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Carol Ruth Silver: Embracing the Responsibility to Make Things Right
Awakin.org -- Awakin Calls – Carol Ruth Silver –
Embracing the Responsibility to Make Things Right
Birju - Welcome to this week’s Awakening Call. I am the host for this call, and thank you for joining. The purpose of these calls is about service and to share stories. These stories are about planting seeds for a more compassionate society while also fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with a variety of guest speakers from all walks of life, people who inspire us, people who through their actions seem to live in a more service orientated way. And behind each of these calls are entire teams of ServiceSpace volunteers all of whom have done a bunch of invisible work that is going on to hold this space.
Today our speaker is Carol Ruth Silver and she is someone that really speaks to today’s theme of embracing the responsibility to make things right.
Let’s hold a minute of silence to set our intention for the next 90 minutes.
Today’s theme is about embracing the responsibility to make things right. This concept has a lot of nuances and I am sure I understand only the tip of the iceberg but to me it has such interesting thought process, between the idea of service and doing work in the world whether it’s civil rights or social activism, and the idea of doing things for the purpose of involving one’s self, the idea of inner change of being and doing.
Since we have the pleasure of our remarkable moderator Preeta Bansal today I thought we could ask the question to her to kick the call off today, on what is her take on embracing the responsibility between being and doing. I understand you may have been grappling with this question for some time now whether it’s been as a senior executive at a large bank or through your work as an administrator at one of the recent presidential organizations.
Preeta – Thank you Birju, and good day to everyone. I am very excited to have this call with Carol as she has been such a strong contributor to so many causes and her life experiences resonate and really touch and inspire me. They touch on many things in my own career that I have grappled with. I have also been very active in the world, both in social justice causes as well as through more traditional mainstream institutions like government. I have been thinking a lot about at what point do you act in the world, and at what point does your action actually lead to unintended harm. I tell people I have spent the first half of my life building up experiences in the world, creating action in the world, creating ripples through my external acts, and have gotten to the point in my life where I feel like maybe I should be mindful of the Hippocratic oath which is: first, do no harm. I am really thinking about the ways in which our actions can have unintended consequences and the need to be more mindful and setting up a framework and set of personal tools by which one can distinguish when one should act and when one should not. So I am fascinated to have this conversation with Carol and to probe some of these themes.
Birju - Thanks so much. I would now love to turn the call over to you, and perhaps first you could introduce our speaker.
Preeta - We are honored to have Carol Ruth Silver with us today. Carol has been really at the forefront of so many social justice movements, and has had a long career of action and activism.
In 1961 as a 22 year old college graduate she traveled to Mississippi in the American South to protest against racial segregation. She was one of the first white female Freedom Riders and was arrested in Jackson Mississippi during a non-violent protest, protesting against segregation. She spent 40 days in jail including in a maximum security prison, and journaled her experiences on secret scraps of paper that she found, including toilet paper and scraps of envelopes. She waited 50 years before publishing this, and her account recently came out as a book, Freedom Rider Diary, subtitled: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison. So she started off with an early focus on social activism, with a lot of work with civil rights.
Carol went on to become a civil rights lawyer and was a poverty lawyer for a number of years, including with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). Then she came to San Francisco and embarked on a political career where she was elected to 3 terms on the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco. She was elected at a pivotal time in the history of SF, and in the first year of her first term, she endured the assassination of the Mayor and of fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk. Later it became known that she was an additional target of the assassin. She escaped being shot that day only because she was late to City Hall, because she elected to have a second cup of coffee with a constituent.
She has been involved in a number of causes since then including the founding of a Mandarin Chinese immersion elementary school -- she is the adopted mother of a Taiwanese boy, which led her on this path. She has also been involved in a number of the schools at the City of 10,000 Buddhas in Mendocino County, California, and recently was appointed as a Member of the Board of Trustees at the Dharma Realm Buddhist University (DRBU). She is involved with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program that gives computers to children in developing countries, and is the co-founder of a Montessori inspired early childhood education program in Afghanistan. So many things -- and on top of this she is a mother, grandmother and has done just an incredible amount of work as a civil litigation lawyer and in other causes on the social justice scene.
