Stepping Out

Last night, I was on my way to meet with a former student to help her prepare for a media interview later this week and listening to The World on NPR. I only caught the end of the program, but the part that I heard was fantastic–the host was interviewing a leader in the group Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a group of Liberian women largely credited with bringing down the horrifically corrupt regime of Charles Taylor (which I learned more about in a Rolling Stone article while pumping milk for the babies last fall!) in Liberia.

What struck me most about the interview was the activist’s phrasing; several times she stated, ‘we (women) had to step out.’ In that understated way, what she was talking about was a conscious decision by more than 2500 women to risk their lives and protest the government. She explained this extraordinary courage away, stating that, since their lives were already threatened by the lawlessness and violence in the country, they felt that mass action was their only route to safety. And this makes sense, but it doesn’t explain the thousands who, while similarly threatened, did not ‘step out.’

That’s the normal state of human beings, I think, to retreat when threatened and to seek self-preservation as the greatest good. And so that’s why her characterization of this extremely risky and immensely courageous action as simply ‘stepping out’, so captured me. After all, isn’t that what we’re all doing when we take up a cause? We just have to step out, out of our own comfortable lives, out of our preoccupation with ourselves, out of our fear and hesitation. And, while not often under threat of death or torture, we really have no less an imperative to do so–our well-being, at least, is threatened by the solitude we often impose on ourselves.

Listening to her speak about the risks and the calculation they made–“we just had to step out”, I was struck by how little I ever had to give up to organize and agitate. At the worst, I risked the nasty phone calls, the dirty looks, the ugly name-calling…but I also received professional praise and considerable support, even from influential leaders. And these amazing women see themselves and what they risked as not amazing at all, but rather a natural response to intense suffering.

By the time I arrived at the coffee shop, then, I was pretty fired up. If those who have so much to lose are so willing to lose it, how much more should I be willing to risk, I who really don’t have to risk much at all?

We just have to step out.

Liberian Mass Action for Peace on The WorldMay 18, 2009

Profile in Courage Recipients, 2009

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