I spent the weekend at PeaceJam, a conference designed to “empower youth to make positive change in their communities.” Here in Corvallis, that often means the sons and daughters of activist liberals, but it was created to give kids who were looking at gang life an alternative, and that is one of the underlying vibes of the weekend. There were over 200 kids—bouncy middle school soccer players and kids with parole officers in attendance. It was an interesting mix, but it worked. The Youth had a grand time, playing team building games and talking about peace as well as listening to a Nobel Peace activist talk politics at their level. The organizers didn’t really know what to do with the adult chaperones; I spent too much time in a circle with fifty people, listening to five or six, lightly bored, wondering why I was there, rather than planting tomatoes.
One of the central rituals of the weekend is the Ceremony of Inspiration. Anyone can stand up and tell the crowd who inspired them to work for peace and justice. The Laureate begins—her family inspired her. Kids troop to the front, talk about their families and friends, some living, some dead, who inspire and support them. Everyone applauds. When a kid talks about losing his mom to cancer, there are sniffles in the room. When another talks about her friend, the friend calls out from the crowd. “Love you, Ashley!” echoes through the room. I drift off, look up to see Sandy Cisneros, one of the OSU students leading the Youth for the weekend, peering over the podium. “I’m on my tip-toes,” she said with a smile. “When I was in ninth grade,” she continued, “In my English classroom, there was a bumper sticker.” That’s my room, I think. “It read ‘The world is run by the people who show up.’ It inspired me—so here I am. I showed up.”
And it is so true. The world is run by the people who show up. In Corvallis, if a dozen people testify, it can sway the council; the land use planners are more difficult. Enough letters to create a file folder on a specific topic can influence the state legislature. Clearly, as we have seen, every vote counts. So we have to show up. To move chairs so that people can watch a movie, and bring cookies so that they stay after to talk about it. To stand in front of the courthouse, silent, dressed in black, to absorb the anger of frustrated white guys in big trucks who shout at the “damn hippies” – never mind that some of those hippies were in Vietnam and know what happens in a war. And, sometimes, that means being lightly bored in an endless meeting—because you never know, never know, when you might inspire someone, although it’s probably not when you are trying to do so.