Carol - Thank you so much. Let me respond to this glowing biography: I am grateful when I listen to you, when you catalog my life. I think, gee did I really do all those things? And when did I ever have time to do those things and at the same time to live a relatively normal middle class life in San Francisco? Still today I sweep the sidewalk when it is sweeping day and I put the garbage out and do all those necessary things, and have done them for all the decades I have lived here.
I have also reflected on this title, Embracing the responsibility to make things right. This is not the title that I gave to my bio essay when I was asked for it, but thank you, Preeta, because it is a really deep question.
My thought, reflecting on this title, after I made a list of what I had done over these years, was to think that it all runs back to Tikkun Olam. This is the Hebrew language statement of the commandment, commanded by the Force of the Universe (sometimes known as God), to make whatever is not right into what is right.
And this commandment, this obligation, is for me universal, regardless if it is just straightening up a line of chairs for a meeting where they are supposed to be straight, or walking on the beach, seeing plastic bags then picking them up and putting them in another bag to take them away and clean up that beach. It is seeing injustice in one shape or another and saying, YES I can do something about that, and I should, and because I can, I will. Such is my version of the obligation of Tikkun Olam, this injunction that I think I have lived by, or at least tried to. Make it right. Do something. Whatever is in your capabilities.
I harken back to the Freedom Rides. That experience began when I was in New York City on a city bus, going home from my job at the United Nations. I was in what we today would call my gap year from college, before going on to law school.
(I ended up in that job after arriving in NYC and thinking, what is the job I most want to work at? So I went to the personnel office at the United Nations headquarters and I asked for a job. Even though I was a college graduate from a prestigious university, my pitch was, I can type, I can serve food, I can wash dishes - whatever you have I am willing to do. I wound up with a job as the clerk typist to Madam Perrier, the French head of the UN Meetings and Promotions Board. I have to admit that the work was uninteresting, as I was simply typing out these long personnel reports, original with multiple carbon copies. Being at the UN Headquarters, however, only fifteen years after the founding of the UN, I got to go to observe a whole variety of fascinating meetings, including a famous meeting of the UN General Assembly where the head of the Russian government, Nikita Khrushchev, took off his shoe and was banging on the desk in protest against something.)
So there I was in NYC on the bus, going home at the end of the day in May of 1961. Just a couple of days previously on May 14th 1961, a group of Freedom Riders had been in an interstate bus, ticketed from Atlanta to New Orleans, and they were almost murdered in Anniston, Alabama. It is a town that has no significance other than this: it is just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and it is where the Greyhound bus groaned to a stop, having had its tires slashed by racist KKK operatives in Birmingham. The bad guys followed the bus from Birmingham. They broke out a window of the stalled bus, and threw in an explosive which started a fire inside the bus. Then they tried to keep the people on the burning bus from exiting by holding the doors closed. The Freedom Riders did manage to get out, where they were attacked and beaten. It was clearly attempted murder. This was the news next day and for days after that was in the headlines of the NY Times and across the country, and everyone was talking about this.
As I was riding on my bus home in New York, a radio was playing and I heard James Farmer, an African American preacher and official of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Jim Farmer’s voice was low and impressive and he basically said, whoever you are, we need you to come to be a Freedom Rider, to challenge this evil of racial segregation in the USA. And, he said, YOU have got to do this. I looked to my left and I looked to my right, and I said, Who is he talking to? And at that moment I had this epiphany, and I realized he was talking to me. So from that moment I knew I was going to join the Freedom Rides, and I was going to do whatever needed to be done. This was the beginning of my life as an activist and as a Freedom Rider. And once you are a Freedom Rider, you’re always a Freedom Rider. So this was the beginning.
Preeta – Thanks, that’s really interesting. You started with Tikkun Olam, the Jewish imperative to repair and heal the world. There are many ways one could think about an imperative like that -- one is to repair the conditions you see that are not right, for example the line of chairs you mentioned. There are things inside yourself that you could feel are out of alignment and need fixing. Or one could travel thousands of miles to a community in the South based on some radio report and try to fix that or, in the modern day and age, fly thousands of miles around the world to Afghanistan and try to fix that. I guess the question I have is how do you think about that, where do you start and how do you figure out what needs fixing.
