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The Change Agent

Paul Rogat Loeb wants you to change the world—and he’s not accepting any excuses. You’re just an ordinary person? Fine. Don’t have all the facts? That’s okay too. Think you’re not particularly charismatic or well spoken? Not a problem.

Follow your heart and get involved, Loeb insists. The issue you pick doesn’t have to be the most important or urgent in the world. It just has to be something you think is badly wrong that you could perhaps, in your own small way, help fix.

Loeb’s Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times updates his similarly titled 1999 book, Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. It’s the latest attempt by the activist since the ’60s to rally boomers and the generations that sandwich them. To show what individuals can do today, he tells stories of the amazing feats accomplished by their counterparts in the past: The end of slavery. Women’s right to vote. Workers’ rights. The end of British colonial rule in India. The end of segregation in the United States.

Loeb’s politics lean liberal, and 2009 was a bit of a letdown for activists of his ilk who expected Barack Obama to push through universal health care coverage, close the military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, pull American troops out of Iraq, act on global warming and call to account Wall Street and banking industry practices. But, Loeb says, that doesn’t mean those who crave change should feel discouraged—and his message isn’t for liberals only.

“The involvement in our democracy is larger than any single political perspective,” he says, encouraging everyone to stay involved in causes they believe in. He also says it’s critical for people to listen to their opponents, be open and find common ground.

He spoke with the AARP Bulletin about this and other passions.

Q. What did you discover when you updated the 1999 edition?

A. I was surprised by how much had changed in 10 years. The first edition came out before September 11, before the Iraq War, before the dot-com collapse and the most recent financial woes. Most Americans were paying little attention to climate change. That’s the ultimate issue of our time, and I wasn’t even thinking about it. We’re living in really challenging times. Of course, there have always been challenges, but what we’re facing now is huge.

Q. What’s the mood of the country right now?

A. The degree of vulnerability that people are feeling is enormous. The bottom is falling out of so much that we’ve been counting on. For the past 30 years, we’ve been strip-mining our economy. We’ve made decisions that favor financial speculation. People are genuinely worried now. They’re scared about their future.

Q. Given that climate, why didn’t you keep the old title, Cynical Times?

A. I certainly did consider it. But I chose “challenging times” because we still have major possibilities for change. When you look at something like health care reform, maybe some people were naive not to expect resistance. You could say, “Well, there’s nothing that could ever change.” But you could also argue that some progress is being made.

Q. How so?

A. You see more willingness of citizens to get involved and take on hard public issues, which is greater now than during the cynicism at the end of the Clinton years. A lot depends on understanding how change occurs. It’s never fast. Take the U.S. civil rights movement. Rosa Parks was active for 12 years and had plenty of frustrations and failures before the moment she refused to sit in the back of the bus. Change is complicated, and it takes a lot of persistence, work and people. You keep working for what you believe in, and if you hit some setbacks, you keep working.

Q. Have you always understood that?

A. It’s a lesson that many of us learn with age. When you have a candidate that runs on hope and then he gets elected and things don’t immediately change, it’s too easy to conclude, “Everything’s messed up. I’m going home.”

Q. What needs to happen to effect change?

A. The real challenge is for ordinary people to say to elected leaders, “We want you to tackle these problems, because you have to if we’re going to emerge as a strong country.” This demand can’t come from inside the Beltway; it has to come from ordinary citizens. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, says, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.”

Q. Does change always have to be political? What about volunteering in your community?

A. Personal volunteering unquestionably makes us a better society. But I do think it’s a myth that these approaches can solve all our problems. When we’re volunteering, I encourage people to look upstream and explore the roots of the situations they’re trying to address. And then figure out some common ways to tackle them, which probably will require political action, whether at the local, state or federal level. While we’re never going to agree on all the best solutions, we need ordinary citizens involved in debating them out.

Q. What happened to all the grassroots organization of 2008?

A. The administration has fallen short on the follow-up. If I look at the 13 million people who were on the campaign’s e-mail list, most of them have done little since the election. Most supporters didn’t realize that their job had just begun, that change wouldn’t happen just by them watching events on TV, or signing the occasional Internet petition.

Q. So where did the Obama team fail in its transition from political campaign to presidential administration?

A. During the campaign, Obama’s team encouraged people to run with their own initiatives for their own causes. But afterward, those people haven’t built their own independent momentum. Look at the example of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Initially, they really tried to put the brakes on the civil rights movement because they feared it would totally shatter the Democratic coalition, which it did. But the civil rights movement persisted. Then Johnson embraced the movement, even though he knew the Democrats would lose the South for a generation as a result.

Q. You write about boomers who wanted to change the world in the ’60s lapsing into “learned helplessness.” Was it a matter of getting older?

A. Remember, the baby boomers are not a monolithic generation. Yes, some people participated in social change efforts in the ’60s. But they were still a minority. Going to Woodstock or wearing your hair long or smoking marijuana—these are lifestyle choices and are not the same as attending a protest. The two groups got conflated. A lot of the people who were really involved in the 1960s stayed involved. Now, they’re less defiant. They’re more humble. Which is good.

Q. Give us an example.

A. Pete Knutson was an 18-year-old preacher’s kid who became the only draft-age man during Vietnam to testify before Congress against the draft. He made national headlines when Sen. Strom Thurmond walked out on him. Now he’s a commercial fisherman who’s built some pioneering environmental alliances in Washington State, including working with members of very conservative religious denominations like the Assemblies of God. His political work may not be as dramatic as it was at the height of the Vietnam War, but it’s equally important in its own way.

Q. Why don’t we hear much about people like Knutson?

A. Our media tends to be pretty contemptuous of change. There’s a constant message of: “Who are you to think that you can change anything—you’re foolish.” The story during the ’60s that got told was, “If you didn’t achieve it then, you didn’t achieve it.”

The story we need is, “If you’re going to achieve it, you have to keep on. You have to work with people who are not like you.”

Q. Like the Tea Partiers teaming up with leftists?

A. Many Tea Partiers are angry that the major banks have continued what they consider greedy and reckless behaviors after being bailed out by the public. Many who’d consider themselves more liberal have the same complaint. So there’s common ground. The Christian Coalition, a very conservative group, teamed up with the major liberal group MoveOn to help save internet neutrality. The Christian Coalition is now teaming up with the National Wildlife Federation—whose members include many conservative hunters and fishermen—to work on climate change. One of the major voices for alternative energy is former CIA head James Woolsey, who was very much allied with the Bush administration on issues like Iraq. You have to cross political lines whenever you can.

Q. Do you ever feel deeply discouraged?

A. Yes. I will be involved in something, and whatever I’m involved in will, in the short term, lose. And I’ll be upset and think, “This is bad for our country.” But I’ll take a walk and feel better. Afterward, I’ll come back and think, “It’s true this didn’t succeed, but if we tried something different …”

Q. What advice do you have for people trying to get off the couch and get started?

A. Jump in where your heart calls you most. Health care and climate change need attention. Darfur and downtown Detroit need attention. And rural Pennsylvania and Alabama. Go where your voice really matters. But start—and see where it leads you.

Nelson Mandela uses the phrase “the multiplication of courage.” That’s what we need: Speaking a difficult truth; talking to someone who might disagree with you; working across political lines. There’s cynicism and fear. But we still have the chance to move forward. It really does depend on ordinary citizens to act.

Karen Lange is a writer from Takoma Park, Md.