For those of you who were not able to attend Paul Loeb’s speech today, I’m sorry. You missed out. I mean, you might have had an equally gratifying experience doing something else just as worthwhile, but still…try to see him speak some time. Because he’s a really good speaker.
While Loeb can give off the feeling of a mad genius consumed by lofty ideals, he speaks in a calm, sophisticated tone about the merits and drawbacks of radicalism, his life experience as an activist involved with the Obama campaign, promoting environmental awareness, and more. He says he has been working to change the world since he was 13, and he is now 58, so with 45 years of activism behind his belt, he is able to talk about what he knows about social justice and organizing, without sounding like he has all the answers. Rather, he spoke of what has worked and hasn’t worked for him, but the relativity of everything, such as the constant struggle between wanting to do everything you can for a cause and making sure you don’t burn out.
I attended both the afternoon session with Paul Loeb, which “student leaders” from various community service/experiential learning listservs were invited to, and then the speech he delivered in the evening which was open to everyone, and more heavily attended. While the two speeches Loeb delivered were very similar, and he cited many of the same anecdotes and historical examples (Gandhi was so shy that when he got up in court he couldn’t utter a single sentence and lost every case he tried; Rosa Parks didn’t START the civil rights movement that fateful day on the bus, but rather she’d been preparing for it for 12 years), I was still happy to attend both, and equally inspired by the strength and bluntness of his message.
The closest thing I can compare it to is when I heard Howard Dean speak last semester, at an event hosted by the Brandeis Democrats, DFA and other groups, and open to the public. Dean, a powerful and charismatic speaker, delivered a speech akin to Loeb’s, about the potential each of us has, and the importance of getting involved, in whatever small ways we can; making that phone call, signing that online petition; joining that student group. However, whereas Dean’s message seemed to be that we could all achieve whatever we set our minds to and it was our duty to get out there and ACT, Loeb’s was more about the importance of analyzing what change is, and how it is achieved.
He spoke mostly about the topics he covers in the latest edition of his book, Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times, touching issues such as the idea of the Perfect Standard, which is when people expect change to be immediate and fulfilling, so that when a single thing goes wrong or takes more time, they become disillusioned. This is what happened with the Obama presidency, he says, because the momentum was so high when Obama was elected that the public wanted everything he had promised to come true right then and there. However, change is only possible as a group effort, when it comes from the mass public and is built up over time so that it eventually reaches the notice of the politicians. One anecdote Loeb cited was Obama’s response to people’s demands on him, which was to quote FDR: “Make me do it.” Rather than taking this answer as a rejection, Loeb tells us that it means that people have to demonstrate their interest and dedication to an issue in order for any elected officials, company executives, etc. to make a change, even if they themselves support it in the first place.
Lastly, when prompted to do so during the question and answer period, Loeb talked about how we students on campus can make a difference on campus, and answered individual’s questions as to how to improve voter turnout for Student Union elections, how to deal with the typical Brandeisian’s overcommitment to a variety of causes and lack of spare time, and what he thinks about protesting for the sake of protesting. Two highlights that stood out to me were: his comment about the fact that our goal should not be to continue to volunteer at the same homeless shelter for decades to come, but to create a society where we do not NEED homeless shelters by that time (don’t get so wrapped up in the now that you forget to look “upstream”). Secondly, when informed about the Campus Camp Wellstone training that the Change Agency is bringing to campus September 25th and 26th (this is a plug, I know), he expressed his full support of the training, saying it was one of the best in the country, and if he were around that he would attend it.
Also, I bought his book if anyone wants to borrow it. Haven’t read it yet though.