By now, most of you have already heard about the wonderful act of kindness done by recent Hinsdale South graduate, Ashley Yong. Instead of spending her money and time on senior prom this past April, she decided to help the homeless. She bought some basic supplies, put them in twenty boxes, and the morning after she could have gone to prom; she went into Chicago to distribute these care packages to people living on the streets. If you haven’t seen the video she made documenting her experience, you really should check it out (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enkPvV-9zSE. You can also see/read coverage of what she did on Eyewitness News, Japanese television, and the Huffington Post).
As for how I’m connected to this fine young woman, she was in my freshman English I Honors class in 2011-12, and she also participated in the school’s radio station that year, which I sponsored (she even designed a t-shirt to promote WHSD, 88.5 FM, “Jive with the Hive!”). Yes, she is a great kid, in my opinion, and it’s hardly surprising to me that she would perform such a selfless, uplifting act. “Exceptional” is an adjective Ashley wears easily; she was selected as Journalist of the Year by the Illinois Journalism Education Association among many other honors she earned during her high school career.
So let’s be 100% clear right from the start that my purpose here is not to criticize Ashley in any way, shape, or form. It was sad that some of her peers did snipe at her giving as a ploy to garner attention. Fortunately, those small-minded attacks gained no traction because not only does what Ashley did transcend that kind of petty stupidity, but anyone with the slightest knowledge of the sincerity and character of this young woman would dismiss whining like that out of hand. Ashley’s actions and motives are beyond reproach, and we can all benefit from her example.
And that leads us to the reason for this essay: We all need to focus on ways we can help out those less fortunate than ourselves, rather than seeing our praise of Ashley as somehow achieving that end. It is a national disgrace that we have any hunger at all, given that we waste roughly a third of the food we produce. (Don’t believe that? Check out this National Geographic article for some evidence as well as suggestions for improvement. Don’t worry; it’s not just Americans who have developed wasteful habits, although we do tend to lead the pack. For a much funnier analysis of this issue, check out John Oliver’s report on Last Week Tonight) And it’s not like we here in the U.S. don’t know what to do: Hunger was much lower with the help of successful, if expensive, government programs in the 1970s. In the 1980s these programs were slashed (along with the release of many mentally ill patients from institutions due to more government programs being cut, which dramatically increased the numbers of homeless). Food banks, PADS, and other charitable organizations have tried to fill the resulting gap, but the continued rise in the number of hungry Americans suggests that volunteer efforts haven’t been enough.
Then there’s income inequality, which has reached levels comparable to those of the pre-Great Depression 1920s. For those of you less aware of US history, that’s not a good thing. Compared to other developed countries in the world, by almost any measure, we do very poorly on income equality. Do a Google search for “income inequality,” and you will find many articles like these from the Washington Post, the Pew Research Center, and The Atlantic which document how poorly the U.S. compares to the rest of the world when it comes to the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. The most common finding is that we are the fourth worst in the developed world, trailing only Chile, Mexico, and Brazil (or Turkey, depending on who’s doing the measuring). For a really thorough analysis of income, wealth, and poverty in the U.S., take a look at this study published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. All of Europe and much of Asia do better than America.
The homeless are one symptom of this inequality, and Ashley’s calling attention to their plight should motivate everyone. Unfortunately, many of us will applaud her efforts by liking her video on Facebook, writing a laudatory comment under one of the news stories about her, or sharing a link on our Twitter feeds; then somehow fool ourselves that we’ve actually accomplished something. It’s becoming easier and easier to “participate” in the acts of others without doing anything of substance whatsoever. And the more we do this kind of “helping,” the more able we are to believe that these gestures rise to the level of selfless action that Ashley’s trip into Chicago was.
No, I don’t believe that when we click on a “Like” button we then equate that to putting together twenty boxes of necessities and distributing them to homeless people instead of going to our senior prom. There is, however, a certain air of smug self-satisfaction in much of the reaction you see to the amazing acts others perform. When the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal in all fifty states, many of us (myself included) used the Facebook app to put a rainbow over our profile pictures, which was a nice show of support. But let’s not confuse this with the efforts of many over the years who did the serious work to raise awareness and file the lawsuits that got us to the point where this injustice was finally righted. Even more to the point, how much did we in the straight majority really do to fight against this clear discrimination?
