Since retiring from my teaching job in Germany and returning to the US, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many older women who inspire me with their achievements in the arts, in fitness, and in community activism. I don’t have to look far to find role models for my retirement years. But recently, I had the privilege of meeting a lady who truly inspired not only me, but an auditorium full of students.
Last week, at Tacoma Community College, we were honored with a visit from a pioneer of the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Diane Nash, then a student at Fisk University in Nashville, was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a leader of sit-ins that resulted in the desegregation of Nashville lunch counters, a leader of the Freedom Riders movement and of the Selma Voting Rights Movement campaign. She was arrested many, many times, spent time in solitary confinement and, like Henry David Thoreau, refused to post bail when arrested for breaking unjust laws. She is now a gracious, soft-spoken lady of 74, and she spoke to the students of TCC about her experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and how the principles that inspired her then can be used by young people today. I was struck by her gentle sincerity, and I did my best to scribble down the many gems of wisdom that she shared with the gathered students.
Ms. Nash explained how she and her fellow student activists used “agapic energy,” a term taken from the Greek word agape, meaning a love of humankind. She prefers this term to “nonviolence” simply because nonviolence is a negative term, signifying the lack of something, whereas agapic energy refers to applying the power produced by a love of humankind – very positive indeed. Her goal during her struggles for civil rights was to wage war using energy produced by love instead of energy produced by violence. According to Ms. Nash, Mohandas Gandhi developed a technique for thousands of people to focus their combined love energy on their opponents, and she and her fellow activists applied this same technique to achieve desegregation in the South. Ms. Nash explained to us that agapic energy helps teach or heal the opponent. This first principle of agapic energy particularly struck me: “People are never the enemy. Unjust systems, attitudes and actions are the enemy, but people are not. The proper attitude toward an opponent is, ’We love and respect you as a person, but we won’t tolerate what you’re doing.’” Wow – I don’t believe that many partisan politicians share Ms. Nash’s views, but imagine what our government could achieve if those partisans focused agapic energy on educating and healing their opponents.
According to Ms. Nash, “Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. The only person you can change is yourself. And when you change yourself, the world has to fit up against a new you. Very often we give away our power and waste a lot of energy trying to change other people.” So simple, so true. Dear reader, will you permit me a personal example? Thanks for your indulgence: I could not change a family member who was bent on making me feel as lowly as possible, and the effort exhausted me. But when I instead focused on changing myself, well, my life became a lot better. I’ll bet you have a story like that as well. So – Amen, Ms. Nash, and thank you for your elegant simplicity.
Alas, my notes became pretty garbled, since I hadn’t thought to bring along a notebook. Here are some of the legible bits from the tangle of notes I took on the front cover of the Weekly Volcano (newsletter of hipster happenings in Seattle):
“History’s most important function is to cope with the present and the future.” We educators are encouraged by our – er – leaders in the field to make the subject matter relevant to the students. Brava, Ms. Nash.
“Voting is important, but it is not enough.” “If we had waited for elected officials to desegregate lunch counters, 50 years later, we’d still be waiting. “
“The most critical question is, ‘What can I do?’ For anything to work, you must do it.” Ms. Nash reminded the students that, although Dr. King was an outstanding spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement, it was not his movement – it was a people’s movement. Any campaign for social change must be a people’s movement.
“Freedom is not something you get, and then you’ve got it; it’s a constant struggle.” Does that ring true, ladies?
And finally, her parting remarks: “I’d like you to know that, although we hadn’t met you [referring to the students in the audience], we loved you. Future generations are looking to you to do the same for them.” What an inspiring challenge! Here’s to the students of TCC, and to their fellow students across the country. May we find inspiration in the words of this great lady, and may we direct agapic energy toward building a better future for ourselves, and for future generations.