MLK Inspires Our Power-to

Inspiration is balm for the soul and a powerful kick in the resolve to take action.

Last year, to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr on his birthday, I posted this call to share his quotes that have most inspired you.  I hope you’ll go read them, for I know you’ll be inspired to use your “power to” to take action.

Upon rereading the quotes, I was struck by what  King said about power: “I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.” In words far more eloquent than mine, King tells us to define power on our terms. To reject the oppressive power-over model; to use the power to, in order to do good.

As I  mourn the effects of power over, carried to its logical extreme by Jared Loughner  in Tucson a week ago, I am so grateful for King’s uplifting words. They  remind me to celebrate Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ moral, right, and good use of her power to make life better for her constituents, her state, and the nation.

And I am inspired all over again.

What MLK quote most inspires you to use your power to? Please share it here to honor Dr. King’s birthday.

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All eyes will be on Hillary Clinton when she speaks tonight at the Democratic National Convention.

Media pundits and McCain loyalists will be parsing her every word, scrutinizing her every nuance, analyzing every element of her body language for quite a different reason. They love a political food fight. They’ll pounce on any whiff of tepidness, real or imagined, in her support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. The Republicans have even set up a “Happy Hour for Hillary”,  lying in wait to whip up animosity toward Obama, whether their spin is real, or if all else fails, conjured up by their Rovian attack dogs.

But while talking heads will strain to see any shred of conflict between the Democratic nominee-to-be and the second-runner, some of us will be looking at the occasion with what the Tohono O’Odham people call “long eyes”.

The historic significance of the first time a woman came close to winning a major party’s presidential nomination gives special meaning to the serendipity that today, August 26th, is Women’s Equality Day –the 88th anniversary of American women’s right to vote. And the fact that Thursday, when Barack Obama will deliver his acceptance speech, will mark the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, gives the Democrats powerful symbolic bookends unmatched by any convention in recent memory.

In her own elegant speech last night, Michelle Obama observed that she herself resides in the intersection of advances that have been made for both women and African Americans, acknowledging Hillary’s “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling”
and Dr. King’s dream.

On Women’s Equality Day, it is important to note that history always has long eyes.  The movement to get women the right to vote began during the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY. It took 72 years of diligent organizing, continuous campaigning, and courageous speaking out before the 19th amendment to the Constitution was adopted. Only one attendee of the Seneca Falls convention—Charlotte Woodward—was still alive by then; she cast her first vote at age 81. I thought of her when Senator Ted Kennedy spoke so movingly about his long quest for universal health care in his extraordinary “season of hope” speech that brought the convention to cheers and tears just before Michelle spoke.

In the face of charges that women were too emotional to be entrusted with the serious act of voting (or alternately that women would just vote like their husbands, so why bother giving them the franchise), the suffragists persisted until they prevailed, and female citizens of our nation achieved that basic right of free people: to have an equal voice in electing those make the laws and policies that govern our lives.

Because of the suffragists, and all the courageous activists like Clinton who’ve taken up the torch and run with it to ever-greater height, women have reached a power point unparalleled in our nation’s history.

Sure, Hillary must feel a sense of disappointment that she’s not breaking that “highest and hardest glass ceiling” in politics. So do I and many of the women who ached to see a woman president in our lifetime. There’s no substitute for a clear win. But Hillary Clinton is a great leader precisely because she sees with long eyes that, while history is important, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” in her mentor Eleanor Roosevelt’s words.

Women in years past couldn’t have even dreamed of Hillary’s candidacy, let alone more subtle advances: Ted Kennedy mentioned gender as one of the divisions our nation must overcome so that “the dream lives on”; the Democratic platform for the first time highlights sexism as an injustice that must be rooted out; even greeting card companies are putting out Women’s Equality Day cards these days.

And everyone says that because women vote in greater percentages than men and are more likely to be swing voters, women will determine the outcome of the general election.

There’s much to celebrate this Women’s Equality Day. But John McCain’s inherently anti-woman agenda places in sharp relief that there is ever so much more unfinished business we must still act upon every day going forward. I anticipate Hillary Clinton’s speech will urge us convincingly to see our way clear to do exactly that.


Recently I spoke to the first “class” of Progressive Women’s Voices, an exciting new program of the Women’s Media Center, where I serve on the board. I was asked about the lessons I learned leading a social movement where I worked a great deal with the media and messages as vehicles of social change. Here are my comments:

Once, soon after we arrived in New York, my husband Alex and I were on the corner of 57th and 8th talking rather intensely with our realtor. A homeless man approached us and asked, “Will you give me the money for a lobster dinner?” We paid no attention and went on talking about our apartment options.

“Will you give me the money for a lobster dinner?” the man repeated a little louder. Again, we didn’t respond. Again the man made his request. At this point, my Brooklyn born husband quipped back, “What’s the matter, a hamburger isn’t good enough?” The man pulled himself up to full height, puffed out his chest, and precisely enunciated every word as he retorted: “Answer the question as asked!”

The lesson is this: when you are making change—and with Progressive Women’s Voices (PWV), we’re changing the way the media portrays women and women’s stories and issues–we do not answer the question as asked. We determine what we want the question to be and start there.

Your passion for your substantive areas of expertise and the power of your knowledge are key elements to enable you to frame the questions as you think they should be. That’s the obvious part.

But the most important thing is that you must also learn to embrace controversy, not run away from it if you want to use your message to get your ideas into the political and cultural bloodstream. Here’s why:

Politics writ large is the clash of uncertainties from which social realities are constructed (as I’ve quoted political scientist Walt Anderson in my podcast).  You are groundbreakers. Your mission is creating new social realities.  We tend to recoil from controversy, women especially. Learning to walk into the wave of controversy and ride it rather than backing away from it is by far the most important political communication lesson I learned and that I want to impart to you.

Like Margaret Sanger and Rosa Parks, we are revolutionaries. We are insurgents. We are a movement. And a movement has to move. Forward. More or less together. And when we do that we will make some waves. We will create some controversy. We will tick some people off. That is a good thing.  Parks and Sanger had to do civil disobedience—so our task is easy, we just have to use our freedom of speech.

We must learn not just to deal with or dodge but to embrace controversy. Controversy is your friend. Think of 6 “C’s”:

Controversy is the
Courage to risk putting your
Convictions out there to the world, using the controversy strategically, because controversy is a Clarifier—it gets people’s attention so you can use your platform to present your
Case at a time when people are paying attention, and therefore controversy is a
Change agent—because to make change you have to make people think  differently, learn new things, and clarify their values.

Martin Luther King said, “The true measure of a man (and I am sure that today he would add ‘or woman’) is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of controversy and change.”

So learning to embrace controversy–not for its own sake but for what it can do to create those new social realities—is the most important lesson I’ve learned.

Do not answer the question as asked unless it is the question you want to answer.