Coral reef die offs; “bomb cyclones” and historic wildfire blazes from the easternmost United States to the Pacific coast; Arctic ice melting faster than models predicted. Persistent bigotry in the highest halls of government; rampant sexual harassment and abuse – the list of dismal news goes on and on.
Up against it all, it’s understandable that many of us feel that our efforts to build a better world are futile, like drops in a bucket. Or, perhaps more precisely, we feel we’re like a raindrop in the Sahara – our efforts, our work, rarely, if ever, even touches ground. It just evaporates.
But perhaps we should rethink how we feel about our impact. What if we focused, instead, on how a drop in the bucket can actually be quite significant: We may never know if we are the first drop, or the one that will cause the water to spill over the edge.
I think about Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, the New York Times investigative journalists who exposed decades of abuse by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein – and the collusion and cover-up that allowed it to fester for so many years. Who could have known that in the wake of those revelations a #MeToo movement would take the world by storm, exposing the rampant sexual harassment and abuse prevalent in industries and workplaces far beyond Hollywood?
photo Green Belt Movement
I think of the climate change campaigners who called on investors to divest from fossil fuels and for financiers to end their support of the most polluting industries. Those early divestment campaigners, who were up against some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, were told the battle was too hard, the opponents too powerful. Who could have guessed that their efforts would gain such momentum that we would end up with a global metropolis like New York City deciding to fully divest from fossil fuels, and lighting the Empire States Building green to celebrate its decision?
I think of so many of the most significant changemakers our world has ever seen and how their early efforts were often met with derision and ridicule, their visions dismissed as the impossible dreams of starry-eyed radicals.
Consider Dr. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist who was the first woman to receive a PhD in biological sciences in East and Central Africa. In 1977, she planted seven trees in honor of seven women leaders, and with that one moment of symbolism, she birthed a movement that helped restore indigenous forests and empowered women in villages across the country by inspiring them to plant trees in their communities.
When my mother and I first met Maathai in 2000, her organization, the Green Belt Movement, had just lost its biggest funder, her organic agriculture educators were being threatened with arrest for their “dangerous” teachings about the harms of toxic chemicals, and the country’s president, Daniel arap Moi, had been serving since 1978 and seemed firmly entrenched in power.
We were so moved by Maathai’s vision, but, honestly, we didn’t know if her organization would even last the year. How could we have known that only a few short years later, the president would be voted out of office and, encouraged by her constituents, Maathai would run for, and win, a seat in the Kenyan Parliament? Nor did we ever imagine that only four years after we first met her, in 2004, Maathai would be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai has since passed away, but the Green Belt Movement is still thriving. To date, it has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya, promoted village-based democracy building, and been a model for other movements around the world.
There is a kind of humility in this metaphor for social change: You likely will never know the full impact of your sole, solitary drop in the bucket. But in that humility there is liberation –liberation to keep dreaming, and keep fighting, even when the forces against you seem invincible.
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