Carol - I think that perhaps it is just part of my world belief, which is -- contrary to what Albert Einstein said: as he looked at the complexity, beauty and precision of the world, he said, how can there not be a God who has planned and made all things? And I take the opposite view, that is, it seems to me all is random. And the randomness of whether I am going to be talking today on this conference call, because I happened to run into someone else who was giving a speech I enjoyed so I went up after and said that was great, whereupon he suggested I should do one of these conference calls -- or whether I may have on that day felt hungry so I went to a cafeteria where I may have met someone else.
I think there is in all of our lives a randomness about what opportunities or what things we could do every minute of every day and the question you are asking is, among all those minor and major injustices that we are presented with day after day, where do we stop or why do we stop, at this one or the other? In a city like SF where I live, where there are significant homeless and poverty issues, just like in Delhi, India, where I went and said I will never go back there because it was so overwhelming, the poverty and the misery seemed to be so overwhelming -- so sometimes I stop to give money or offer help, and sometimes I do not, and it is difficult to know when I do and when I don't and why I do and why I don't. I think perhaps it is a sense of opportunity, or a sense about my capability -- if by stopping, will I be an enabler to change the situation long term? Or not?
If I think there is something I can do, then I feel the obligation to do it. If I see a child about to cross a road and there is no parent or adult in sight I would sprint to intercept the child-- but I do not know sometimes if perhaps I am doing something wrong -- you raised that, Preeta, as a possibility -- that by making an intervention one is doing bad instead of doing good, for example if the child was being called out of danger across the road by a parent.
I cannot say in my experience that I have regrets like that. I was thinking about this when you raised the point but I do not think I have done wrongs through trying to do good, although I may be deceiving myself. I think most people believe they are doing the right thing. I mean George W. Bush must have thought he was doing the right thing when he said to invade Iraq. I cannot believe that he said to himself, I am going to do a Bad Thing, that I am going to cause a whole bunch of people to get killed needlessly, and I am going to become the worst US President ever, but then he went ahead and did it. No, I don’t think he thought that.
Preeta – That is what I was trying to get at, not so much about regret or are we doing harm. I suspect the chain of causation is that every action has both possible good and possible bad effects, but the intentions of people trying to help others are usually good. I think the real question is how do you determine what is right, when talking about examples such as One Laptop Per Child or girl’s education in Afghanistan, you know. How do we make the determination of what is right and is there a risk of imposing our own views about what is right?
Carol - I think this is an important issue. Girls’ education in Afghanistan is a good example. I have yet to meet a girl in Afghanistan who does not want education, but there is no question that some girls who ask for education and receive it are going to be the ones who wind up getting killed in honor killings. They, or some small fraction of them, seem to express a certain level of independence that gets them into trouble in their very repressive society, so we who are there with what we think is an advantage for them, by our standards, may very well be giving them something that will get them in trouble.
Preeta - I wanted to bring it back a little to the personal. You talked about riding on the bus in NYC hearing the radio asking for Freedom Riders and you knew right then he was speaking to you. I am wondering if you can describe this a little more. Why do you think it spoke to you so deeply?
Carol - I think the word epiphany is almost self-defining because it means that something hits you like a lightning bolt from nowhere. It’s not something where you study and come to a conclusion or resolution. It is just knowing through your heart and soul that this is it. Edna, my Episcopalian roommate from college would say, knowing that God has marked a path for you, that you have been chosen. Harking back to the Jewish & Christian biblical times, when Moses was introduced to God in the form of a burning bush, he knew at that moment that he was being addressed by the Force of the Universe, and he could not say no. I was on my little bus in NYC. I just knew I could not say no. I was there and it was my job and my responsibility to do this. I did not really question where this epiphany had come from.
Preeta - It is beautiful to have those moments of clarity.
