From ASHLEY SANDERS
I want to live in a democracy, but I don’t. None of us does. And that is because we don’t really believe in the words of the Declaration of Independence — this declaration that says we are free to be equal, happy and alive. Probably we don’t believe in that document because the people who wrote it didn’t really believe in it either — at least not for women, people of color, and the poor. So maybe it’s time to write out our beliefs, to make another declaration for a new kind of independence: the independence of the poor and forgotten from the people who control their lives and futures. So this is my hastily-scrawled declaration-in-progress, a list of my grievances and my rights that requires shaking up the world. And I write it in the spirit of the country great Waylon Jennings who, when asked about his music, said, “We just couldn’t do things the way they were set up.”
You don’t need the EPA to tell you if a giant copper mine will pollute your rivers and airways. Go to that river and breathe that air, and if you say, this river is desperately sad and dirty, then say that. And if the air is gray and makes you cough, then that air is dirty, too, and you’ve gotta say that. There are at any given moment a thousand rules, laws, ways of doing things that want to intimidate you from saying what is. Do not listen to them. Go into yourself, into your deepest place of knowing, and ask yourself: Is this the world you imagined? Is this the world you would make for yourself and others? And if it isn’t, start making that world. And when they tell you that you’re wrong, that you don’t get it or you’re understanding it wrong, breathe in and take a gamble. Do not answer them with statistics and minutiae. Stand up and say, “My name is _______, and this is my experience. This is what it’s like to be poor, to be a woman, to breathe dirty air.” And then let the power of you hang in the air as a dare to the powerful. Think like the Populists, who refused to accept that they were the throwaway people of our society and made their poverty into a steely dignity that defied the elites of the entire country. Make your corporate masters say of you what the railroad barons said of them: Lord, pity us in Nebraska and save us from the results of a Populist legislature.
Corporations have their language, and it is a language of reports and memos and money. You have a language, too, and it is a language of the heart and the body and the community. For far too long we have sat in the halls of the powerful and spoken their language. We have told them that greening the world will save them this much money and this many sick days. But the last time I checked, one of the only things you can spell on a calculator is the word hell. I am done sitting across the desk from sociopaths and telling them how good this brave new world will be for them. I am not here, or anywhere, to speak about dollar bills and financial reports. I am here to clear my throat, to talk about the soil and the plants and human beings, and beauty and color and bravery and dance. That is the world I want, and it can’t be written in a memo. I don’t want the dots, all the boring dots, I want you to connect the dots with beautiful words and bold ideas. I don’t want you to tell me about parts per million; I want you to take me to the sea ice and make me admit and grieve its melting. I am saying it is time to be brave, to stop speaking like pedants and speak like poets and prophets.
I don’t care if Matt Damon is speaking at your rally. I don’t care if Barack Obama said so. I don’t care if you are rich or a cable news anchor or Ivy League graduate. I care about regular people — regular people who know the score. I care about anyone who will sit me down and look me in the eye and tell me how it is for them, then tell me how I can help. And if you are powerful, I am done pleading with you. I am done trying to find the exact right word on the exact right day of the week to make you throw up your arms and throw off your vested interests and join me. I am done speaking to you because I now intend to show you. I will show you what you can no longer do and I will show you what I want done and when you look and see who’s with me, you will see all the powerless people, all the people you told me didn’t matter. And we will be brave and beautiful and hundreds of thousands strong. We will be the most powerful powerless you have ever seen. And I hope it will make you cry, and remember something deep inside you. But if it doesn’t, you will have to get out of our way.
For ten years I have gone to meetings that were more or less about changing the world. And almost every time they went the same way. We got together, we agreed there was a problem and then we sat down to do something about it. But before we’d get five minutes into it, someone would remind us that we couldn’t say how we really felt about the issue or how bad it really was because we had to get Sandra or Bill or Jimmy on our side, and they weren’t ready for that. We had to make our message easy, sexy, cool, and we could never, never say what we were really about. We needed Sandra and Bill and Jimmy to agree with us because we needed everyone — everyone to agree.
I am here to say that we do not need everyone. We don’t even need half of everyone. What we need is 100 percent of ourselves. This means telling our truth our whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the hot words in our bellies that have gotten hot from waiting to be said. We will have to tell the truth, to ourselves and Bill and Sandra and Jimmy, to everyone. And if Bill and Sandra can’t join us, then maybe Jimmy can. And if Jimmy can’t, maybe we will look up and see thousands of others, and we will be surprised that what people can handle — what really gets them up and out of their houses — is not ease and sexiness but exactly what we always meant to say. And if no one comes — if everyone but us stays home — at least we will be there, and we will be whole. And getting through this world whole is one task of revolution.
I have to say it: I am a 29-year-old woman in 2011, and I might live to see the end of the world. I might live to see the end of big fish in the ocean, the end of seaboard cities, the end of the rainforest and the end of my brothers and sisters. And even if I don’t, I will live under the thumb of a very few rich men who care nothing for me, who will work me and drive me and make me sick, who will try to destroy everything I love. And I am so sad and so mad about this that I can’t even tell you. And I am asking you not to make me pretend to be happy about that, not to ask me to tone it down so other people will care. I am done toning it down. This society pathologizes rage and grief because people who rage and grieve are powerful people. I am standing here in front of you to demand a space, to carve out a space for true sorrow, a space to say that I am angry and desperate, and so very tired. I am demanding the right to think of this earth and everything on it as my family, and to love it like I love my family. And I am asking for all of this in defiance of an ethic that tells me that I am powerful only when I am happy. I am an entire person, a multitude of experiences and expressions. And I will grieve what we have done to this world so I can go out and heal it, whatever parts I can.
Sometimes I want to make an enormous sign, and hang it off the edge of the world. And the sign will say: We had a democracy but I never mattered. We had an EPA and we still destroyed the planet. The point is, there is no one coming to save us. Our institutions, fine as they sound, are nothing if they don’t do a real and everyday something. I don’t care if you live in a theocracy or a democracy or a hypocrisy. I care if you are free. I can no longer think of democracy as a set of institutions that we build or destroy. Democracy is not a building or a president or a voting machine. True democracy is an attitude, a practice of radical self-respect, not an institution designed to convince us we are valuable when we are not. True democracy is nothing short of being fully alive, and defending the fully living.