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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Now is a good time to plant some seeds

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 9/28/22

From noon until 1 p.m. on most Fridays, you’ll find folks with hand-painted signs standing on a prominent street corner in Cook. Some contain relevant messages on issues. With an important …

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Now is a good time to plant some seeds


From noon until 1 p.m. on most Fridays, you’ll find folks with hand-painted signs standing on a prominent street corner in Cook. Some contain relevant messages on issues. With an important election coming, some have names of political candidates. We know that good government requires “good citizens” — people who don’t just complain about its shortcomings but actually do something to change it. So, we’re there to encourage everyone to make sure they are registered and ready to vote on Nov. 8. Rain or shine!
I sometimes wonder what drivers think when they see us. We are heartened by folks who honk and show their “thumbs up” in support. There are occasional drivers who “punch it” in disagreement, adding their exclamation point with tire-squealing. Most people keep their eyes pointed straight ahead, either focused strictly on driving, or unwilling to engage. Our hope is to connect with those who want to engage but may not know how. We’re there to gently nudge them toward first base. Today, I’m remembering people who nudged me around the bases of “civic engagement” by supplying reasons, tools, and coaching.
It started with my family. They taught me to be proud of my heritage. They did this with stories. Grandpa Mac made sure I knew about the Irish potato famine in the mid 1800s, as well as the near-genocidal rule by the English, that sent his parents and hoards of other Irish fleeing to North America. Painfully, they discovered that things weren’t much better here. Grandpa explained the meaning of signs that read, “Irish need not apply.” Later, I’d learn that similar signs circulated with names of other unwelcomed groups to replace the “Irish”. My understanding of “oppression” and my identification with “the oppressed” were the seeds of empathy planted by my grandfather.
Frequently, my mother told the story of her father’s arrival at Ellis island. During one of Greece’s brutal civil wars, her grandmother raised the steerage to board her 15-year-old son onto a freighter bound for New York. She knew she might never see him again, but she did this to protect her son from conscription by the Greek Army to fight a war she knew would surely take his life. My mother explained that, despite YaYa’s fears of seeing young George leave her, she chose to give him the chance for a better life. Every legal holiday, my mother honored her YaYa’s faith in America and her father’s pride in his citizenship by placing the American flag in its standard outside our front door. This was an act as important to her as any religious ritual could be. (The seed of patriorism.)
Before attending Kindergarten, we got our first TV. That was a big deal. The evening news became another family ritual. The Huntley-Brinkley Report routinely played in the background as Mom prepared dinner. I remember the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first of many to follow. Of course, we swore loyalty to Kennedy. In our household, the bucking Donkey was as iconic as the Crucifix. (The seed of party affiliation.)
For the next decade, television aired reports of confrontations between blacks and whites rising up across the nation. The images of racial conflict competed with images of a different conflict taking place in the jungle and rice paddies of Viet Nam. Both battles eventually arrived in my neighborhood and then inside my home.
A rebellion triggered by insufferable poverty and discrimination toward blacks, erupted in 1967 in the streets of Detroit. Emotions ran high throughout the community. That year, my brother enlisted and served on a munitions ship bound for the Mekong Delta. While my brother in uniform was crossing the Pacific, my sister was meeting in Madison, Wis. with peace activists from across the country. They were strategizing for the growing anti-war movement. Holiday dinners became fraught with passionate debate. Tempers flared so high that I thought the differences might tear our family apart. I stood by in silence, trying to decide who was “right” and who was “wrong”. Once I left home, I began to understand the difference between “Right” and “Left”! I realize now that our dining room table served as a staging area for developing my “critical thinking” skills. (More seeds planted.)
In 1970, the nation celebrated its first Earth Day. Mom suggested we organize a neighborhood clean-up. So, we hung posters on lampposts, inviting kids to bring rakes and garbage bags. Mom made cookies. She offered treats every time we left another bag of debris at her pick-up site. At the end of the day, she praised the difference we had made and told us how proud we should be for what we had accomplished. This was my introduction to the joy of organizing something, inspiring others to take part, and seeing results. I’ve never stopped loving that!
My sister continued her activist influence. She shared mimeographed copies of pamphlets on the issues. These tracts increased my understanding of systemic causes and necessary changes. They always included a call to action. Through her, I began to learn the “nuts and bolts” for positive social change. She shared how to make it happen and how to stay inspired. (Skill development before YouTube.)
They say, “It takes a village!” So here goes my shout out to our high school Civics teacher who made plain how our complicated democratic system works; to the college professors who imparted a curiosity for history and research that helped me grasp why society looks and acts the way it does; to the scores of people I worked with throughout my career, from diverse racial, ethnic and class backgrounds, who shared their stories, challenged my assumptions, and opened my mind to new ways of seeing the world. Their knowledge and insights strengthened my passion for “community” and expanded my definition of “love”. I thank them all.
Sharing stories has become more important than ever with the myriad challenges we face in today’s world. As I write this reflection on the origins of my lust for civic engagement, I want to discover what today’s youth need to value themselves enough to really care about their future. I’m deeply concerned over reports describing their experiences with depression and anxiety at rates not seen before, and despair that contributes to the rise in incidents of self-harm. We can’t throw up our hands and believe we are powerless. Because that’s not true!
There are things we can do, and must do, when so much is at stake! And we need to do it with young people at our side. This is their world as much, or more, than ours! We can experiment with ways to shape a future that will meet their needs and match their vision. We haven’t any time to lose!
My life has taught me that anger can be a powerful “action emotion”. It spurs us on with its intense demands for something different. “Taking action” can serve as a healing balm for un-channeled anger and despair. Taking action can also be fun, and a wonderful way to forge friendships. It could even be an elixir for some of our nation’s worst heart problems (Maybe start with our empathy deficiency).
We can begin by revering our youth and respecting the leadership roles they will soon inherit for our futures. We mustn’t shy away from their ideas but listen and be receptive. In them lie the answers. We must share our own ideas and beliefs with love and respect so we can craft a path forward. Remember, we’re in this together, preparing our youth for the day when they’ll be in charge. I say, this is a good day to plant some seeds.