What can we do?

What happens when voices are silenced?
What happens when-even worse-voices are never even heard to begin with?
What happens when children don’t see themselves in the books they read, in the media they consume?
What happens when the news cycle never ends, when talking heads search and destroy as they grasp to find something, anything to keep talktalktalking about?
What happens when it is discovered that fear creates more ratings than joy?
What happens when the majority of people feel afraid, targeted, misunderstood, and isolated?
What happens when bite-sized, news-bubble fear-mongering becomes so popular, so comfortable it runs the legitimate news business into the ground?
What happens when facts are replaced with “facts”?
What happens when empathy is replaced by fear?
What happens when kindness is replaced by entitlement?
What happens when institutional racism just gets a head shake and a sigh?
What happens when institutional sexism just gets a joke and some memes?
What happens when an entire group of people experiences state-sponsored discrimination?
What happens when another group of people experiences this?
And then another?
And then another?
What happens?

I am not a sociologist. I am not a psychologist. I am not a statistician. I am not an anthropologist or a historian. I have no expertise in politics or economics. But I am a human. I am a human who is very good at watching other humans. I am a human who sees stories from miles away. And I am a human who never stops asking questions.

“Well what good is that?” You ask. “We are obviously a society in pain. We are obviously at some kind of crossroads. Who cares if you’re good at watching people? Who cares if you ask questions? We need answers. We need people to act. We need people to fight back. We don’t need watchers. We need doers.”

And how could I argue with you, really? Complacency is complicity. But do you know what is the opposite of complicity and complacency? Empathy and education. I don’t mean school everyday, then college kind of education. I mean education of the world at large. I mean getting out in it, seeing, meeting, befriending people who are different than you are. I mean learning how to have a conversation with a person who has different ideological beliefs than you, and not spiraling into name-calling. I mean being educated as a human being.

This crazy thing happens when you meet other people, when you go outside of your bubble and you talk to other humans, when you hear their personal stories. You learn that they are people just like you. You discover they are not just caricatures, they are not unfamiliar faces in a sea of more unfamiliar faces. Strangers are not strangers. Strangers are us. You learn that just because someone speaks another language he is not stupid. You learn that because a woman covers her head, she is not weak. You learn that two women kissing is not anathema, it is universal love. You learn everyone loves someone. And everyone is loved by someone.

Complacency is complicity and education is empathy.

And this is where our expertise as artists come into play. There’s a reason that when society begins to crumble the artists are some of the first people rounded up and silenced. It’s because artists tell the hard truth. Artists give voices to those who are not heard, are ignored, are unseen, are abandoned, are scary, are terrifying reminders of what life could be.

Artists allow those who cannot go out into the world to do it anyway. They bring you to city streets. They bring you behind shuttered windows of ticky-tacky houses. They put you in a car with a gun pointed at you. They put weapons in your own hands. They show you consequences without putting you jeopardy. They give YOU a voice. They give you validation. They prove you are not alone. They give you answers when no one else can.

A child might not be able to go out into the world to see how others live. It might be difficult for her to even get to school in the mornings, much less strike up a conversation at the bus stop. A teen might be ashamed, afraid or too stuck in his or her own head to be able to reach out — the feeling of isolation so overwhelming that they know in their bones no one else could have ever felt the same way. An adult might feel too much fear to be kind. So what happens then?

I’ll tell you what happens.

We put books in their hands.
We open library doors.
We fill schools with stories about everyone. Everyone.
We provide outlets for the angry and confused by giving them characters who are angry and confused — and yet these characters still find a way to clarity.
We stop being afraid that children will read books where gay people are equals.
We stop saying that books containing people of color “won’t sell.”
We stop sanitizing our shelves, afraid that kids will learn the ugliness of the world too early. (Newsflash: the world is ugly, and children bear the brunt of it)
We teach children empathy through storytelling.
We encourage everyone to learn about people different from themselves, through books, through music, through art, through conversation.
We tell the hard stories.
We offer them up.
We ask questions.
We answer questions – not with dogma, but with thoughtfulness.
We put books in their hands.
We put books in their hands.
We put books in their hands.

And maybe by doing this, the next generation will be better than we are at empathy and kindness. Maybe our legacy will simply be: learn more, do more, be more, read more. Maybe that will be enough. Maybe it’s not too late.

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