Last night I was honored to receive an “Innovator Award” from Outfront Minnesota, the principal civil rights organization for LGBTQ people in our state. Writing a speech in the aftermath of last week’s election was challenging. Here is what I came up with.
I want to thank Outfront Minnesota for this incredible honor and thank all of you here tonight celebrating the work of this wonderful organization. I also want to thank the community of activists, the movement that I belong to here in Minnesota–community, faith and labor–and especially to the members of SEIU local 26, the janitors, security officers, window cleaners and, as of just this week, airport service workers, who have given me the honor of allowing me to be the leader of that union for the past 12 years. I also, of course, want to thank my partner of twenty years, John Stiles, who could not be here with us tonight because he had a longstanding, planned trip that he left for last Wednesday morning.
You can imagine that when he planned this trip many months ago, we had no idea that early Wednesday morning would feel like the coming of the apocalypse. I had been asleep maybe just an hour when I was jolted awake with a panic attack like nothing I had experienced before. I literally felt like I could not breathe: the only words I could sob to John were, “please don’t go, please don’t go.” I felt at that moment that my world was literally collapsing and I could not bear the thought of being without him for two weeks. I was able to eventually calm down and John made it out of the country without me making too much of a scene; but that feeling of lack of oxygen, that feeling of breathlessness, stayed with me for days after.
As I tried to work my way out of this desperation, I was reminded a lesson from Tibetan Buddhism that has helped me get through difficult moments in my work. It is a meditation called tonglen: as you focus on your breath, you first envision yourself breathing in darkness and breathing out light. Then you envision yourself breathing in pain, breathing in the pain of others, and breathing out light. Inhale pain, exhale light. Breathe in pain, breathe out light.
The people in this room who work for social justice know that our work is hard: we see so much pain in the world, and we cannot help but breathe it in. We also encounter, create and breath out moments of joy. When we help a victim of a hate crime rebuild, when we win a higher minimum wage, when we win a union contract, these things add joy to people’s lives. This meditation has helped me out of dark moments.
A few years ago, in a particularly dark moment, I was feeling sorry for myself and at that moment, I thought, there is so much I love about the work that I do but so much that is so hard. What I wished for at that moment was that I could experience more of the joy and less of the pain. And what I learned through tonglen is that when we do the work of social justice, we cannot wish for work with less pain and more joy. The work of social justice is precisely to breathe in pain and emit light. That is the work. It is both.
In 2011, I had the great honor of representing SEIU at the Congress of SATAWU, the South African Transit Workers Union. The South African labor movement was a crucial part of the struggle to end apartheid, and international labor solidarity was also key. Witnessing this congress was a transformative experience. While there, I also visited the apartheid museum and went to Soweto. The home Nelson Mandela returned to after being jailed for 27 years by the apartheid regime is now a museum in that township.
Our tour guide, an older woman, told us about the famous Soweto uprising. I asked her if she had been there during the rebellion and immediately realized it was a dumb question. “Oh yes,” she said, as she pointed to a bullet scar on her shin.
I’ve been thinking about that trip to South Africa a lot this past week. When Mandela was finally released from his twenty-seven years of imprisonment, he was likely the only person in the country who had the moral authority to accomplish what he did, to lead that country to a peaceful transition of power. He led South Africa to reconciliation and rejected the civil strife that could have become civil war. At that moment, Nelson Mandela was called to greatness in ways that I could never imagine being called myself.
This week I have thought a lot about Mandela and about my tour guide in Soweto. I’ve been thinking of them because I have often said that organizing is a vocation of optimists, necessarily so. But in the last week, I confess that it has been existentially difficult to find the optimism, to find the joy, even to find my breath.
I cannot stand here tonight and paint a bright picture of the future for you. We will soon face challenges we have never seen before. But I can tell you is that in the face of the challenges that are to come, we are called to greatness.
When immigrants, terrified that the country has elected a man who won by demonizing them, are faced with the the choice to live their lives, even if in the shadows, boldly and with joy, we are called to greatness.
When citizens are faced with the choice of sitting idly by or providing sanctuary if the president-elect keeps his promise to immediately deport 2-3 million people, we are called to greatness.
When we are faced with the choice of silence or creating an underground railroad for women who want to control their own bodies and destiny when the president-elect takes steps to ban abortion under all circumstances, we are called to greatness.
When we are faced with the choice of doing nothing or insisting our local elected officials resist implementing nationwide stop and frisk, we are called to greatness.
When our Muslim brothers and sisters are faced with the prospect of being put on a registry, and when the rest of us are faced with the choice of letting that happen or fighting back, we are called to greatness.
When we are faced with the choice of looking away or putting our bodies between our transgender loved ones and their oppressors when their oppressors make them even more a target as they choose to live and love as their true selves, we are called to greatness.
When we are faced with the choice of continuing to stay divided or uniting non-union and union workers to build power when corporations and the elite who put this president-elect into office go after workers and the organizations they build, we are called to greatness.
And because we are called to greatness, we will love each other fiercely, call out our enemies and call in our friends, creating a community of love and kindness and accountability and justice
Because we are called to greatness, we will breathe in pain. We will breathe in pain. We will breathe in pain.
And we will breathe out light.
Because we are called to greatness.