It started with a conversation about Walmart. My mom witnessed this “poor teenaged girl” (interesting how her presumed vulnerability is used to invoke sympathy) waiting on line for over an hour, trying to return an ipod she had just bought yesterday. She was just waiting while two managers were on the phone with their superior because the system apparently would not accept the item back. We were at the dinner table, and my family was quick to jump on the cynicism bandwagon: “I saw a documentary that Walmart is evil; they probably programmed the system to not take it back, so she’ll give up and they’ll have her money.” The documentary soon launched a conversation about workers’ rights and exploitation – during which my sister wisely left the table, as ever. I think I surprised them all by not jumping right in to take jabs at Corporate America and “The Man”, or whatever they think I rage about. I really wanted to hear their process.
Anyway, I’m not here to talk about Walmart – we could argue in circles all day about the pros vs cons of big business. (For specific information though you can look up Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch vs. Working Families for Wal-Mart). My parents came to their own conclusion that it was “terrible that the company treats its workers so poorly” and that it “crowds out competition so people have no choice but to go there”. Having chosen to voice strong opinions, this makes the comments that follow discouraging to me:
Me: So why don’t you just not shop there?
Her: I know people shouldn’t shop there, but there’s no point if you’re the only one doing it. It doesn’t do anything and you just lose out.
Him: Why would I travel farther to also pay more money for something, especially if nobody else is?
My answer: because it starts with you. And honestly, where better? I don’t care what issue we’re talking about – if you want to take action, you don’t need to wait around for other people to be doing it. Movements would never get started. A little initiative goes a long way.
Occasionally I’m wandering through the hall of one of my campus’s academic buildings and see an empty room with a light on; I’ll walk in and turn it off. It’s not that that one light will make a difference (I mean, yes, a lot of little actions add up) but it’s about setting a standard for myself. It’s about living my values – and who knows, maybe also setting an example for attentive passers-by. There are no inherent limitations on how far ONE action will take you. Whether it’s stopping hateful or violent language, lobbying for animal rights, or decorating your car like this – you’re setting an example for yourself and for others. We tend to idolize people who have historically undermined the status quo to do what they knew was right. We may learn about them in school, or hear about them through stories, or see their name memorialized in a public place. I believe EVERYONE has the potential to be that movement-starter, that justice crusader, that one jenga block that topples the whole tower because enough of the other blocks are supported by it. It comes down to agency – your capacity to act. Your willingness to act.
One person can make a difference. In this case, there is a movement – some people just don’t choose to be a part of it. But don’t think of it like you’re not choosing to act; think of it like you’re choosing not to act. I wish I had jumped in and said, “Mom, there IS a movement. You’re just choosing to not be a part of it.” But they know that; they know because I’m part of it. Whatever it is, maybe the courage (or fed up-ness) that others read into my small actions will inspire them to do the same. A lot of small actions can add up!
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral” – Paulo Freire.