At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (yeah, I realize I crossed that line long ago in this essay), it’s time for us to recognize the lazy activism many have fallen into and do the heavy lifting of true progressive change. Now, before you completely turn off to this message—“Hey, I did the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ last summer, didn’t I, smart guy?”—understand that the main thing we have to do to make this happen is relatively simple—educate ourselves on the issues and vote accordingly.
Acts of charity and community volunteering should be a much larger part of our lives, and we should be encouraging everyone to do more good works, as Ashley did. And she is walking the walk by establishing a charitable organization to which you can donate, Give a Box. But we also have to face the truth that most of us are way too good at finding excuses that preclude doing much, not to mention the realities of our world which show that no matter how well-intentioned and devoted many of us are (of course that definitely applies to anyone who reads my essays, I’m sure), it will not be enough to end some of the solvable problems we have here in America. Yes, it’s great to pour a bucket of cold water over yourself in order to raise money for an illness which doesn’t receive enough funding, but that can’t cancel out the more important need to solve the problem of increasing the inadequate funding for this important research in the first place.
We have countless issues and causes that need our attention, and it is overwhelming to contemplate all the work that needs to be done to deal with the declining environment, obesity and nutrition issues, illnesses, racism and bigotry, gun violence, struggling inner-city schools, and on and on and on. That’s not even taking into account the problems—some of which America has caused, by the way—in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, Africa, Central America, Russia, and Central America, to name a few. But that’s why we elect representatives: to use our tax dollars and technological prowess to address these issues.
Yet, when it comes time to select these people, the vast majority of us stay at home or vote against our interests. Take a look at the voter turnout for DuPage County Consolidated General Elections (those are the April elections that typically don’t have the “glamorous” positions like President or Senators elected) here, and you will see that although the number of registered voters steadily increases, the percentage of those voters who cast ballots rarely rises above 25%, with the last two elections for which the county has compiled statistics (2011 and 2013) sinking below 20%. Yet, as the residents of Hinsdale Township High School District #86 found out the hard way after a radical minority took over the school board in 2013, the school board members, township officers, and trustees elected to these elections can have a profoundly negative impact on the institutions over which they preside.
Information can be hard to find, and that’s where the effort comes for the voter. You don’t have to skip work to travel to the city in search of homeless to help, but you might have to keep tabs on news which impacts your town, school, or neighborhood. Even due diligence in searching for information might not be enough as it’s tough for the media to be able to cover the “smaller” bodies, not even considering doing investigative research to uncover shady doings. So, you could attend a meeting or two, join a community group, or at least find a friend who is in the know. No, it’s not easy and it will take some persistence, but that’s the responsibility that comes along with the rights in any democracy. Sure, the Chinese government is extremely efficient since it doesn’t have to worry about much protest or pushback from its people; representative democracies are much messier and demand an educated populace to hold leaders accountable. We have the freedom to ignore our government if we want, but we do so at our own peril.
So educating ourselves on the issues, ferreting out the candidates’ proposals to deal with those issues, and demanding those elected follow through on initiating actions to address the issues should be everyone’s top priority. We can and should also engage in acts of charity as well as calling attention to the problems our society faces, exactly as Ashley did. But even if that kind of selflessness is beyond us, we still can use our vast information resources to find out what’s really going on and force the political process to devote our tax dollars to things that really matter.
So the next time you see a news story or Facebook posting that touches upon an issue you find important, go ahead and like/share it. But then do some research as to why this problem still exists at the level it does so you can then determine if the people whose salaries your tax dollars fund are doing what they were elected to do in finding answers to this problem. Activism doesn’t have to be as intense as what Ashley did—although we should all be extremely grateful to the few who help motivate the rest of us in the right directions—but it certainly needs to be more than sighing to ourselves as we read about the wrong we hear about before we move on to our own pursuits. People like Ashley show us that no problems are impossible to address as long as we pay attention, learn what’s going on, and insist that our society make improvements. Thanks, Ashley, and may you keep showing us the way.