Reserving a seat on the justice bus

When I’m registering voters or talking with my students about the importance of their civic participation, I fairly frequently hear this lament:

Why would I want to get involved in the political process, when all that politicians care about is their own reelection, not the issues that really matter to me, or to my country?

That’s a paraphrase, but the sentiment is there, and it’s real.

Why would we sully ourselves by venturing into an environment laden, so the story goes, with greed and arrogance and raw ambition?

I used to try to counter this with my normal blend of righteous indignation, cheery optimism, and Protestant guilt.

We should vote, and pay attention, and agitate, because someone needs to have our collective best interests at heart, because there are always ways to make things better, and because, well, because it’s our duty.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, that never worked too well.

So awhile ago, in the midst of one of these same lopsided arguments with one of my friends, a social worker who used to be pretty politically involved but has now largely retreated, I tried a different tack.

I just told a story.

I told a story about my friend David Adkins, a now-unfortunately-retired-from-elected-office former Kansas state senator, who, while as imperfect as all the rest of us, is, I think, one of the more compelling examples in recent history of an elected official who put policy above politics and virtue above ambition.

And he did it on behalf of arguably the most marginalized of populations in today’s political debate: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals seeking the protection of their core human and constitutional rights, in a system bent on denying them.

He stood up, essentially alone, against the proposed constitutional amendment barring gay marriage in our state, and he did so by constructing a passionate and procedurally solid debate that, ultimately, allowed his colleagues to avoid a recorded vote on this most contentious issue. In the process, he made compelling arguments about the wisdom of equality and about the inevitable march of justice. And he also, when asked, looked right into the TV cameras and answered another senator’s question (“Does the Senator support ‘homosexual marriage’?”) with a firm “yes”.

His vote, and his statements, attracted threats and effectively ended his elected career. But his actions also provided hope and inspiration to GLBT individuals in the state, who saw someone use his power to stand up for them, and to be willing to stand beside them.

And, when I contacted him recently to tell him how what he did that day, and on this issue, continue to provide a counterpoint to the perception that individual participation doesn’t matter in the scope of the political process, and that there is no longer any room to stand on principle, he responded in a way that, for me, provides new motivation in a landscape where, even I’ll admit, it can be hard to find spots of hope.

He said that what he said that day was true–you can’t stop the march of justice. “It wasn’t all that courageous to hop on the bus before all the good seats were taken.”

That’s modest, of course.

But it’s also true.

I’m in the state where Brown v. Board of Education originated. In 1953, there were a lot of seats left on the school desegregation bus. But time shifts opinions, and justice marches on.

Today, we see a lot of empty seats around us, and it can especially feel lonely to jump into the electoral process, wrapped in our social work values, when we don’t see many others who share our commitments.

But we are not totally alone, as this story shows.

And, if we want a good seat, we must mark our stance today, taking comfort in the fact that, eventually, right wins, and others will join us.

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