NOTE: This is a keynote address I gave today at the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society regional conference at Columbus State Community College. The subject was “EXPLORE THE SPIRIT OF CHANGE”.
Let me begin by thanking Phi Theta Kappa for inviting me to come speak to you today, specifically Brandon Keith Kornute who approached me and asked if I would be interested in speaking before a captive audience of blindingly intelligent people on “Pi Day”, in what, on March 14, 2015 is also Pi Year, and, as of 9:26:53 AM this morning, was Pi Second. As a poet, blogger and – now very clearly, nerd – I relish the opportunity to do that very thing.
This is the part where the speaker usually announces the theme of the convention very matter-of-factly, tells you that they have pondered the theme of the occasion, came up slightly wanting, and then decides to cycle into something they’re more comfortable with and versed in, wrap up the speech with a couple of chants, and take a bow. That is not what is happening today. Change is a concept I am intimately familiar with. So in the spirit of why you are here – to explore, and hopefully challenge, the notion of change – I will relate to you a couple of incidents that speak very specifically to the theme of why you are here, how powerful and necessary even just the consideration of change is, and the devastating consequences of not doing so. Not necessarily in that order.
As an activist whose work these days lies mostly in the deconstruction and remodeling of social, political and cultural observations and systems, you could say change is in my wheelhouse. I research and generate work with the express purpose of creating change. Change is what every major political movement, piece of legislation, law and war is essentially about: modifying the present to improve the future. The Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, the Tea Party, Anarchism, #BlackLivesMatter, the modern Ku Klux Klan…all change movements. The only thing easier than acknowledging what change is is running off a list of things that broadcast it as a goal. Wars are change. Laws are change. Elections are the epitome of change. Politicians only exist for two reasons: 1) so that I can make fun of them, and 2) because billions of people constantly need things changed.
Change is arguably the oldest dynamic in the known universe – it is the sum of all the math behind the chemical and biological processes of life. Change is not optional. Change is not something that won’t happen if “we” don’t do it. Change is relentless. It is intrinsic. In the words of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch – saying the only thing we would probably agree upon – “Change before you have to.”
And yet here I am, seeking not only to remind you of the importance of change, but to implore you to implement it in your lives and the lives of others with purpose. Why? Why do I have to say it? Who actually needs to be convinced that change, as an idea, is good, even when it does not serve you directly?
At some point, everyone.
Part of the problem is we don’t want change, and we don’t want to change. Businesses are fond of saying that staff are often “resistant to change” and yet we know from navigating even our personal lives that a desire for change isn’t exactly a cultural priority. Nowhere is this more evident than in the almost daily debates I find myself in online, where change is somehow both unfolding at a phenomenal rate all around us, and yet people remain steadfast in their desire to not change at all. Go on Facebook (when people aren’t arguing about all of the changes Facebook is constantly making) or Twitter or the comments section of any news article released in the last twenty-four hours. Not a lot of change happening there. Everyone pipes up on everything as if everything they encounter is some kind of survey, seeking their approval or their insight, no matter how informed, inspired or lacking. No one enters into debates to have their minds changed. And while this has largely been true since Socrates annoyed the principals of Athens, never have so many seemed so defensible and intractable over so little, while possessing so little to argue with.
As an example, Kanye West was featured yesterday in a Billboard news article whose headline was “Kanye West, quote: ‘Racism is a Dated Concept’”. Now, full disclosure: I generally run in the opposite direction from all things Kanye, but the intersectionality between racism (with which I engage a great deal) and this politically vapid human being was too much for me to resist. True to form, during an interview, Kanye West did what Kanye West does: makes bold, broad, seemingly nonsensical statements, then flounders for an eternity to find intellectual purchase on what he posits as a thesis. In this episode, he ended up comparing the application of the word “racism” to acts of racism as two cats playing with a ball. A ridiculous analogy in any context, but no one posts these types of things to generate meaningful dialogue; they post them for attention. And there are few things more disheartening than watching hundreds of people who are smart enough to know how to work a computer fight over the validity of comparing an insidious socio-political power structure to two kittens fighting over a ball (a game, mind you, during which one of the cats gets killed every other day).
