|June 24, 2013
By Veena Trehan
Imagine if just a fraction of the creativity, time and energy we put into raising our kids was devoted to improving our country and planet. Now make it so through this 10-step plan.
Meet America, your new child. And planet Earth, her big sis.
Yes, they are your responsibility. For life.
Gone are the days of worshipping mothers. Perhaps 12,000 years ago, our ancestors prayed to the first female goddess. Maternal devotion continued as the Virgin Mary, the Goddess Parvati, and countless others were celebrated worldwide. Yet Ma’s contemporary resonance is lost. Mothers today are often placed in nursing homes and described as nags. Even when we do value them, their support is rarely a daily or weekly imperative. So let’s drop the talk about the motherland and Mother Earth.
Today, we dote on kids. Infants are born unable to hold up their head or speak, with a prodigious talent for pooping. But investment of our time, energy, and creativity fosters the development of their innate talents. Years later, they beam at us while accepting their medical school (or 8th grade) diploma.
For many of us, transforming our world and country–whether through questioning a spying apparatus that leaves Communist governments in the dust, removing toxicity and pollution from production, ensuring workers earn livable wages, or slowing climate change–is compelling, albeit daunting. But raising our children was also. Let’s lose excuses for inaction unworthy of us as parents, like:
“I did so much in the last election. Don’t I get to check out?” You rallied for Barack, contributed to his campaign, and went door-to-door in purple states. Sorry, canvassing superstar, you can’t check off the political participation box til 2017.
You’re logic is as persuasive as: “Boy, am I happy I got up all those nights for my toddler. Woo hoo! I’m disappearing during my son’s adolescence.” Or, for pet owners: “Isn’t it fabulous that caring for Skippy last year excuses me from walking him in 2013?”
“But I can’t possibly live up to my ideals.” Your carbon footprint is the size of Kuwait. You rush into McDonald’s before soccer practice. So really, why try?
That’s like saying you won’t help your kid, who doesn’t earn straight A’s, with her homework. Or take your son, no FC Barcelona shoo-in, to soccer practice. Moving right along…
“It won’t make any difference anyway.” Things may seem hopeless. But what would Jesus, or any person of moral courage, do? The Bible includes few scenes of Jesus sitting down, hands on knees, chin in hands, saying, “Whoa, this is so confusing. I’ll just play tiddlywinks for a few years.” Instead, he is energized by the scope of the challenge.
The growth we expect from our children is absurd, yet achievable by slogging on as an article of faith and devotion.
Do the right thing. At the simplest level, it is the truth we come to when we embrace humanity.
Remember that life is not a popularity contest (although some of the most uncompromising people would have won the contest, hands down). Life’s journey should showcase your courage and leadership, as it evolves.
For institutions you are a member of,–whether a school, company, university, nonprofit or country–work to change them. Call them out on immoral decisions or leave them.
Ask your friends and family about how they’re involved politically and what they consume. Have difficult conversations.
Look forward. There are many reasons for past inaction. One of the main Hindu holy books, the Bhagavad Gita, is devoted solely to encouraging action when values conflict. Today, powerful corporate and political forces sow confusion and ambivalence. They promote behavior at odds with common values: Buy products associated with happy or cool people, corporations advertise; not those that positively impact your health and the world. Their Whack-a-Mole arguments against sustainable practices belie the blindingly obvious truth: Investment in a broad array of programswould serve the public interest, while slowing the growth of the overfull coffers of the privileged.
It’s time to focus on numbers three and four (assuming your family has two kids). Adopt, America, a child who, in contrast to her developed-country peers, struggles with the second worst child poverty and life expectancy, the worst (the only one lacking) universal health care and paid maternity leave, soaring inequality, middling test performance, and an epidemic of poor health. She is ravaged by the effects of skyrocketing child marketing.
The world, too, has slipped from her maternal perch. As her bounty wanes she throws heated, stormy tantrums. Last week a report predicted between a 3.6-degrees Celsuis and 5.3-degree rise in global temperatures, based on a continuation of current carbon policies. Less than a year ago, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim described the projection of a possible four-degree rise by 2100 as a “doomsday scenario,” coming, as it did, just three years after world leaders agreed to aim to limit the increase to two degrees. Already, only a one-degree Celsuis rise has brought record wildfires, droughts and superstorms.
