Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to email@example.com.
Like many concerned American parents, I’ve had “the talk” with my kids about what happened last week. (At least now that other talk parents must deal with has dropped to the second-toughest assignment.) I won’t hold you up with an account of what we said, or how it went, because you can read plenty of stories that pretty well capture the content sweep of good conversations here, here, here, or here. There’s enough out there already, and I’ve even weighed in on the orange menace myself, shortly before the election.
What I will do, though, is tell you this: I’m sick of talking.
Those who know me would doubtless say that this statement is a bit hard to believe. I’m a law professor and a columnist: All I do is talk, and write. And as you might have noticed, I’m writing even now.
But if the unspeakable results of last week’s election should have told us anything, it’s that talking isn’t enough. My mind keeps going back to Anderson Cooper’s nightly CNN panel, metastasizing in the months leading up to the election into an eight-headed hydra bloviating endlessly about the polls, the scandals, the imagery, the strategy (anything but policy!), and so on. Has so much carbon dioxide ever been spewed in the service of so little substance? I’m reminded of the casual brilliance of the Staple Singers, who decades ago floated a simple strategy for a healthier environment: “Put your hand over your mouth when you cough—that’ll help the solution.”
At some point, who cares what any of us say? A conversation about how important it is to protect those in more vulnerable positions than our family’s now sounds to me as a kind of self-congratulation. Easy, but of limited value, like the well-intentioned safety pin that’s now the fashion accessory de rigueur. Worse, talking without doing sends exactly the wrong signal, given the stakes—especially to our kids.
So, at the end of my talk, I discussed with them the importance of activism. And that’s what we need to do: Not just explain things to our children, but shepherd them toward a life of activism. Since we live in Philadelphia—where more than a quarter of the residents live in poverty, and homelessness is a constant—a couple of obvious acts of practical kindness occurred to our girls.
“If we’re going to be walking around later today, why don’t we bring some water bottles to give to homeless people?”
“Don’t we have clothes we can give away? We never even wear some of them?”
This kind of buy-in makes it easier to get them interested in next steps. Our family is already invested in what will soon be a community-wide commitment to activism. We are meeting this week with like-minded neighbors to discuss what we can do. On the agenda is the identification of issues and potential partners, and beginning to think about what actions we might want to take. My children will be attending this all-ages event, which has as one early goal: getting kids to understand and commit to social and economic justice from an early age.
This inspiration for this nascent collective was formed in the brain of a millennial neighbor, who is the program coordinator for Al-Bustan, an organization that, per its website, is “dedicated to presenting and teaching Arab culture through the arts and language.” We developed our initial plan together, through Facebook and follow-up emails to every local we could think of who might be interested, and the idea for a meeting of neighborhood friends—who, until now, have mostly gotten together to drink, or, as in this case, to complain about current events that don’t go our way—soon blossomed into this more comprehensive plan.
Tough issues will need to be hammered out, and at this point it’s not even clear to me what kinds of ideas and initiatives might emerge. To start, some of us might want to get involved in local politics, which can stand piles of improvement in the city. The entrenched Democratic leadership has gotten entirely too complacent, and the party machine is about to grind to a halt. Maybe some of us can help provide a jolt.
Boring down to the most local level, our Powelton Village community, a formerly motley polyglot of quasi-hippies that’s now gelled into a harder-to-define assortment of professionals, artists and artisans, and academics, will need to discuss how we can join forces with Mantua, the predominantly African-American neighborhood to our immediate north. It won’t be easy, because there are grievances and tensions between the two communities that go back a long way. We might also want to involve local Drexel University, which lately has been a robust partner to both communities.
This commitment to activism, whatever form it takes, is going to present challenges to my family. Most of what my kids like, and what feels the most useful to them (at age 12) are actions that have an immediate, observable effect. My few skills really are centered around writing and speaking, with organizing a distant third. So I’ll doubtless find myself doing things with my daughters that aren’t the most effective use of my limited time and skills.
Yet there will be some things that we can do as a family. We can register voters, going door-to-door. We can do mailings. Most important, we can listen and learn from each other, and from the community we’re a part of.
The quest to understand what went wrong last Tuesday will continue, and it’s important to get all the facts and analysis we can. But in the end, what can really make a difference is organizing for social change
This won’t be easy. I’ll confess that right now I’m having trouble moving through the despair. I was struck by an artist’s rendering of her deepest fear in a visual op-ed that ran in this past Sunday’s New York Times. Cynthia Kittler’s work depicted a head, stony and scarred, lying on a bed and staring at the ceiling. The caption read: “I might become a passive stone that escapes in thinking instead of taking action.” Those protesters flooding city streets throughout the country over the last week are doing more good than they might realize, because they are helping folks come to an important conclusion: It’s time to get out of that bed and do something. “Joy’s soul lies in the doing,” after all.