I imagine someone in the room thinks that’s a pretty low bar to set, and I’m inclined to agree, so allow me to raise the stakes above the fanboy grazing of billionaire pop stars. Let me bring it home.
I recently attended a local open community meeting with the chief of police, a Q&A session that imploded almost upon starting. While the facilitation of the event was poor and clearly compromised, the agenda elusive at best, and the chief of police impenetrably dismissive, the community – through all of its pain, weariness and struggle – has some part to play in why that went south.
The chief followed her script. She had all of the answers, while the audience digressed into a barrage of all the stereotypical responses that arise in such environments; the responses of the frustrated, the disenfranchised and the process deficient. If that sounds critical it’s because it is. And the problem isn’t simply that they vote wrong or don’t vote at all, and it isn’t because they talk back to police officers when they’re unjustifiably stopped, and it isn’t because we’re disconnected from the political process, or too wrapped up in the trappings of the hope that the political process pretends to provide to poor and targeted communities. There are a lot of reasons why those things might be true, and some of them are external to that community. They are doing battle with an enormous, well-oiled machine that is, quite literally, killing them. So while all of these things are true, the real problem is that they went into that meeting unchanged. They went in with the same ideas, the same desire to share their passion but not their plan, the same blind spots. And at the end of it, they got the same thing they always get when they approach that machine with the same tactics: nothing. Being so convinced of the righteousness of your respective camp or your philosophy or your truth that perceiving any change in tactic as a concession is keeping progress from being made in many quarters. Opting not to change – to do the work of change in the same breath as the work of justice – is literally getting people killed.
And what makes me different from the people in that auditorium? I have won no battle against that machine in concrete terms, so what makes me so different? Not much, save one thing: I am willing to admit when an action isn’t working and willing to recommend changes to the action because of it. I do not stand on ineffectual, non-productive actions just because they’re based on what is right. I need your righteousness to feed people, to employee them, to protect them, to educate them, to serve them. I need your righteousness to be capable of meeting in the middle, capable of being flexible, capable of learning new ways to fight the old battles. I need you to be able to change.
All of which begs the question: What is required for change?
Change requires advocates. Change requires vision. Change requires action and stewardship and some modicum of intelligence. But most importantly, change requires leadership. I suppose at an event of this type, where exceptional minds will at some point this weekend participate in the caprice of elections, it’s not a coincidence that the subject of leadership makes an appearance this morning. Change is a lot of things, and demands little to spark it, but it always requires leadership to get it on deck.
We know from what’s happening in the world today that leadership isn’t what it used to be. I say that, not to suggest that there is no leadership, but to suggest that how we perceive the role of leadership is in a state of extreme flux. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a great modern example of what I’m talking about. That movement remains filled with leadership that is constantly evolving and rotating in and out of position, sharing resources, propelled by technology and the human appetite for drama. When Oprah Winfrey suggested in an interview on the heels of the movie Selma being released, that she was “looking for leadership” to materialize out of recent nationwide protests – the implication being that they were unorganized, had no rally strength, and were disconnected from any actual goals or agenda – she was lambasted, and rightfully so. She was wrong, and more embarrassingly she was out of the loop. She, like many people, labors under the old One Man Leader model (and isn’t it almost always a man?). Unfortunately, it’s a model that doesn’t work anymore. One could even argue that whatever benefits it reaped in the past came at too high a cost. A lot of communities have learned over the years how to confront the old wrongs, and they did it by embracing new things: new tactics, new technology, more expansive knowledge bases, intersectionality of groups and ideas…all of which happened on a massive scale, but in small groups aimed at the same target. Support of the One Man Leader model also exposes a lack of recognition of the expansiveness of the problems we face, and how we have to fight for wins in multiple corners at the same time because we’re unlikely to see anymore concessions from the machine at this point. It has convinced itself and much of society that they’ve done all they need to do and that the rest is just a matter of individual bootstrap pulling. No, leadership is fluid now, is a line of batons constantly being handed off around the country and the world. Thanks to technology, leadership is fast now, is strong, is educated and mutable and in touch with its friend and its foes at all times. Leadership isn’t the one charismatic guy who gives good speeches anymore. Now it’s “today, we use your insight and tomorrow we’ll use my blog, and on Thursday we’ll publish this series of articles” and so on. Leadership is thousands of people making an effort every day to educate, support, and redirect awareness.
