Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What I Saw - Civic Activist Dept.

Always Something to Sing About, 1970

Lately I seem to have taken up the mantle of the village crank. You know, the guy who feels like he’s got to say something about everything.

Back during the 60s there was a man from the Eastern Shore hamlet of Oyster, Virginia, who regularly wrote letters to the editor of The Virginian-Pilot under the name “Hard Times Hunt.” I never knew Mr. Hunt. But I liked that he called himself Hard Times, and imagined that he was an old waterman who could be counted on to cut through the politics of things and see them in concise, common sense terms.

I came from a family that respected its “betters,” as they used to say. My parents had opinions, a lot of them and some quite strident. But they would never think of airing them in public. (In their defense, this reticence may have had something to do with one of their friends finding his business set afire after he dared speak out in favor of racial integration.)

When I was 13 or s0, I read The Silent Spring and soon thereafter saw a film at school about the nascent environmental movement. This provoked me to write a letter to a local business that appeared to be dumping commercial waste right onto the beach. The owner of the business, a powerful man locally, was a distant acquaintance of my mother. He rang her up on the phone. She "spoke" to me. My adolescent activist days ended. (The dumping continued.)

During the late 1960s and early 70s, a lot of young people were protesting. The war in Vietnam. Racial inequality. The rights of women. The photograph above, Always Something to Sing About, was shot in Richmond, Virginia’s Monroe Park, where local college students gathered regularly to protest one thing or another. More of the series it comes from can be seen here.

As a researcher, I never know who I’m going to be asked to interview or what routine consumer behavior or potentially explosive public controversy I’ll be asked to get to the bottom of. So it behooves me to be known as something of a neutral vessel.

Only over the last couple of years, though, it’s been harder to keep my thoughts in. I traded off active participation in professional groups for nonprofits. I’m on the board of a regional organization focused on increasing civic engagement. I’ve ghost written newspaper op-ed pieces and speeches on timely issues for other people to give. A week or so ago an opinion piece I wrote about a recent local political decision was published under my own name on the op-ed page of the newspaper. The other day an e-mail response I sent to a friend was passed along to one of the other editorial page editors and will find its way, I’m told, into the newspaper later this week.

I don’t plan to make a career of this. I’m not like that slacker in the movie Margo at the Wedding who spends his days crafting pithy letters to the New York Times. But for now, just call me your friend who’s always got something to sing about.

1 comment:

  1. Good for you. There are far worse folks out there singing, and it's always nice to know someone with some sanity's doing the singing.