I recently contacted a few blogs that had posted incorrect information about my business. I was tossing over the correspondence in my head as I prepared lunch, and it got me thinking about speaking up. Among my friends I'm kind of known as the person who points out inaccuracies, injustices, and other things that are wrong. Years ago my friend Willie started calling me *The Enforcer.*
I probably get this tendency from my mom and maternal grandmother. My Grandmom Adele lived in a high-rise apartment building with assigned parking spaces. Irritated with a tenant who repeatedly parked in her spot, she ordered giant stickers which read, "you're parked in my spot," and when removed, ruined the car's paint job. (My grandmother grew up in Manhattan, btw.)
Speaking up isn't the easiest thing to do, and I've had a history of feeling guilty after doing so. (this has gradually subsided.) The benefits far outweigh the idea that other people will think I'm weird. What makes me feel most uneasy about doing it is the reaction I get from other people. Sometimes it's the person I'm addressing the complaint to, because it can often be met with resistance. But also it's the lack of support I get from others in the same situation. It's that tendency for others to look away, stare blankly, or look uneasy that really gets me. And I sometimes get this from my own friends.
To me, speaking up is the first step in becoming an activist. It seems ironic that so many of us who grow up in U.S., home of the "Great American Experiment" in democracy, are so reluctant to use our Constitutionally- granted freedom of speech. Perhaps we assume that since we live in a democracy, our leaders will look out for us. That all we have to do is vote, and our responsibility ends there. Or that we trust authority in general, on all levels, and give them more power than they deserve.
There's a sense that the average American feels powerless. That they're so busy working to support their family, make house and car payments, pay for health insurance, etc., that there's no time to think about politics and the larger picture. What I believe is that the power begins at home. That the small steps made by speaking up when you notice something will lead to larger change.
I'll give a few examples of situations in which I've spoken up recently:
•B and I were walking to the train behind a group of about ten middle-school aged boys, when one of them tossed his sandwich wrapper on the sidewalk. I picked up the wrapper, handed it back to him, and asked him if he dropped it. Then I pointed out the trash can at the end of the block. His friends were about to make fun of him, when they saw me watching them, and they stopped. The kid then threw the wrapper in the trash.
•B and I transferred from a local to a limited bus, but were charged a second full fare instead of getting a free transfer. I told the driver, whose response was, "There's nothing I can do." (they're supposed to hand you a refund request slip and envelope.) I noted the bus number, and when I got home, I submitted a complaint on the MTA website.
•here's a big one- I have to do this every day. I tell the clerk at any given store that I don't want a bag. I do this over, and over, and over. I know that more people would do this if they didn't feel intimidated. I've been doing this for years- it's like second nature now. This goes for straws, take-out utensils, and packets of sauce. If they're going to end up in the trash, then I simply hand them back to the person- they usually don't mind.
Given that there's an important election coming up, now is good time to start thinking about how you can become an activist in your own community. Are you concerned about potholes on your street? Call the city. Is there dog poop on the sidewalk? People in my neighborhood post signs, asking dog owners to obey the law and clean up after their own dogs. Since the city isn't enforcing its own law, it's up to the citizens to do it. Play an active part, and don't expect government to do everything for you. (because they won't)
You might be wondering- how do these small steps lead to larger change? For one, if you start speaking up, making phone calls, sending emails, it will lead to a sense of personal empowerment. Doing our little part might inspire others around us, which will lead to more change. If we all do our part, we can rely less on government or big businesses or any given organization to do it for us. We can stop complaining when things don't get done and realize that we have the power to do it ourselves, or contact the right person who will do it for us.
All of this doesn't work 100% of the time of course, but it's important not to get discouraged. Keep at it, and pretty soon it will become a habit.
Happy Independence Day.