Carol – Yes, that is a good way of saying it. Other times before and since I have experienced things but not as strongly. Not ever as seemingly risky as getting on a bus with a bunch of both white and African American young people, to go and travel into an area that was to me completely unknown. I had never been south of Washington DC. It was like going into an unknown country where the only thing I knew about it was a bunch of white people had tried to kill a bunch of Freedom Riders a week before, and that whatever I was doing I was putting my life on the line for it.
When we got to Atlanta and then Nashville we were given training in non-violence. The extent of our danger and commitment was brought home to us when they said, the last thing you have to do is make out your will, and you have to write a last and final letter to your family in case you get killed on this endeavor. We were told to write it as if we were saying goodbye for the last time. I think that was perhaps the most difficult part of the experience up to that point.
When I decided I was going to be a Freedom Rider, I had called my mom who was in Los Angeles at the time. This was before modern ease of communications, and a long distance call was a big deal, so when I called she already knew or guessed what it was about. It was very difficult. My mom tried to persuade me not to go. She cried and was very upset. But ultimately she acknowledged that I was exercising in my decision to go the moral code that she had imparted to me as a child, and that there was nothing she could say at this point that could dissuade me.
Preeta - You had this tremendous experience as a Freedom Rider, as a civil rights lawyer and poverty lawyer, and there is a lot we can talk about with each of those episodes but I would like to shift to your time in SF, after having been an activist and being on the protest side of things you then decided to embark on a political career. I am curious as to how you came to the conclusion that change within the system was something you wanted to work towards and what your experience was.
Carol – Well, before I entered politics, I was always an outsider, carrying picket signs, doing protests. When I was a Freedom Rider and during my work as a civil rights lawyer, I always sensed that if we could get control of the government levers that belonged to all of us, to all the people, things could change. I was very into the democratic process as written in the Federalist Papers and by Thomas Jefferson’s writings and by the history of the USA as it emerged from colonial times to independence as a democratic nation. With all its faults and failings it has continued to this day to represent a re-awakening of democracy after many centuries. As I looked at that I said to myself, that if I could make the government which has such huge power conform to my idea of what’s right, how much more effective this would be! And so I looked at the various political opportunities.
When I was in college I was elected to the student government at the University of Chicago. I became a member of the SRP (Student Representative Party). We were the more left wing and somewhat radical group. We wanted the University to admit more African Americans and not to continue buying up and gentrifying the University's area in Chicago, where many African Americans were living in run down but cheap housing. So these issues had already come up for me and I saw being in government as a way of dealing with them.
I never, when I was a young activist and even a young lawyer, I never expected that I would possibly be an elected representative, because I felt that I was an outsider trying to make things better in ways that the vast majority of people did not appreciate. But when I got to San Francisco, I said WOW! I felt I had found a whole community of kindred thinkers. I was no longer alone, no longer the fringe. I became part of a whole group of different efforts to make things better in SF on local issues, one of which was District Elections of Supervisors. The effect of this was to make the democratic process in San Francisco more democratic. District Elections divided the city into districts or sections so that each district could elect one representative to the Board of Supervisors which governed San Francisco.
Overall the city of San Francisco was probably 55-65% white and of those the vast majority were Irish or Italian, the old school immigrants who had come and prospered and whose children had prospered and remained. But there were also a lot of African Americans, who lived in 2 separate residential areas, and another group, of Chinese heritage, living in another area. Then there were other groups including Hispanics and a gay group who had their own residential areas. There was a rumbling particularly by the gays and lesbians that they were being discriminated against and ignored by City Hall. This concept of District Elections was what we saw, Harvey Milk and I and others saw, as a remedy for this kind of discrimination. Because if we divided the City into eleven separate Supervisorial districts, the majority of the people in at least one of the districts would be African American, and the majority in another would be gay, another Chinese, and so forth. We felt this was a good remedy for the powerlessness these minority communities had experienced.
We succeeded in passing District Election of Supervisors, and Harvey Milk was elected in the gay district. He was the first out-of-the-closet gay elected official in America, so far as we were aware. I was elected in the area just south of his, called the Inner Mission. A Chinese lawyer was elected from the Chinese district, and two African Americans were elected. We were all blown away with the fact that we had essentially taken over the government of SF. Six out of 11 of the Supervisors were female. To have a female majority caused more comment in the national press than even the fact of an out-front gay representative.
