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Every One of Us Can Do Something

While no one can do everything, everyone must do something.

My husband Adam’s great-grandfather owned a chocolate factory in Germany in the early 20th century. He travelled frequently, and gained a sophisticated perspective on what was happening in his own country. He came to believe that it wasn’t normal and that it was not safe for him, his wife and his child, who were Jewish. They escaped to Argentina, where Adam’s grandmother and mother grew up. Most of the rest of their family did not survive World War II.

A man holding a sign at a rally reading We are all one justice movement

Adam’s family history has always made him feel responsible to have an awareness of injustice, prejudice, and violence in the world. It has spurred him to humanitarian action as a doctor. One of his favorite quotes, by Dostoevsky, is engraved in the entry hall of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva:

Everyone is responsible to everyone for everything.

I’ve thought about this quote a lot post-election, when people of good faith are concerned about our country’s future, and about the most vulnerable people among us. Yet, the scope and scale of what lies ahead can feel overwhelming. How much activism is enough? How much should we give? What can we possibly do that is useful?

It is easy – and understandable – to feel powerless right now. But we do have power, and we’re obliged to resist. We can rest and restore when we need to – but we cannot retreat. To use another favorite quote of Adam’s, this time by Rabbi Tarfon:

It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.

While no one can do everything, everyone must do something. What is your “something? It helps to look at the tools we have at hand: elections; courts and the law; direct action; persuasion; and philanthropy.

Elections matter, and there are elections in our immediate future – mid-term congressional elections, state level elections, and local elections – that will make a difference in our lives. Making our voices heard by voting and communicating with our elected officials is key to our democracy. There are ballot questions that will demand our attention, such as the attempt to repeal the hard-won Massachusetts transgender public accommodations bill in 2018.

Courts have tremendous power to protect us and advance our rights, especially when legislatures are failing. Congress may be unlikely to pass the Equality Act, but we can continue to make progress in federal court – and in many state courts. Who sits on our courts matters, and we cannot stand by silently as they are packed with judges who do not interpret our laws and our Constitution to extend equal justice for all.

There is a direct action through line from the suffragists chaining themselves to the White House fence, to Selma, ACT UP, and Black Lives Matter. Direct action can show those targeted they are not alone, as well as push our allies to do the right thing when there are competing forces.

None of these tools are effective without public persuasion. It is only when we do the hard work of having face-to-face, nonjudgmental, empathetic conversations with reasonable people who disagree, that we help perfect our society.

Finally, philanthropy is the fuel that allows non-profit organizations like GLAD to run at full speed. Adam and I recently reached our goal of giving 10% of our income to organizations whose missions and work we support, inspired by the Jewish concept of tithing. It wasn’t easy, it took some time, and it was a priority. These times call on all of us to determine what we are able to give to support the many organizations on the front lines in the fight ahead.

We can’t do everything, but every one of us can do something. This is the way we take care of each other, and guard our future.

Choose your something.