There are a number of compelling Internet memes circulating Facebook right now that speak to those pivotal moments when we either do, or do not, take action against a perceived wrong. A particularly urgent one is a photo from the civil rights era showing a group being assaulted by gushing water from a fire hose. It’s accompanied by a quote from Desmond Tutu saying,
If you are neutral on situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
While issues on the scale of America’s civil rights struggle don’t come around every day, the principle remains the same: What is it that causes us — or arises within us — to spur action when we witness or experience injustice?
For Suzie McCarthy the answer is simple. She is moved by Mohandis Gandhi’s admonition to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s the same sentiment expressed continuously in the worldwide Occupy movement, which has regained so much steam in recent weeks.
McCarthy’s story, while at once more accepted as a conflict between the elite and the many, and more accepted as a legitimate grievance, was not without its challenges.
McCarthy is the 25-year old U.Va. political science graduate student whose Facebook page Students, Family, & Friends United to Reinstate President Sullivan in part helped rouse the U.Va. community into action in the face of the recent Board of Visitors’ debacle involving the forced resignation of U.Va. president Teresa Sullivan. She was with me in the radio studio on Wednesday to discuss the recent events at U.Va., especially how an effective counter force to the BOV actions came about.
We talked about her role as a protest leader during the past few weeks in the midst of this gripping story of a beloved president ousted, a community blindsided, a community united, and in the end, a community triumphant in overcoming an injustice they witnessed and experienced.
A major concern among the U.Va. community of faculty and scholars was the secrecy with which the BOV took action, and the evasive nature of its explanation for the ousting. This, the larger U.Va. community felt, was behavior in sharp contrast to the honor code at the heart of U.Va. life.
Later, with more detail from Rector Helen Dragas, the U.Va. community expressed concern that the BOV’s value on urgency and the push for technological innovation were clashing with the university’s vaunted history of academic excellence and institutional stability. They feared that a big business model of governance that looked more like the recklessness of the recent Wall Street banking fiasco was upon them, enacted with the same kind of conspiratorial machinations and refusal to face any accountability.
In the end, it was the U.Va. community that demanded accountability. And that process had pressures of its own as all of America seemed to watch what appeared to be a new event in the 99% versus the 1%. Only this time, thankfully, no pepper spray or riot gear from campus police.
Be the change
While McCarthy was encouraged by Gandhi’s words, her initial hope was to simply gather a few concerned Facebook cohorts, expecting that maybe several hundred would share her disappointment and outrage over the BOV action. Instead, in two weeks she garnered over 16,000 like-minded Hoos and other sympathizers. Because of the huge numbers of supporters, she found herself thrust into a defacto leadership position during the imbroglio, helping to spur peaceful action to voice the U.Va. community’s concerns.
How did McCarthy handle her sudden fame as a protest leader? She talked to me about the pressures it created for her as the tense story played out.
She also found herself reflecting on the values instilled in her by her family, discovering anew how that informs her life. She speaks of service being a central driver for her going forward, and the importance of being a voice in a world with too many injustices.
It’s likely we’ve only just begun to see what this remarkable woman can accomplish. Her example can be instructive to many, including Occupiers and other social justice activists.
Join me this Saturday at 8:00 am ET to hear McCarthy’s story of the U.Va. protest from the inside. If you’re local to Central Virginia you can tune in to WINA 1070 AM radio. Online you can listen live on my site* at the same time.
–Jennifer Till, Transition Voice
*After the broadcast, the show will be available free via podcast on Real Life with Jennifer Till.