To Act Without Knowing

(image via Hans Braxmeier)

(image via Hans Braxmeier)

In the late 70’s, as a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, I was part of a small group of individuals who were protesting the current South African government. Our intention was to get the board of the college to divest it’s stock from all companies engaged in business practices in that country. Our thought was, put public pressure to bear through industry, and begin to create a larger movement of collegiate awareness. At that point Hampshire was only six years old, a wonderful collective idea born from the minds of local educators wanting to create a different kind of college experience. The board was keeping the place running with almost no endowment or reserves, dedicated but underpaid faculty and a very small but enthusiastic student body—in short rubber bands and duct tape.

Managing some very precious and limited funds, the board was largely unmoved by our enthusiasm. As part of our strategic response, and borrowing from lessons learned in the 1960’s, we “took over” the administration building, holding a multi-day sit-in. With guitars strumming, students barring the doors and home made protest signs hanging from the windows, we vowed to stay until we saw action. We got a commitment to begin serious dialogue.

In 1979, through courageous vision, hard discussion and probably some less than wanted national publicity, the board did in fact do just what the students wanted. Hampshire became the first college in the United States to divest its portfolio of all businesses operating in South Africa. Though a tiny institutional amount it set off a wave of similar action throughout the country. Historical record shows that in 1994, South Africa opened its polls to a fully representative democratic election and as a consequence Nelson Mandela became president.

At the time did I think there was a connection? Of course not! It would be a huge act of hubris to even consider the idea. It was, and for 29 years remained, a distant memory and occasional eye-rolling story told to my kids.

But on November 30, 2008 my wife and I attended a concert in Boston of the Soweto Gospel Choir, South Africa’s premier gospel chorus. At the end of the concert their spokesperson asked us to stand for the South African national anthem. At its conclusion, she preceded to say something that caught my attention. She solemnly began. “I want to personally thank the people of Massachusetts,” she announced. “It was here that the collegiate divestment strategy was born. It ended up creating a movement that helped change our country forever.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I turned to me wife, and said, “Oh my God. She’s talking about Hampshire! That was me!” My wife patted my leg, and sweetly smiled. It remains one of my proudest moments.

We never know, do we, what a small and passionate act will set in motion? It may take years, decades in fact, to become reality. Great dreams can rarely be judged in the moment. The changes that occur, especially those of large injustice, often take significant time to be felt. Many times this change can happen without us even being aware. Yet this begs a very important question; are you willing to act, even if your work never knowingly makes a difference?

It is one of our most profound cultural myths--that our problems are too big, and the issues too large, for each of us to have impact. That somehow we don’t really count. Guidance to this battle comes from the Jewish phrase "tikkun olam", which means, “To repair the world”. The belief is that at some point, the very fabric of the universe was ripped into many pieces, but if each of us takes one small section and does our part, we can over time repair the whole. We may never know what the sewing of our section does, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we begin.