It was an exciting time, in which I saw this opportunity and I took it. It gave me a chance to exercise the levers of power on behalf of the communities that I felt previously had not had that power. We, the progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors, did a whole bunch of things:
We passed anti-discrimination in employment legislation, to protect African-Americans and other racial minorities, and for the first time in the country, to protect gays and lesbians.
We legislated to stop the police (or tried to stop the police, to the extent that they would respond to their elected bosses), from arresting gay men for non-violent, consensual, sexual activity. (The police used to have a whole team of police who did nothing else other than watch through the windows of park restrooms to see if they could catch any gay guys together.)
We applied for and brought in a lot of special grants that were allocated to assist in bringing new affordable housing into SF for poorer people. We passed rent control laws. We passed a law to reduce the conversion of moderate and low income apartments into condominium apartments, which had the effect of protecting a lot of lower income people. We supported public transportation. We supported women being enrolled in the police and fire departments.
It was a very heady time and a very exciting time as we saw the city becoming more open and available to people who had previously not had much of a voice. I cannot say that these were lasting solutions but every day I got into my office I was solving problems for people and I was doing things that I thought would be good for the city and its people -- and I was happy.
Preeta - Awesome. During your extraordinary career and the times you lived in, how have you nourished yourself, how have you kept yourself from being depleted, fresh and energetic?
Carol - That is a hard question. You and I discussed this off line -- whether I do meditation or something like that. I have never been able to set aside time like that, and to say, now I am going to rest, relax, nourish myself. I actually hark back to years ago when I was a lawyer with the legal services program in Berkley CA. I decided I needed to get exercise. I was not getting any exercise and I needed a personal trainer, but in those days that category of professional job had not yet been invented. So I tried a number of different things and I ended up doing Japanese Shotokan style Karate. I had met a sensei who had trained in Japan, who had a small school nearby, and he agreed to come to my home and become my Karate teacher. I was the Director of a legal program called Berkeley Neighborhood Legal Services. There were six lawyers who reported to me, and 3 or 4 of them decided they also would take the class from the teacher, the sensei, John Egan. John would have us start our lesson by running around the block as fast as we could. We would get back panting and exhausted, and he would immediately start us on a 90 minute hard style exercise with no padding, of blocking, punching, kicking and stylized battle stances and fighting. This was hard exercise and when we ended, we were falling on the floor with exhaustion. At that point he would say, and now we going to do yoga. This was my first introduction to yoga. It was not yet popular in those days. So we would sit in various yoga poses until the sensei allowed us to rest. The whole session would last 3 hours, maybe twice a week. I said to John what do you call this program you have put us on, heavy exercise, violent fighting and yoga? And he said, it is meditation through violence (laughs).
Preeta - My last question from me for now is as you look at the world now given your amazing life so far and you think of the Jewish law imperative what do you think needs fixing? If you were 22 right now, what would you set out to fix?
Carol - I think the issue for my generation was fixing the relationships between races, in particular in America but around the world, and I think my generation did a good job at working at it. Of course the problem is not completely fixed but there is a lot less blind acceptance of racism today than there was years ago. And there is another Jewish saying to live by: It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.
I think the issue for today’s young people has got to be climate change and preserving, as the Pope has said recently, preserving the earth that we have received from the Creator of the universe. We had better get busy saving it and keeping it for future generations or we will lose it. SO – preventing climate change and creating sustainability are the watchwords for the next generation.
Birju - Thanks so much. I am moved by your life journey, and we are opening up for questions from the phone now. I would like to start by asking a question myself.
I am curious after listening to this wonderful journey that has been your life, and I resonate with where you’re coming from, that so much has been done to start on the path in the right direction, and the next generation’s job is to build on this. But I am curious: if we flip that lens around from putting the camera outwards into the world and saying here is how the world is different, I am curious if we put that camera on you, and if you were to reflect how you have changed from your own service journey, how has your perspective shifted? So -- How would you say you’re a different person because you had the opportunity to work on these things?
