Small Places Close to Home

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home  — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, “In Our Hands”

1958 speech delivered on the tenth anniversary of 
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

 

I have always loved this passage from Eleanor Roosevelt.    In the years of social, economic,  moral and material reconstruction following the devastation of World War II, the United Nations established a Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and these words come from her speech commemorating the declaration ten years later.   Framed with a work of children’s art, this passage has hung in my office for many years; for it speaks to the heart of community as well as family therapy; the realignment of power so that no one abuses it; the creation of bonds within which we learn for the first time to negotiate differences; the need to sometimes put one’s own interests aside for the sake of others “smaller and sweeter” than we are.

I voted this morning in a small place close to home, walking down the block to the Holy Name Cafeteria.  It was unusually crowded this morning as the doors opened, more than I have seen here at least since Obama’s election in 2008.    I noticed a boy about eight years old, standing behind his mom as she put her head in the little cubicle to fill out her ballot.  He was busy with a video game, but I hope he was paying attention, because these impressions can remain with a child for a long time.

The Democratic Party in Nebraska held a caucus this spring. Hundreds turned out at our neighborhood middle school. I have mixed feelings about caucuses.  You have to show up to show your preference, so it means that the choice of candidate turns out to depend on who can get there on that day; and too many miss their chance to take part.   But the power of the caucus, for me, is actually seeing people – neighbors — in public – being visibly Democrat.  I learned that this is the way Americans voted until 1884, when the secret ballot was instituted in most states.  Of course I see people I know – we have lived in this same place for more than 35 years – but I haven’t always known who among us is a Democrat.  We are one of the few in the neighborhood who put out campaign signs at all – perhaps the sway of the big Catholic church at the other end of the block.  But what impresses me most on this spring morning at Monroe Middle School is how many children are present.  I have a brief conversation with the mother of a six year old child who has accompanied her, and it led me to ask among friends and family, “What is your earliest political memory?”  The answers were poignant… and mostly about mothers.

I know that we had conversations early on with our children.  We carried our daughter Allison to an Equal Rights Amendment Rally at UNO when she was barely a year old,

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Equal Rights Amendment Event at UNO. Barbara Jessing, Allison Jessing, and Sam Walker. 1981

wearing a tiny t shirt that still hangs in the stairwell.  She went with her dad to meet Jesse Jackson at the airport during the 1988 race.  Kaitlin remembers how Dad explained that Ronald Reagan was somehow responsible for the disappearance of her tricycle.  Income redistribution,  I suppose; I can’t remember the exact logic though I remember the certainty with which it was stated.  Allison and her friend Lindsey formed early, independent, and active opinions – with sound effects — on the matter of a certain Omaha Mayoral Race. Political socialization starts early and takes hold deep.
Memories embedded, step by step.  It’s interesting how motor movements can open the floodgates of the past.  I thought of it this morning, shuffling through leaves on my walk to the neighborhood polling place.   One of my friends remembered, as I do, the strange image of Adlai Stevenson’s

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Adlai Stevenson Campaign Button, 1952 and 1956

shoe with a hole in the sole, because he wore so many pairs out, walking door to door.  Another remembers taking flyers through the neighborhood – those small places close to home — for a local legislative race.  Kate Mahern remembers walking four blocks in Indianapolis one evening in the spring of 1960 to see JFK sitting on the back of a big white convertible.

I heard so much about schools as a place of memory.   My cousin remembers that her mother worked the voting table in the back of the school cafeteria.  “It really made an impression on me that voting was a big deal.  My parents ALWAYS voted, even though they cancelled each other out.”  Other cousins remember when polling places were in homes and garages, and their mothers stepped out back for Democracy.   A cousin remembers standing in line, in his own school, while his mother voted.   Several friends remember, as I do, the mock elections conducted in Social Studies classes.  When it was Nixon up against Kennedy in 1960,   the election in our  Catholic school went 49 for Kennedy to 1 for Nixon.  It took me 50 years but I finally figured out who “The One” was.   Student, I mean.  I never did figure out Nixon though I did have a button reading “Nixon’s the One”.  The Crook.

Another cousin recalls “My mom volunteered at every election I can remember growing up. She taught me the importance of showing up to vote, that it’s a privilege and a right and a responsibility. Thanks Mom!”

My friend Susan Harris remembers that in the 1950’s her mother Louise was active in the League of Women Voters. “Campaigning for candidates – local and national- was a family affair all the years growing up. That tradition continues as my adult children are also

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Louise Michael, active in the League of Women Voters, in an April 1961 story in “Look” Magazine

politically aware and active”.  Another friend remembers growing up in a small Nebraska town where her mother held public office, and discussion of city politics was part of everyday life.

Those of us from the boomer generation remember, of course, the Kennedy administration.  And not just because of the assassination but because of the huge wave of hope we had for the future.  As a child being raised Catholic and attending a Catholic school, the election of a Catholic president was a huge and historic event, and for the first time I understood enmity against Catholics (I really get it now).  How “Protestants” – the “other” in our world then — feared the power of a Catholic president; how they predicted that Kennedy  would force everyone to conform to Catholic beliefs.  I guess that is what people worried about before they worried about having their guns taken away.  Many friends remembered the grainy black-and-white first televised debate of Nixon and Kennedy.  Even if you did not get what the issues were, a child had to have taken in the emotional charge around the sweaty looking Nixon with his message of fear and threat, and the charismatic young Kennedy.   How hopeful we were!   A friend remembers watching debates with his grandmother as she folded laundry, stopping on occasion as if the candidate were speaking directly to her.