Meanwhile, corporate investors with economic power seek profits with uncontrolled avarice. Wal-Mart’s six heirs have almost as much wealth as the gross development product of 150 million Bangladeshis. Yet the corporate behemoth refused to sign on to a landmark fire safety accord estimated to cost them 10 cents per garment. Achieving the Millennium Development Goals–including cutting poverty in half and making primary education universal–was estimated to require additional funding of just one-tenth of the US defense budget.
As a parent, you’ve honed the discipline of faith and devotion. Now, bring it to your new progeny.
Here’s a 10-Point Plan You Can Follow:
1. If you don’t believe in a company, don’t patronize it. As consumers, we shape the world for better or worse. If all of us stopped eating Monsanto’s genetically modified products–particularly corn and soy (and animals who eat them)–it would cripple the company while returning us to the healthier diets of our childhood. Win-win.
Screen companies and brands you buy, making it as complicated as you wish. If you don’t have much time, don’t buy from those with negative news stories. Consider not purchasing products unless you understand their ingredients and know they’re safe. More broadly, evaluate these indicators of how the companies you buy from do business: their tax liability (Does the company pay at the rate you do?); whether their workers receive a living wage and are unionized; their political donations; their use of toxic chemicals and levels of pollution; their marketing to kids; their involvement in Third World “accidents”; etc.
The application Buycott can help. This tool can be used to identify the parent company of products, and checks whether your purchase would support specific campaigns you sign on to, including animal welfare, civil rights, economic justice, and other issues.
Each month, stop supporting a corporate bad actor, and tell your friends about what you’re doing.
2. If you’re not willing to abandon a questionable brand (You may, for example just looove your iPhone—though I can personally attest to greater happiness post-iPhone), then be super-active. Be a role model for all of us. Start or sign a petition to end the brand’s corrupt practices. Speak up at the shareholder meeting. Ask a store manager about one issue…then another. Post stories like this on Facebook and Twitter. Most importantly, talk with others about what’s at stake and encourage them to act.
Author James Baldwin describes the most important thing we can do for others as opening the door to spiritual and social unease. Evoking such discomfort builds courage and integrity.
3. Stop being defined by your political party. Politicians apply labels (like “Democrat” or Republican”) and tell you to sign over your brain, wallet and vote. Nonsense.
The majority of Americans support significant measures to address climate change, gun safety, genetically modified food, and job creation programs. Yet, neither party is shepherding through significant legislation. Standing up to your party isn’t a betrayal. We need to encourage our leaders to use the bully pulpit to promote the public interest, especially since, if we had to do it ourselves, many of us would trip out of our heels in climbing to the podium. Make it clear to politicians that your next vote is the price they will have to pay for putting the interests of lobbyists ahead of your own.
4. Push institutions to make better choices. Few–particularly of the richest–Americans are associated with institutions they believe in a hundred-percent of the time. The energy companies, medical institutions, banks, consultancies, etc. who employ us often recommend and implement practices we know hurt the public. In addition, our schools, religious organizations, and retail stores can often do more to make things better. To use a Department of Homeland Security campaign slogan that can be applied (in a more helpful context) to practices that should be eliminated or improved: “If you see something, say something.”
With your perspective, you have an especially valuable role to play. Organize or attend a meeting and make your voice heard, even if you don’t have a position of leadership.
Champion divestments from unethical companies. Write a letter to the board. Ask simple questions about conflicts of interest that affect their clients and the world. (And accept thanks when less ethical competitors get buried under lawsuits.) Finally, consider an exit strategy, even it’s ten to fifteen years down the road.
Use alternative models. Push companies and institutions with which you’re associated to adopt economic models that promote employment opportunities and compensation levels that provide security and meet basic needs. Where possible, buy local and/or sustainable, engage in fair trade (on or off label), and grow or make products yourself.
