Throughout his term, Barack Obama had a call for the activists agitating for change. He recalled what Franklin Roosevelt told his activists pushing for their own reforms. FDR said, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Then-President Obama met with members of the Energy Action Committee who demanded he work to fight climate change. Shadia Fayne Wood remembers, “[Obama] told us it was our job to push the envelope and it’s his job to govern.” He told this group what he told many groups during his 8 years in power: “your job is to hold my feet to the fire.”
His quote stuck with me for so many years that I spent an hour this week trying to research it. You push. I’ll govern. Seems simple enough. There was always something in there that irritated me. Why? Why do I need to push so hard? Why can’t you push yourself?
His successor’s successor, Joe Biden, claimed he wanted to do just that. “I intend to be the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” 85 days later, he signed a bill ordering striking rail workers back to work with few of their demands met.
These kinds of arrangement strike me as a kind of gentlemen’s agreement. In my mind they go something like this. “I am an upstanding fellow. You are too. You can trust me because my word is bond. I won’t sell out your interests because I share them.” This doesn’t always turn out to be the case. People in power betray us when their interests align with ours only as a matter of convenience. Or when they think we’re on the same page but the meaning is different to them.
I’ll zoom back from national politics now. Many of my colleagues and I are often agitating for our own change from the systems we’re in. I’ve heard, more than once, that our reforms are too far for them to support. Worse, leaders may voice support for our ideas and then deliver a fraction of the change we need. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard, “I did everything I could,” from someone who has all the power and no stake in the outcome. They did everything they could. Do we think that’s true? What would we have done instead? What did they waste time on? What felt politically infeasible to them? What feels politically infeasible to you?
I expect more from people with power. I want everyone to have the autonomy over their lives that the rich and powerful have. For as long as we have power, we need to ask ourselves these questions.
are we doing enough?
Chris Talbot-Heindl makes comics about their nonprofit workplaces. They wrote one about their boss, a white woman who gatekeeps the changes they need to thrive. Their boss says she means well, but she also says things that show otherwise. “You just have to trust me. They [their coworkers] aren’t ready for this level yet. […] You just have to be patient and go slower.” She may want change, she may even know it’s necessary. But she never lets go of the power she has over the change itself.
Think about the people we’re protecting when we resist change. Are those people the ones satisfied with the way things are right now? Or are they pushing for change because they’re experiencing material harm? When they tell us it’s causing them harm, do we even believe them?
why do we get to decide?
People who hold power get to make decisions about all sorts of things. The activists that want change to happen have to convince them that it’s the right thing to do. Why do we have that power? We may feel some responsibility to the system that gave us that power. If we defy the system, we may even lose some or all of our power. When people are suffering, isn’t that worth it? Isn’t it worth it to even try?
We can remove ourselves from the decision. There are many ways to do this. The advice process lands a decision square in the laps of the people most affected by it. For people in a traditional hierarchy, we can widen our circle of decision-makers. We can rescind our veto power in favor of actually collaborating with the people who push for change. More than anything, we can trust people! Ask questions—not to poke holes—but to learn something.
what might we have missed?
Where do we get our ideas? Why do we think they’re the right ones? Who are we learning from that hold contrary views? Don’t look at the right-wing or the fascists for ideas. They want to suppress parts of humanity to the point of extinction. And: if you’re a person in power, especially a white person, your views may already be closer to theirs than you think.
Instead, we should look to people who want greater access for all. We want activists who push for change that benefits people most injured by how things are set up now. While we’re there, we should truly listen and learn. Think to yourself: why is this so important to them? Is this that important to you? Why or why not?
agree to disagree
Gentlemen, and their agreements, have been around for a long time. They don’t really do much for the rest of us, and they can’t represent us all. Fire, too, only works if people care about whether their feet are near it. Instead, keep in mind: if they were our feet, we wouldn’t need fire.