Carol - I would say I am more tolerant than I used to be. I used to say I do not want to suffer fools lightly but I am more tolerant of people who do not understand their own interests in sustainability, in everything from solar energy to just sorting the garbage into recyclables, compost and landfill. (San Francisco has a garbage company which is worker owned, and which has announced that they are aiming for waste zero -- this means that everything that people living here touch or use has to be disposed of in a responsible way. I am really into that, and sometimes I get myself into trouble when I see somebody throwing a piece of plastic that should be in a recyclables bin onto the street. I have in the past asserted myself and said hey you cannot do that, and sometimes I can get into trouble. But I have become more patient and more carefully in choosing my fights. I certainly am very committed to waste zero but I am willing to say that there are some people that have not yet got the memo.)
Birju - The idea of tolerance whether for ignorance or just differing viewpoints to me is a really powerful idea to grow from. We will start with some of the on-line posted questions and start with one from Paula from SF, who asks: when you get criticized for the color of your skin and being a Freedom Rider and being asked to speak and there is opposition to you being a speaker how do you deal with the kind of criticism that comes your way given you have been this lightening rod throughout your career.
Carol - This is a serious issue for those of us who were not black but took up the cause of black people, those of us who were not Hispanic but took up the cause of Hispanic farm workers in the central valley of California where I worked as a civil rights lawyer exactly 50 years ago. (I started the Delano / McFarland office of Californian Rural Legal Assistance, to provide legal services to Hispanic farmworkers who lived there, who had never had the benefit of any kind of legal representation. At that time there was no sense of it being inappropriate for a white female lawyer to offer her assistance. Certainly the people I represented, the Hispanic women who were being abused by their Hispanic husbands including Dolores Huerta, who was a very famous woman involved in the Farmworkers Union at that time, they were not upset.) But later the professionals who became young Hispanic or black lawyers because of the work I and others had done, started to say in essence, "Hey, you should move over and let us do this work, have these jobs, and we will not even acknowledge your work in the future because you’re not Hispanic or black.” And that kind of reverse racism is very prevalent in some of those communities, and I thank Paula for acknowledging it with her question. But what to do about it? I think you just have to take the high road and say, I do not need to deal with that. Just ignore it, and let them come to a conclusion later in their lives as to what the righteous position is.
Birju - The next question in the queue: So I understand the need to make things right but perhaps you can talk about how you define right which can be dangerous when someone is trying to impose what he or she thinks is right but may or may or not be right, like you were talking about with George Bush for instance or others like we have seen in history.
Carol - Well that is the ultimate question, what is right? And I guess I have confidence in the traditions of my background, the Judean, Christian and Buddhist traditions which say that what is right is what is fair, what is just, what is equal for all people. To go back to Thomas Jefferson, I don’t have the quote in front of me, but he says that all men and women are created equal in the eyes of the Source of their Being, and if you take that as a touch stone then I think everything else flows from it. [Original: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness--” US Declaration of Independence, 1776.]
Birju - So if I am understanding correctly the source of right from your perspective is this idea of the melding between key wisdom traditions and using that as the thrust in which to say this is the universal common good that I would like to advocate for.
Carol - I think that is a good summary of it, but I think that the essence is the notion of equality. I think my summary is independent of faith traditions because I have not got much faith, but I think that most faith traditions accept the equality of human kind, and that Thomas Jefferson, who was pretty much an agnostic and a Mason said it best: All men (he forgot the women but I am adding them in), and women, are created equal and are endowed by their Creator, the Source of their Being, the Source of the Universe, with that equality.
Birju - This brings up a question for me which is connected to the next question in the queue, which is that what you are describing is not universally accepted -- that there are people whose values do not match what you just articulated. I am curious about how you interface with that, which connects deeply with this next question which reads. , What keeps you going in the face of controversy, whether that’s your work in Afghanistan or your early days of working with One Laptop Per Child?
