"Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world." (Howard Zinn)
My professor, friend, and mentor Howard Zinn passed away on January 27 at the age of 87.
Much has been written about Howard, but those who had the opportunity to know him personally will remember him for his most wonderful attributes of kindness, wit, and wisdom -- and for his determination to right the wrongs of the past and present.
While I was a student at Boston University, Prof. Zinn inspired me to think deeply about humanity, politics, and the need to stand firm against bullies -- even when the bully was my own government. He often warned his students that material wealth, if left unchecked can corrupt and lead to despotic uses of power.
Howard was a giant among both intellectuals and activists. He also lived a life of small acts that helped inspire millions of people to work at transforming the world.
I was teaching in Central America on the morning I learned that he had died -- suddenly, from a heart attack. It was the day when I was supposed to celebrate my 65th birthday. At first I was overwhelmed with grief, but quickly realized Howard would want me to rejoice over his life rather than mourn his death.
I wandered into a nearby forest and sat on a rock. Not much time passed before a family of howler monkeys arrived. They seemed oblivious to my presence. The adults swung from limb to limb. Their acrobatics looked effortless. I had to wonder how they knew that the next limb would bear their weight. Two babies followed at the end. Where their elders had swung, they were forced to leap, to literally fly through the air. It struck me that each leap was an amazing act of faith.
The howlers departed; the forest went silent. As I sat there alone, I kept seeing Howard's smiling face, his intense and compassionate eyes. I recommitted to spreading the message that he taught me in the late '60s at BU: that true democracy requires action from each and every one of us; that our focus on instantaneous material gratification has sent us into a stupor that allows multinational corporations to exploit us, our government, and human and natural resources around the planet; and that we the people must insist on change. Like those howler babies, we must muster the courage to leap -- to fly through the air and have faith that the branches will support us.
Howard once told me that he wanted to be remembered for "Helping people understand that the men with the big mansions and guns do not hold the power, unless we give it to them. We the people have the power. The women's suffrage and civil rights movements showed us this, as did the anti-Vietnam War movement. As do those people in other countries who defy tyranny." His legacy motivates us to understand that we must take action. Every one of us can, and must, rebel against the abuses of power we see around us today. We may choose to take to the streets. Or to do it through "smaller acts," like refusing to buy products from corporations that are not committed to being environmentally and socially responsible. And by insisting that Congress reign in the Supreme Court, reverse the latest campaign financing ruling, and assure Net Neutrality.
Howard said, "If those in charge of our society - politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television - can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves."
It is time to take back our power, to wrest it from all the megalomaniac corporations and those who profit from withholding information from the people. It is time to revisit the true meaning of "democracy," "freedom," and "of, for, and by the people."
It is comforting and inspiring to know that Howard's spirit is with us through the writing he left behind. Someday my two year old grandson will study Howard Zinn's work just as I have. I know too that we will all continue with our small leaps (actions) knowing that they will benefit and inspire future generations to change the world.
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