Posted by: MC | January 28, 2010

“I can’t do this alone.”




“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people,
can transform the world.”       Howard Zinn       

Last night in the State of the Union Address, President Obama said these five words.  “I can’t do this alone.”  He said many notable things.  Two in particular match well with what many of the people who make up the 100 voices of EX:Change were saying this time last year.          

  • The public officials elected by the people to represent and govern need to do that:  represent and govern.  In fulfilling their role, cooperation on behalf of the nation and its people is foremost.
  • We don’t quit.  We are not quitters.

Yesterday was also the day Howard Zinn died after 87 years.   That’s a good number of years.  His was a vitally important voice.  He too spoke of representation, governance, cooperation, and perseverance.  Many people in our country learned from Zinn.  Many disagreed with his positions.  That’s the way democracy works.  We use our freedom to speak and we engage in dialogue across difference. Cooperation arises from the balance point in the public conversation and in the policies and practices that have their source there.        

On January 27, 2009 – one year earlier, the fog was thick and cold in downtown Portland.  I met Se-ah-dom Edmo, my 4th person to interview, in the Starbucks on SW 9th and Taylor.        

Se-ah-dom is Shoshone-Bannock, Yakama and Nez Perce.  She is a descendent of the Celilo Falls community – a community on the Columbia River that vastly predates the river’s carrying that name.  Celilo was one of the casualties of the hydroelectric initiatives of the 1950’s.  The gates were closed on the newly completed dam downstream from Celilo Falls on March 10, 1957 and an economic mainstay of the tribes of the Northwest was destroyed.             

Prior to its flooding and for many thousands of years before that, Celilo Falls was a center of trade regionally and with tribes from around the Americas.  The trade centered on the abundance of Salmon navigating the waters of the river up to and beyond the falls.  I have heard from Elders who lived there that the economy and culture of that place required a constant balance of personal initiative and great cooperation.  It also required balance of human interests with those of the water and the Salmon.        

When we spoke, Se-ah-dom did not refer specificially to Celilo Falls.  Nor did she refer to the Indigenous Ways of Knowing Project (IWOK), a Ford Foundation funded initiative she coordinates at Lewis & Clark College.  http://www.lclark. edu/~iwok  She spoke to change in terms of balance.        

“When I think about change, I guess the first thing I think of is that everything always is in the process of becoming its opposite. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of change.  Those things that are becoming alive have been dead.  Those things that have been silenced will constantly struggle to have a voice.  Those things that have had great voice will become silent.  I guess that goes, in my mind, toward creating some kind of synergistic balance between two opposing things: teetering, and then becoming balanced.”        

Se-ah-dom spoke of the way this teetering, this tension between opposites and the changes they imply often occur inside a thing that appears to remain constant, like a country.  Like the U.S.  She referred to the body and the processes of digestion.  “Our shells look the same, but what we are being fed with changes.”  She then spoke of spiritual changes, of changes in the way we relate to one another and ways that we value those relationships.         

In particular she described empathy and sympathy as ways toward cooperation and balance. “Anyone that is in that moment of sympathy or empathy makes a commitment, and that’s when morality is formed.  We can’t take that away from people.  And it’s something that seems to be happening more now than it has before.  There is more listening.”        

“Our situation and the shift in values,” she said, “remind me of the philosopher I associate with the idea – Phillip Hallie.  From Cruelty to Goodness is an article he wrote on the subject (summary: ).  The new administration will have lot of opportunities to support this kind of change.”  Seems Se-ah-dom’s words are proving very true.        

Then today, we learned that J.D. Salinger has also died – the well known and highly regarded author of Catcher in the Rye.  Many of us remember him from high school English classes, Others remember when he published the book.  Still others are aware of the numerous times it has shown up on a list to be banned.      

Once Salinger asked, “How do you know you’re going to do something, until you do it?” In the movement from cruelty to goodness, opportunities are not the act.  Neither are ideas.         

Here in the times of calling for change, Salinger’s is a vital question.        

Something we as the United States have done for almost 234 years, as our President observed – we have not quit.  This is also profoundly true for the people indigenous to these lands, the people who were here when this nation took on its current name and government.  These people, so significantly harmed in the process of establishing this country, have lived not quitting for time immemorial.  And, their descendants, like the descendants of Celilo Falls, like Se-ah-dom Edmo and her parents and her daughter, do not quit.  The American legacy preceded the nation.          

Plenty of change, extreme hardship, resilience and wisdom define and characterize the capacity not to quit.  That capacity also requires way more goodness than cruelty.  Perhaps Salinger’s words ask us to do change – to live it through our actions.         

The talk is never enough.  And none of us, not even the President of the United States, can do this alone.  How do we know if we’re going to cooperate and change for the good of all people in this land until we do?

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