Carol - What keeps me going is a sense of it can't get any worse and I have hit the bottom and I am going to get up. That’s the feeling when you’re incarcerated in a maximum security prison and they come and tell if you do not stop singing we are going to take away your mattress and you do not have a thing except your mattress so you say well, what else can they do to me? They did their worst and we were still singing so I guess the answer to the later part of that is I just kept on keeping on and I never turned back.
The first part of your question is disturbing to me in that it suggests that there are faith traditions which do not acknowledge the equality of all people -- like the Hindu religious creed that says there are castes and only the Brahmin caste is on top. I reject that totally. I feel that it has been proven, scientifically, or through the many years of life it has been shown -- and it is clearly my opinion -- that it is a wrong way of thinking about human beings. So I set myself up as the interpreter of the message from the Creator, from the Source of the Universe -- all people are created equal.
Preeta - I wanted to before we go on to the next question in the queue I wanted to go back to one of the things you submitted about yourself when we were arranging the call. It was your one line message to the world, which was that: no good deed goes unpunished. And I am curious why you chose that and what comes up for you with that.
Carol - Well that is a quote from Oscar Wilde who was a satirist and had a very dark sense of humor. My one-line message to the world has 2 parts – it is not just that no good deed goes unpunished but that even so, it is never, ever a mistake not to follow your inner impulse to take action out of kindness, generosity or justice. When you are in the business of being a change agent, when you try to live in such a way that you are constantly doing what is right and stepping outside your individual life to try and do what is right for the world, it does happen that someone says "Hey, what are you doing, take your nose out of my garbage." So no good deed goes unpunished is a reflection on the fact that often if you do try to do what’s right you will find people who disagree with you or who do not take it kindly or who oppose what you are doing. And at the same time my follow up to that thought is that it is never a mistake to do what is right, to follow the instinct to act in justice, kindness and generosity.
One of the things I love about modern science is people are now investigating all kinds of things that were never investigated before. There was a study that was recently done of babies and toddlers, which found that there is an innate desire to share, to help others, even in toddlers. There is an innate desire to be a part of a web of interactions. These results were irrespective of race, religion, status, affluence. In this study, these babies try to help each other. That is the essence of what I think a human being should do and be: let us all be toddlers again.
Preeta - I find it interesting your description of being in the business of being a change agent and you also referenced earlier on that once you are a Freedom Rider you are always a Freedom Rider. And when I hear that it sounds to me like this was the experience that was seared into you at a young age, of being involved in such an earth shattering movement. Do you think that affected the image of yourself as someone who was a change agent or that was the business you were going to be in?
Carol - I think that is true. I think that if maybe I had not answered the call I would have still wound up doing a lot of things I did afterwards but I think that experience cemented it. That one moment of decision, that sense of knowing what was right and what I had to do, was life changing.
Preeta - And do you have the same sense of conviction and clarity on the projects you are involved in now?
Carol - Yes, although I think that some of my projects have been more successful than others. I started a bank for women back in early 1970's because I felt that women were being denied mortgages and other economic benefits of society. That was successful for a very short time and then we had to give it up, but I picked myself off the floor and carried on.
The Chinese American International School was a home run. Thirty-five years after I started that in San Francisco with ten kids it is a fabulous elementary school of over 500 children. My grandsons both went there and I had the opportunity to see the modern day inside workings of it. The kids got a superior education to anything they could have gotten anywhere else.
Other projects have been moderately successful. The Dharma Realm Buddhist University I think has the potential for being 30 years from now a real success. The Instilling Virtue small Buddhist elementary school we started in SF has moved to Mendocino and been a success. I think it has around 300 kids through high school, and the kids have done wonderful things.
So I have tried a lot of things and some have been more successful than others. Even in my career as a private lawyer, think I have touched and helped a lot of people (that’s what lawyers are supposed to do), and that I was able to avoid doing bad things and helping people who were nasty do more nasty things. I am very satisfied with what I have done in my life.
Preeta - I am sure all the people you have touched are too.
Carol - Yes I get nice postcards and now emails from people that I have known over the last 50 years saying do you remember when you did this or that for me, and I am so grateful for their remembering me.
