind four million people demonstrating across the globe. At times like these I wonder if I have done enough, and yet I realize that, in our own ways, we are all activists.
Thunberg isn’t alone in her struggle to save the future. Other young climate activists have also been leading the call. People like seventeen year old Helena Gualinga from the Ecuadorian Amazon, Bertine Lakjohn of the Marshall Islands, and many others. Parkland survivors Emma González, David Hogg, and their school mates have spoken up against gun violence. Jazz Jennings speaks about transgender and LGBTQ rights. Malala Yousafzai is synonymous with the fight for female education in Pakistan. There are more.
All this youth activism reminds me that we all have a responsibility to speak up. Despite my fervent denial of creeping gray hairs, I must admit I no longer qualify to be a young activist. Nor was I particularly active when I was young (except for those “Letters to the Editor” that resulted in my undergraduate school newspaper being temporarily shut down and retooled).
But no matter what our age, we are all activists. If we speak out against dishonesty and corruption, we are activists; if we do not speak out against dishonesty and corruption, we are allowing it to continue. Inaction has as much, and often more, effect as action. Complacency is taking a stand for the status quo, especially when that status quo is hurting our fellow Americans and the world.
It goes without saying that not all of us can be world leaders, but we can be leaders within our individual worlds. Our influence might not span Greta’s global reach, but we can influence our families, our friends, our churches, our schools, our clubs, our bar buddies, or even our blog readers. The key is to speak up.
Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that: In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Thurgood Marshall noted our obligation to speak up: Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.
And if you think you don’t have the power to create change, listen to Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple, Alice Walker:
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
We are all activists.
We don’t need to be active in every contentious matter. Each of us can pick an issue or two that we feel particularly strongly about or have potential influence on. As a scientist I’m interested in helping people understand – and demand action on – climate change and other environmental and health issues. As a Lincoln historian I’m active in bringing a greater understanding of Lincoln and his times to the public, and helping all of us apply lessons from Lincoln to today’s society. As an honest American, I speak out against injustice and corruption while promoting the integration of integrity into politics. Our current political turmoil demands activism on all three areas.
Perhaps your issue is LGBTQ rights. Or health care. Or gun violence. Or racism. Or any number of important issues were taking a stand can determine whether we can keep our Republic. Whatever it is, it is critical to take that stand. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said: We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. That includes whether that victim is an individual, a demographic, our planet, or our Constitution. Lest you think you cannot be a victim, remember the words of Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
We are all activists. And we must be.
[Photo credit: Cindy Trinh, Activists of New York, activistnyc.tumblr.com]
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.