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Forces of Will

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One year and a few days ago, we ran the first installment of "ProActive," a series of in-depth profiles of "some of the Triangle's most noteworthy, and notorious, progressive activists." We intended to run these stories for about six months, but as the list of potential subjects grew, and as the stories got a positive response, we let 'em continue to appear every month or so, for a total of 11 profiles. We conclude the series this week with Taylor Sisk's profile of Dan Pollitt.

It's hard to gauge the success of the series, since good news doesn't generally occasion a great deal of reader response--and that, basically, is what this series was intended to underscore. Good news: There's a buzz of activism out there in the Triangle. Progressive, creative thinkers are putting their thoughts into action and changing our world, immediately and beyond.

When we introduced "ProActive," we noted what journalist JoAnn Wypijewski has called "a crackle of energy," a resurgence throughout the country of grassroots activism. We've since heard that crackle rise to a din in Seattle, with groundswell protests against the World Trade Organization. Seattle was a seminal event, a harbinger of dissidence to come. As Ajamu Dillahunt, one of our featured activists, put it: "The fact that the organized trade-union movement was involved was great, but they were also part of a coalition of other people and other forces. Environmentalists, people interested in hunger issues, AIDS activists concerned about the availability of AIDS medicine in Africa and the developing world--all these people came together. It put us in a good place going into the new millennium."

Other people and other forces: Those were the subjects of "ProActive." Bill Moyers called Carrie Bolton's voice a "cry from the soul of democracy." There were no fancy-pants facilitators among our bunch, no limousine liberals, no headline-grabbers. All of them work diligently at the grassroots level to effect change. Their issues include disability rights, racial justice, campaign-finance reform, opposition to foreign policy, economic justice, gay rights, historical preservation, animal rights, environmental protection, protection in the workplace and homelessness.

Their ages range from 26 to 78. Some are loud, some soft-spoken.

Their methods vary considerably. Carrie Bolton sings out from her pulpit against corporate greed and racial injustice. Hez Norton pools the energies of queer youth. In his novels and essays, Allan Gurganus petitions for forgiveness and compassion and gentle humor, while in town meetings he advocates for the preservation of our heritage. Leslie Mann, director of an animal-rescue organization, carries Gaines Burgers in her car to feed homeless dogs she encounters. Mary Uebelgunne defends homeless humans and takes them into her own home.

Organizing, lobbying, picketing, preaching, protesting, posturing, postering, pissing, moaning, sitting in, standing up, lying down, refusing to come, refusing to go, insisting on coming, insisting on going--these, to name a few, are the ways our profilees express their opposition to injustice.

Drawing out this diversity was important, because we hoped "ProActive" would add up to something more than a series of in-depth articles about some fascinating folks. We hoped it would speak to you. We hoped it would suggest that, no matter what your issues or your temperament or your organizing ability (or lack thereof), there are any number of ways that you go about making a dent in the wrongs of this world.

After reading these stories, we hoped you'd believe, along with Jim Warren, "there are changes that can be made. There are answers." Sounds simple enough, and it is. But most of us never acknowledge it.

Talking about the devastating effects of sanctions against Iraq, Rania Masri said, "The tragedy is so immense that it becomes personal." So when it does, what do you do?

You join with others, likewise offended. You begin to make contacts, to reach outside your immediate community of fellow believers--like Jim Warren, who, as one observer said "worked hard to go beyond traditional environmentalism and involve regular folks, not just your ponytailed enviros."

You encourage and cajole, you compromise or you don't. And you go around asking people, as Masri does, "So where do you stand?"

You do what you can with the resources you have.

You become: "tenacious," "fiery," "fearless," "gentle," "passionate," "compassionate," "intense," "emotional," "idiosyncratic," "manipulative," "genuine," "genteel," "a guerrilla-bitch-gimp from hell."

You make sacrifices. "What personal life?" asked Leslie Mann. Or maybe, like Dan Pollitt, you find that proper balance between home and front line.

You believe. "Almost every faith," said Barbara Earls, "is built on a 'mercy leg' and a 'justice leg.' " She was speaking of denominational religion, but she might as well have been speaking of a more general faith--faith in a better world. "I remind them how badly their faith will wobble if they only walk on one leg, and forget to work for justice."

You carry a vision of a better world. You set about seeing it realized. You hang in, hang on. Like Mary Uebelgunne, on the eve of yet another threatened eviction for practicing what she preaches and housing the homeless, affirming, "Oh, it will all work out. It always has."

Or like Joy Weeber: "I don't despair. I just keep looking for ways to speak, I keep looking for places to plant seeds. You have to be out there to do it."

Maybe more than anything else, you are audacious. What our far-flung profile subjects most held in common, after all, is a considerable force of will. But don't make the mistake of thinking they all came into the world that way.

"I'm beginning to understand that bravery can be incremental," Allan Gurganus said. "I think when we're young we believe that bravery involves a dragon on the road or a sphinx with a riddle that we could either solve or not and then we go home. But it seems to me now that the people I admire the most are the people who ... somehow find a way to be interested in the world and get up and start over again every day."

In one profile, local activist Mandy Carter observed that her "hopes and aspirations rest with people new to organizing. They're less jaded, less cynical and willing to step out and take risks." At that moment she was referring to Hez Norton. But, hey, she just might have been speaking to you. EndBlock

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