5. Focus on what you can do. Sign and circulate petitions, if you can’t protest as often as you’d like. Measure and reduce your carbon footprint. Divest (and push to have your university’s endowment, your city, and your pension program divest also) from hedge-fund, private-equity, energy, Fortune 500, and banking companies that evade taxes or prey on clients. Compost. Pledge to make your next car purchase electric or hybrid. Most importantly, tell ten–or a hundred–friends about each step you take and what you plan to do. Credit yourself for pushing things to a tipping point.
6. Do it yourself, if you prefer. Don’t like the message, location, or thrust of a campaign? Perfect! The cause could use your initiative. Organize your own rally. Arrange your own clothing swap. Develop and share your own list of responsible, like-minded brands. Start your own campaign. Organize a fundraiser or a documentary screening. Teach about an issue. Develop a creative protest sign.
7. Be worthy of your heroes. Be known for your creativity, integrity and moral courage. You’ll find yourself in strong, if surprising, company.
Bring the full power of your personality and talents to your new ambition. Operate from the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, bringing creativity, morality, spontaneity, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts, and problem-solving to the issues around you. You will astound those who may be watching (including that cute person in the mirror).
Think broadly. Don’t count on just-in-time change. Make the let’s-push-for-workplace-flexibility-and-maternity-benefits-now-I’m-pregnant behavior the exception, not the rule. While the speed and power of movements cannot be underestimated, neither can the inertia that arises from our narrow outlook.
8. Make it a habit. Target a specific amount of time to new actions that embody your values. Spend perhaps one percent of your own (or your children’s) sports or TV time on protest–which is itself often an art exhibit, concert, and history lesson wrapped into one. Maybe devote five percent of that sports or TV time to spreading information advocating greater social justice. Commit to daily and monthly activities.
9. Stop looking for the parenting book. Where’s “Your Socially Responsible Child at Age __ “? In the trash. You don’t need a guidebook to discuss things with your kids, although bookstores with great material (like DC’s “Busboys and Poets”) exist. Show them “Climate Refugees,” “Revolutionary Optimists,” “Newsies,” “Supersize Me,” or a dozen other documentaries. Talk to them about how the Danes by themselves saved their Jews–or about the Underground Railroad, the fight for Indian independence, American muckrakers, or current inspirational leaders.
Have your teenager read “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” and discuss Frankie’s epiphany: “It is better to be alone…than to be with someone who can’t see who you are. Frankie realizes, too, that “it is better to lead than to follow,” as she dismisses her priorities of just a few months earlier. “It is better to speak up than stay silent. It is better to open doors than to shut them on people.”
Most importantly, tell your children about what you’re doing. Why do you buy, grow, or make what you do? Simplify, if necessary. A friend overseas tells her kids that a particularly popular brand of fast food is “not food.” Answer your children’s questions, even if they are some of the toughest you hear. Let the answers inform your actions. Honor their wishes: Join them in becoming vegetarians or in helping flood victims.
Involve your children in your own purpose-filled life. Baldwin wrote: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
10. Get inspired. Surround yourself with your heroes. Study the courageous, creative and effective leaders in your industry and the world. Some recent campaigns may impress you:
The #FBrape campaign placed the logos of Facebook advertisers over pictures of maimed women that were posted on their social network; in response, Facebook agreed to quickly take down any misogynistic photos in the future.
The #FitchTheHomeless campaign is trying to make the Abercombie brand (meant for “attractive all-American kids,” according to CEO Mike Jeffries) the new brand of the homeless. While it may be problematic, this creative campaign is the product of genius.
An ad that depicted both the CEO of H&M and an anguished Bangladeshi woman as fashion victims may have produced important social change. Though the ad was never run, some say it moved the largest Bangladeshi buyer of clothes to sign a landmark fire safety accord, and prompted other retailers to follow suit.
Turkish demonstrators sang Les Miserables as they prevented the destruction of a Turkish public park, and, around the world, citizens are protesting the rise in public transportation fares, the misallocation of public funds, economic austerity plans (which kill), and policies that accelerate climate change.
As the greatest (fictional) hero, Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo, once said: “Welcome back to the fight. This time, I know our side will win.”
There’s much more to say, but I’ll sign off. Your children need you.
With peace and justice for all.
Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.