“Learn I wasn’t crazy.”
This was the response from writer and activist Gloria Steinem when asked about the best thing she had gotten from the women’s movement. When I looked around the room at the panel attendees who had traveled from throughout the United States for Teach for America’s 20th anniversary conference, it was clear that her statement had resonated with several advocates and teachers in the room who clearly found comfort among like-minded people.
Though the panel was geared towards creating the momentum for educational reform in the United States, there were several observations and lessons of relevance for those of us working to advance health and human rights globally. Moderated by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, the session featured Steinem, U.S. Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis, and Janet Murguia, President and CEO of National Council of La Raza.
All of the panelists talked about the necessity of pushing multiple levers to create lasting change—which can often mean grassroots action, political and legal reform, and funding reform. Murguia used the example of the Brown v. Board of Education case, stating that while the historic decision ruled segregation unconstitutional, to make policy a reality in the schools, you “had to push another lever.” Steinem agreed, and said that change must come from the bottom up, not the top down. “Politicians need to bend with the wind,” said Steinem. “That’s democracy, and we are the wind.”
When Gladwell asked the panelists how they thought movements had changed in the years since their activism began, all referenced the power that storytelling and connections between movements can play. Given the agility of the internet, news can travel fast, alliances can more easily be made, and political will can build quickly. The linkages between movements- among young people of different backgrounds for example- can accelerate action and build political will quickly, said Lewis. “Look at what happened in Egypt,” said Lewis, “after only 18 days of making noise.”
However, Lewis also highlighted that all actions, no matter how small, could lead to real change, stating that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not have a website. “Four men took a seat at a lunch counter and [the civil rights movement] took off like wildfire,” said Lewis. “A movement can lead to a revolution.”