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Monique Ruffin Headshot

What You Can Achieve

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I called my uncle Michael the other day, just to say hello. He often complains that I only call him when I need money or something. He's right, and I was quickly reminded of why I don't call. My uncle Michael is one of my personal heroes. For 30 years he was addicted to drugs. When I was little, we both lived with my grandmother (his mother). Michael was one of my scary uncles, doing everything he could to get his next high. When he wasn't getting high, he was funny, handsome, and intelligent. Those times were few and far between. Over 10 years ago, he went into a recovery program and after getting sober he got a job as a janitor. He now does janitorial service for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Considering where he started from, his accomplishments are rare. Today he lives a life of integrity, responsibility and sobriety.

After a bit of small talk during our last conversation, we began to discuss politics. He started with "I don't know about your man President Obama." I quietly listened as he complained about the president's position on Palestine and Israel. He was angry because President Obama didn't support Palestine's bid at the United Nations to be recognized as a sovereign nation. "Really," I responded as I prepared to engage in a war of words with this worthy opponent. "So tell me about the organizations you donate money or time to that are supporting the plight of Palestinian people. I believe everyone has a right to feel how ever they choose, I just think it's interesting that you ridicule President Obama for something you are willing to do nothing about." "No, that's not what I'm saying," he raised his voice. But I'm no longer the little girl intimidated by his threatening presence. "If you're so damn concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, then why don't you do something about it yourself? Stop complaining about President Obama and do it your damn self." We both hung up angry, and I vowed never to call him just to say hello again, only when I needed money.

My uncle Michael, who has worked hard to get sober and become a responsible citizen in our country, has every right to believe what he wants. During our conversation, he threatened not to vote in 2012. I did my best to explain why that was a horrible idea and not at all the way to help support the issues he cares about. I tried to use the once-upon-a-time-black-people-didn't-have-the-right-to-vote card. That just seemed to inflame him all the more, as if he didn't want to be saddled with the inequities suffered by our ancestors. My heart was racing, and we were both far too riled to end the discussion like adults.

I'm always shocked when I hear someone say he doesn't vote or is going to withhold his vote out of frustration. Declining to vote is not the remedy for any issue that we are concerned about. The remedy to any and every issue, if we are truly seeking one, is ourselves. That's right. Our energy, money, time, words, and action are what are needed to make the difference that we want to see.

Moving into the upcoming election season, I'm beginning to consider the issues that are impacting my life. I don't have to look far -- with gas prices soaring to nearly $4.00 a gallon, energy is a primary concern, in my opinion. And as a parent to a child that will begin kindergarten next year, education reform is something I consider daily. Lastly, I'm deeply concerned about the never-ending stalemate in Washington among our elected officials. As we choose positions and candidates we are willing to support, we have an opportunity to give a little bit of ourselves, as we do so with the belief that we are capable of creating change and making a difference. My teacher and friend Georgina has often said to me, "Monique, you are the one you've been waiting for."

What most angered me about my conversation with my uncle was that while he thinks he's given up on President Obama, in truth he has given up on himself. I know that Michael is someone who can teach, and who can help anyone lift himself out of the bleakest of circumstances. With what he has accomplished, he has enormous power -- he can help the Palestinian people or his neighbors right there in Watts, where he lives today. What frightens me the most, is hearing someone like Michael, who has risen above a life of despair, forget the determination and divinity he used to carve out a little tunnel through which he could crawl into the light. If we have ever struggled and won, it is possible to repeat that same success anywhere and everywhere, over and over again.

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