UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Quote Unquote

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’

By Mardi Tindal


I’ve always liked Margaret Mead’s words, even though my confidence in their veracity has waxed and waned over the years.

As a university student in 1971, I was convinced that our protests over the planned testing of a nuclear bomb in Amchitka Island off the coast of Alaska could change the world. Proximity to Canadian waters brought nuclear testing close to home, and we were confident that our voices could prevent the worst.

So we were heartsick when then U.S. president Richard Nixon took the advice of another small group, the U.S. Supreme Court, who voted 4-3 in favour of that test. But then, three months later, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that it would abandon the Amchitka test site for “political and other reasons.” Our confidence in the difference we could make returned, and the island was made into a wildlife refuge.

In recent years, I confess to frequent cases of cynicism over whether committed citizens can still influence important decisions. But over the past few months, I’m with Mead again. It was amazing to watch our federal government’s interaction with the voices of civil society, including those of us from the United Church, at last year’s climate talks in Paris. They listened to our advice and even acted upon it. After a decade of dealing with a government apparently deaf to our pleas for constructive action, it was a heartening development. The world seemed changed.

Two months later however, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in with an unfortunate 5-4 decision that halted American efforts to curb carbon emissions from U.S. power plants to levels required by the Paris agreement — at least temporarily. This story isn’t over.

The dance of history often appears to be two steps forward and one step back, or one step forward and two steps back, depending on how engaged we are as citizens. We step forward through persistence; when there’s a step back, the trick is to stay in the dance.

Last February, our small congregation of Windermere United in Toronto gathered for worship, joined by friends of the community, eager to hear what had been billed as “a good news announcement.” We gasped with relief and tears flowed as Arif Virani, our member of Parliament, announced that the Pusuma family would be freed from danger and welcomed back home to Canada. The Pusumas were our Roma refugee friends who had lived in our church, in sanctuary, for 18 months while hoping for a fair hearing about their persecution in Hungary. Their first lawyer later admitted he inadequately represented them, but still, our friends had been deported. We hadn’t felt much like dancing in the year since. But now Virani was telling us, “Advocacy works, and you just proved it.”

Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist whose work drew mass media attention in the 1960s and ’70s as she explored modern Western culture through the lens of her study of South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures. Less known is that she was also a practising Christian who helped draft the 1979 American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

No one seems to know the circumstances in which Mead made her famous comment. The Institute for Cultural Studies, which Mead founded and which managed her estate, said that the quote “probably came into circulation through a newspaper report of something said spontaneously and informally.” I like to think she said it upon hearing of a group like those of us at Windermere who made a thoughtful, committed effort in service of compassion and justice.

I’m sure it would have pleased Mead to know that Rev. Alexa Gilmour began and ended the sermon that day with her words.

Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.




Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image

Editorials

David Wilson%

Observations

by David Wilson

Enclaves of the elderly

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: A shoulder to lean on

by Observer Staff

Sheima Benembarek was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Morocco and moved to Canada in 2005. In 2015, she relocated to Toronto. At first, the city seemed so much bigger, impersonal — and even threatening — until a fateful encounter in the subway one day.

Promotional Image

Faith

January 2017

Presbytery turns down bid to halt Vosper hearing

by Mike Milne

World

February 2017

Many faces, one humanity

by Wade Davis

The words and photographs of the Canadian author and explorer capture the richness — and fragility — of global cultures and rituals

Society

February 2017

An anatomy of hate

by Douglas Tindal

It’s on the rise everywhere. The writer explores our most troubling emotion and asks how we might overcome it.

World

February 2017

Many faces, one humanity

by Wade Davis

The words and photographs of the Canadian author and explorer capture the richness — and fragility — of global cultures and rituals

Society

January 2017

The new agrarians

by Lois Ross

In the next 15 years, almost half of Canadian farms will change hands. Meet seven millennials who view agriculture as a career — and moral calling.

Faith

March 2016

The Walrus Talks Spirituality

by Observer Staff

Promotional Image