Tonight I experienced humble gratitude and sense of fraternity that is a rare pleasure. The Hergenrother Foundation welcomed me into the mix of speakers at the Ignite Burlington 2015 event at the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center, and I gave the statement below, titled, ‘The Elevation of Agitation: Empowering Voices & Remembering Simple Truths.’ Sending heartfelt thanks to Adam Hergenrother, Hallie Warner, and everyone who created, supported, or participated in the event!

With the small effort of turning our head from the practical world ahead of us, toward the roots of empathy and back again, we practice humanity; we practice aspiring to thrive.

I’m proud as a human when I discover other people acting like they want their species to thrive. I see this most often at hardcore punk rock shows at our teen center or in basements, where young people come together to share their art and speak to one another as messengers for a higher social order, where respect for one another is not just a code among themselves, but a universal and inclusive rule. There is an imperative to not just talk about a better world, but to accomplish it.

Willingness to share a vision for a better society, and a better world, emerges from having a sense of justice and faith that justice is attainable, and having the confidence to be an ambassador of this vision. But we aren’t born into having confidence. And as we grow we learn that human frailties find expression even in the fabric of the world.

Through our lives we all find comfort in the voice inside that, when it’s speaking, is reminding us of who we are. We make choices and commitments to our paths. Our actions have tone and timbre. Who we are and what we do contributes to something symphonic and much bigger than our selves.

There is significance when our personal choices start to give pattern to the weave of the world, and significance again when our time together ends and we contribute the combined wisdom of our lives to a cycle that renews with each generation. Our choices become our legacy.

The decisions we make depend on how comfortable we are in making them. When we see the consequences of our choices clearly before we choose, when we see the future that our choices will bring us in the real world, our choices are easy. We avoid pain and we strive for more comfort when we watch the path ahead. We navigate in this direction with the muscle memory of self preservation.

But we can see in the other direction, too.  We can look backward, to the origin of our humanity, to where we are first shaped. In that direction, we find our neglected inspirations, the values that are fundamental and give us clarity. We value trust, and fairness, and compassion, and aspiration. These values would not exist without other people for our choices and actions to reflect from. With the small effort of turning our head from the practical world ahead of us, toward the roots of empathy and back again, we practice humanity; we practice aspiring to thrive.

As we each earn or by chance find ourselves in positions of authority, empowered by our civic framework, by our economy and our governance — as we are enabled to elevate or punish others, as we create the laws that touch every life; as we define the strategies of who will be served and who will be marginalized in our society — we choose that the moral handrails of trust and fairness be reached for.

Yet, I find leaders who asked to be leaders, but in their silence or evasion choose to not lead. I find leaders that pantomime campaigns of public engagement, choosing to not include. I find leaders who walk their paths without looking back to remind themselves that their decisions should foster fairness in our society. They choose other priorities. I find leaders who anathematize their critics and shrink from the conversations that would make their work fair and transparent and inclusive. They choose to not aspire.

What surprises me most, is that the brightest torchlight illuminating our future is held by the youngest among us. The young musicians who take their anger, the injustices and physical violence of the world and re-forge it into music and words, and share it with others as a transformative message, one that’s imbued with compassion and the confidence to construct a stronger community, a society of peers who because of this example of reflection and passion and inclusion, choose also to be ambassadors for justice.

The path of least resistance is a path of least-difficult choices. We are surrounded by values we don’t habitually reflect on. Our individual choices affect us all. And we recognize that it takes confidence to choose to make choices that are the bright lines from our values to our actions.

I found a photo online of a girl holding a sign that said, “Punk Rock 101: When someone falls, pick them up. In the pit and in life.’ It was posted by a teenager named Sarah, who started a Facebook page to meet friends and spread an anti-bullying and autism awareness message. Sarah experienced complications from premature birth, has autism, learning and emotional challenges, but still reaches  — from values of compassion and inclusion — for a better future with a page titled ‘I’m different, you’re different, let’s be friends.’

If Sarah can draw a bright line from values to actions; if the youth of Burlington can transmute anger into a halcyon catharsis, then every single one of us has the capacity to achieve — with confidence — a society that’s improved by our choices. By making values real through our actions we gain the footing to encourage principled choices by our peers. We don’t need more leaders. But we do need more people who know what leadership is.

Update January 20, 2016: This essay has been printed in the current issue of Maximum RocknRoll, in the ‘Teaching Resistance’ column, a “platform for radical, subversive teachers/educators, especially those in and around DIY/punk culture, to share their ideas and draw attention to important issues around education.” MRR is an independent, not-for-profit international punk fanzine based in San Francisco, published since 1982.

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