By Yezdyar S. Kaoosji
Getting In the Way
I am writing this column on Valentine’s Day 2013. The Fresno County Clerk has just confirmed that more than the requisite number of signatures has been collected to require a referendum on the Fresno City Council decision to privatize residential waste collection. With diligence and hard work, more than 39,000 signatures were collected in less than three weeks; 27,589 petitions were certified as valid city voters, far above the required 21,828.
By the time this newspaper is on the distribution racks on March 1, the City Council may have decided whether to submit the question to a citizens’ vote or to revisit the privatization action with greater scrutiny as was demanded by dozens of speakers at three City Council hearings late last year. Although a public vote could cost the City upward of $1,000,000, the City Council could opt to save city funds and vote to rescind the ordinance.
Whatever the final outcome, this episode flashed back in memory a commencement speech at the UCLA School of Public Affairs on June 16, 2006. I thought it appropriate to share the address given by a graduating master’s degree student, because it is relevant to the work that a diverse group of citizens has done in Fresno, to achieve a common goal through a fair democratic process. In the interest of full disclosure, I must add that the student who gave the commencement speech is my son, Sheheryar Kaoosji.
Good morning. Thank you all for coming.
So I got hit by a truck the other day. I was riding my bike down Santa Monica Boulevard, trying to stay as far to the right as I could—and this truck tried to get around me, clipped my back tire and knocked me down.
I was all right—I landed on my feet, I was just a little freaked out. The guy in the truck pulled over, stopped and checked if I was OK, and apologized. I was going to tell him to be more careful, but he told me something real interesting.
He said to me, “You should have gotten in my way. Then I wouldn’t have tried to pass you, and I wouldn’t have hit you.”
I said, “Why do you want me to get in your way?”
The truck driver said, “Well, if you’re in the middle of the lane, I can’t just plow through you. But with you over on the edge—I felt like I could get by.”
I just glared at him, said OK, and rode off. But what he said stuck with me after I got home.
I came to UCLA to acquire tools—learn about statistics, economics, whatever. And those things will help us, in careers where we’ll influence the way public institutions work, make them function better, and make them more just for all of us. But all those skills and ideas we’ve developed—they’re only useful if sometimes, when it’s justified, we use them to get in the way.
Now by “get in the way,” I don’t mean just complain a lot, and slow things down. No, we have the tools and the position to do more than just stand in the way—we can create space to make positive change. We’ve been privileged to have received education here to have the ability to change the way things get done, the way people get treated and the way money gets spent.
No matter where you end up working, don’t just play your part. Take the time to look at your organization, your clients, even your friends and family, and speak up.
There’s a guy named Thomas Schelling—he won the Nobel Prize in economics last year. He writes a lot about commitment—how you can negotiate better results if you show you have no other options. So, if you ride your bike in the middle of the road, the truck driver has to slow down and stay behind you. And, maybe when that happens, you’re more than just a flash in the corner of his eye. You’re visible! And what you say has a real resonance.
Schelling also talks about how, once you commit, it’s much easier to get others to follow. Like when one person starts crossing on a red light—and everybody else immediately follows. Action is contagious—and if we want to dedicate ourselves to being catalysts, we gotta commit—stand up and have faith that other people will join in.
Otherwise, you get run over!
We’re all going to have pieces of paper in a few minutes that tell people that we’re supposed to know what we’re talking about. And whether it’s a million people in downtown L.A. calling for changes in immigration law or a dozen people at a house meeting talking about global warming, there are opportunities all the time to help stop business as usual and instead build a world that makes sense to us. Our diplomas and the skills they represent are protection for us when we go out and get in the way—protection a lot of other people aren’t lucky enough to have.
The Jewish culture is rooted in the notion that the world is broken, and our role on earth as human beings is to help put it back together. I know every one of us is going to walk out of here and do our damndest to make that happen.
So, when we see injustice, we have to stand up and do something about it—and let our actions be a model for others. And when someone else is standing up, we must stand up and join them. When something is broken, it is our duty—and I don’t just mean us graduates—I mean everyone here—to get in the way and make it right.
And when you do, I promise, the rest of us will be standing right there with you.
Today, nearly seven years later, Sheheryar is practicing what he preached in his commencement address. He is “getting in the way” of Walmart as the research coordinator of Warehouse Workers United, a program of Change to Win. The work they are doing has already resulted in a few successful lawsuits and greater public awareness of the unfair practices in the so-called professional-temp system used by major corporations to shield themselves behind labor contractors while exploiting workers. Last year, Sheheryar was invited to speak at the international labor conference on the worldwide impact of issues related to professional-temp employment in Guangzhou, China, as a member of the University of California, Berkeley, labor program contingent.
While sharing this idea “of getting in the way,” my thoughts wander. Of late, we are witnessing a new form of activism—the exponential growth of petition drives. How many times over the past week have you received urgent requests to sign petitions for one cause or another? Wouldn’t it be great if every petition drive came with a specific action project, where the signature is not the final action but the first step? A petition should not be an end in itself. It should be a warm up before an activity.
So let us ensure that once we sign a petition, we have the commitment and energy to do something about it. I welcome your thoughts on how to respond to this newfangled invasion that has started clogging our e-mail in-boxes several times each day.
In response to my request in the February column, I received good feedback from several readers who shared their favorite progressive electronic resources. Here is a list of the most mentioned sites:
This list will remain open. Please share and update it. In addition, remember that most print magazines and newsletters are also available through their Web sites.
Having given you this impressive list, I feel obligated to share a few tips for managing the incoming flow. If you subscribe to several newsletters, your inbox will bloat and you will have a mix of communications staring you in the face. I have learned to manage this challenge by using two simple strategies.
First, I opened a separate e-mail account that I use only to receive electronic newsletters and newspapers. I created a filing system that drives the received newsletters into their own files. Second, I started to schedule reading time on my calendar. Initially, I controlled my time reading online with an egg timer, and now I use my smart phone to remind me when to get off the computer.
A point of caution: Do not “forward” anything from this e-mail address. Forward it to your own public e-mail account, and share it from that address. This will keep your newsletter address safe and private. Whenever you send an e-mail, your address becomes public property and you lose control over its travels in cyberspace…forever!
By the way, please use the “blind copy” system if you have to send group announcements. And, if someone sends a meeting notice with a huge number of addresses in the “To” column, please resist the temptation to “reply all” because too many e-mail tsunamis reach people who do not need to read messages like, “Sorry, I cannot attend the meeting, I have to take my dog to the vet!”
Yezdyar Kaoosji is a steering committee member of the Progressive Network of Central California and a board member of the California Association of Nonprofits and the Fresno Free College Foundation/KFCF FM 88.1 Free Speech Radio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.