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Baby Tee Shirts, 1980 – 1990

Those born later are likely to remember the drama of Watergate, the televised coverage of the Iraq war, the growing fear that one’s own small place close to home might become a target in war

Most memories seemed to emerge from the age of six  or older;  although my wonderful and wild radical sister in law insists it was from birth that she knew her mother to be vocal about injustice and prejudice.  The Butz children did not follow the same political course in life but ALL are passionate about issues of public life.

In this tumultuous year, I have had to take a hard internal look at what the word “politics” mean.  It’s too easy to be bitter and accusatory; cynical; I notice the way people tend to spit out the word “politician”.  It is tempting to check out, to hide, to disengage.  I imagined sitting in the basement till November.  Maybe longer.

What is politics?  It is so fuzzy in mind that I have to look it up, and doing so places me right back in my curious eight-year-old mind and body.  It was a conversation with my mom about college.  She’d had plans to go, but took a year to earn money first.  In the course of that year she met my father, and her college plans were sidelined for 25 years and six children.  “But what if you had?  What would you want to study?”  “Political Science”, she told me.    So what is that?   I can’t remember her exact words but by then I knew that who we were – we, as a family, were Democrats.  Just as we were Catholics; just as we were Irish and German; just as we were Californians.  This is who we are.   We acquire spiritual and moral and political beliefs through the skin, through the air, through the network of family and around it the tribe of like-minded others.     It is “the learning or or acquisition of a political point of view;   overtly told or observed.”

It was through this lens that I grew up into an era of Civil Rights, and came to know it as a political movement aligned with our family values.   “We are Democrats” and we believe in equity across racial lines.  My dad was an active Union member, and I remember my early efforts to understand what this meant:  that workers organized together; spoke up for themselves; had power and influence.  I learned to hold a principled position; to know that it may be unpopular to differ; that part of the obligation of faith is to stand up for one’s beliefs.  That came to matter in political beliefs as well.   I never heard my grandmother identify herself politically as either Democrat or Republican; but her principles were clear from the way she spoke about many things.   “We are not better than others.  We are not above others.”  My grandmother’s life was about fairness and equity – something she created out of the absence of these qualities in her early life.    Those issues came into our extended family.   Marriages crossed racial and ethnic lines.    Family members revealed sexual orientation.   No one lost place, no one lost love, not with our grandmother.  That’s what continued to shape my political identity.

That love and fascination grew from its origins in family into the larger world.  In high school I  encountered a wise and talented teacher of Civics and Government,  Jack Beery.   You can laugh at that cartoon about how a bill becomes a law, but I LOVED learning about the political process:   how this enormous country of millions has a means to convey preferences from the level of ward and precinct to  city to county to state to nation; how representatives to Congress bring forward the interests of their constituents; the balance of power among the three branches of government; how coalitions are build; how deals are negotiated.

I was challenged to define my beliefs, to examine them dispassionately, to grapple with complex issues; to engage in critical thinking; to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.  Spiritual, political, and moral reasoning came together.  I learned that living in a moral and ethical manner is not just a set of rules for what is always right or always wrong.  Rather, I found that I was grounded in those principles that continue to help me steer through the most treacherous times, and I have continued to grow into them.  And I need them now.

I love the work of Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist with an infinite depth of curiosity about the inner life of children.  Coles wrote about children and how they acquire a sense of identity around moral, spiritual and political beliefs.   He described his process as a “cross-cultural study of ‘political socialization’…a study of the political consciousness of young citizens of various countries.”

It is early – perhaps rooted in genetics – that we start to acquire an Identity:  where we belong, who is like us and who is defined as the other.  And is “the other” merely different, or are they threatening?  What does difference mean? Who we are as family; who is our tribe or community; how do tribes come to transcend differences to become a state or a nation?  A structure that holds so many people, so many differences, with some level of unifying values to unite them.  Leading to this day when millions of Americans need to converge on a single leader.

I found an article in the New York Times recently by David Brooks.  It is entitled “How to Repair Moral Capital” (October 20, 2016).  For me, this is why today matters so much, and this is my hope for what happens after today.

“Moral capital is the set of shared habits, norms, institutions and values that make common life possible. Left to our own, we human beings have an impressive capacity for selfishness. Unadorned, the struggle for power has a tendency to become barbaric. So people in decent societies agree on a million informal restraints — codes of politeness, humility and mutual respect that girdle selfishness and steer us toward reconciliation.”

David Brooks had this comment on Hillary Clinton’s response to a question about Trump’s recently revealed lewd comments about women. The debates were such an ordeal, but these words stood out for me.

“Clinton’s answers were given in a slow and understated manner, but they were marked by moral passion, clarity and quiet contempt. They were not spoken from the point of view of a politician. They were spoken from the point of view of a parent, which is the point of view Michelle Obama frequently uses. The politician asks: What can I offer to win votes? The parent asks: What world are my children going out into when they leave the house?”

This year is all about “small places, close to home”, for me.  Places where women have always had voice and influence.  It needs to be unleashed.

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About Barbara Jessing

Expatriate writer occasionally broadcasts a message to the free world. Late nights mostly. View all posts by Barbara Jessing

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