Change requires leadership. The world aches for leadership. It thirsts for it. We are constantly filling every gap we find in leadership with every kind of character you can imagine, we want it so badly. And the process of change is almost a job unto itself.
Real change is work. It’s supposed to be a little difficult.
Real change is hard. It’s supposed to hurt a little.
It is possible that what I have shared with you today is impressive. I feel a little pleased with myself, for what it’s worth. But the lesson of my life is not in my exceptionality. I do not perceive myself as being particularly special. Unique, of course, but unique does not equal special. There are things I wanted to do in this world, things I thought I would have by now, things I thought I would be. Many of those things will forever remain unrealized. I am no longer young. I have lived long enough to recognize time for the commodity that it is, and am learning to relish it. And honestly, I changed too late in the game. So now I play catch-up with my dreams. And I work toward ends that I know, and ends that I do not, and because I did not take control of that change early on, there are parts of my life and dreams that will be closed to me forever. I have had the good fortune in recent years to rediscover certain passions, learned to appreciate what is in my grasp and it not be settling.
At the same time, there is a calm that comes from the resolve of resignation, of knowing your place or when hope is deemed useless or when a thing is over. But it is a killing calm. It is a calm that becomes okay with its lot in life, that believes you already have what you deserve, and no more. It is a calm that kills dreams, that devours hope.
Change – real, meaningful, purposeful change – is strength. There is a strength in re-creation, in revolution, in reassessment. There is a strength in being tired of being tired, in our passions, in our work. The future can be more than just what time says it is. The future belongs entirely to agents of change. History proves this. Science proves this. Math suggests as much. And, as a fan of Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home, reboot Star Trek, and being a lifelong, card-carrying member of the Black Doctor Who Appreciation Society, I have to believe that.
As a fraternal organization, and an honors one at that, your charge is serious business. Change is part of your charter, if not in words, then certainly in spirit. You have set yourselves apart to some extent, suggesting you have something to offer the world around you that you could not offer alone. The question becomes, how can we learn to fight our wiring and truly embrace change, to see it for the resource that it is? On that note I give you two final thoughts:
One: I stand before you an uneducated man. No degree, no letters, no order. I have been fortunate to discover what gifts I have and to find passions that align with those gifts. I am equally fortunate to have been able to garner support and attention for those efforts in humbling numbers. I have a good life, and it is a life that does not spend all of its time settling. I say all of this to point out that I am 50 percent idiot and 40 percent lucky. The last 13 percent is work. 😉 Love your work, but be willing to change course in the middle of the journey. Everything I have that is good comes from a willingness to change. And Lord knows, if I can do it, you can do it. Again, unique, not special.
And two: know that the world is waiting for your change. Look at where we are now. I can tell you from the outside looking in, there is an expectation. I doubt you think that seems unfair. You certainly didn’t go to college or graduate or remain involved with your order for people to have no expectation of you. It is perhaps news to some of you to hear it out loud. For you, I say consider this an invitation. The world needs real, productive, human change, and more importantly, it actually wants it. Just know that it is work you do, not for yourself, but for those your work will intersect. Change is constantly happening and constantly evolving. It exists whether you make it happen or not: ask a soldier or a politician or a child. It is my hope that you accept the invitation, that you use everything around you to inform what changes you can make in this world, and understand that the goal is to leave it better than you found it, again, not for yourself, but for those waiting to make that journey on your shoulders.
And now, at the end of what has to be the longest introduction to a poem ever, I offer this poem…
(At which point I introduced and performed “What I Know About Chicken That You Do Not“, minus the curse words.)