Birju - The next question reads. When you adopted a child from Taiwan did you know you were on the sharp end of a trend for American families who could not conceive and how did you maneuver through the system to make this happen in alignment with your values.
Carol - Yes I did know that I was on the cutting edge, although I did not know that it would expand so much, particularly with the adoption of little girls from China. I was able to adopt this little boy through an almost random set of lucky circumstances.
My doctors had told me I was unable to conceive so I said, OK I will adopt. I looked around and discovered that in the US there were 20 parents looking to adopt to every one adoptable child. So I said, OK, there are kids in the rest of the world who are in need of a loving home. I started looking. One day I happened to be in Chicago at the home of my best friend from law school, Marian Ming who was from Taiwan. Sharing my troubles, she said, don't worry my mother is on the adoption agency board in Taipei. So there was another one of those long distance phone calls, and she arranged with her mother that I was to have the next available baby. (Today this would be impossible because there are all sorts of preliminary papers). I immediately went to the immigration people and the adoption people in California and got all the paperwork that said that I could adopt if there was a child available.
But then the bottom fell out: two weeks before I was scheduled to go to Taiwan to meet my new child I got a call from Marian saying her mother had called saying there was no child available and to cancel my trip. Being a litigation lawyer at that time (I was legal counsel to the Sheriff of San Francisco) getting time off is really tough -- I had already had to make motions in various courts to postpone my cases, and re-arranged other things so I had this window for this important time off. So I asked Marian to tell her mother, please, that my tickets were already purchased, that I would be coming anyway to have a visit with her, and hopefully to meet the people who were running the orphanage, and talk about a future adoption. Then, lo and behold, while I was on the plane, a tragic traffic accident happened, and a little boy became an orphan. That little boy became my little boy, to whom I gave the American name Steven.
Birju - How many years ago was that?
Carol - That was 1973 and my little boy is now 45.
Birju - We are running out of time but I want to ask one last question here. It is about your support -- for a person to have made such an impact in such wide-ranging areas do you have a cadre of friends and family who provide unconditional support to your activities?
Carol - I do. My main and most faithful supporter was my mother, who unfortunately died quite young, when she was 64. I have my sons Steven and Jefferson, and my two sisters and their families. And I have, through the years had friends that have given me that kind of support. My friend Christy once accused me of being a collector of people, of meeting somebody and putting them in my rolodex and keeping in touch forever. Today, we call this making them part of my network. I have lots of friends all over the world that I can look to for advice or help, and I try to add everybody who has ever given me a business card. I used to send out lots of New Year Holiday cards, but now I send out email cards to try to keep in touch.
Birju - Whatever your next projects may be is there any way that our listeners can stay in touch and possibly support your activities?
Carol – Absolutely! The primary thing I am trying to do right now is to do book signings and to see that as many people as possible get my book, which is called Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes From Parchman Prison. It is a very detailed account of my being in jail and what happened but it is also a philosophical look at what I did and why I did it and who I am. The people involved in helping me in that regard are hopefully going to be successful enough in selling the books that the publisher will come out with a paperback edition. Then with the paperback I hope to be able to distribute this book widely, including to school children.
Congressman John Lewis has just published a comic book version of his Freedom Rider story, and that and my book and a few others I want to package as a little library. We will then try to raise funds to get into the libraries of the public schools in the South of the USA and other places in the world. I am also working through OLPC-San Francisco on something called the Rachel project, which is a chip that contains 36 gigabites of the world’s information and can go into a tiny, cheap computer or tablet which can be distributed and accessed by kids around the world. It is a library of all the stuff we get access on the Internet every day but it does not require Internet access. They have just developed one version for prisons, where a prisoner can have access to Wikipedia, all the math lessons for a GED, all of the Khan Academy videos, without giving access to the Internet which would be obviously a safety concern. Similarly we are hoping that we can provide this opportunity for education to my kids in Afghanistan, and also in Haiti, and Kenya and Madagascar and other places where we are trying to spread education.
Preeta - Thanks so much for your incredible share today and for all the service you have done, and for touching us with your wisdom this morning.
Before we sign off let’s do a moment of silence.
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