The Line Connecting #YesAllWomen, #BlackLivesMatter, and #ItsAWonderfulLife

I’m far from a traditionalist, but I do make one nostalgic exception at Christmastime: each year I make it a point to get out and go see It’s A Wonderful Life on the big screen. The independent movie house in Nashville, the venerable Belcourt Theater, runs the movie (in 35mm, no less) for a week leading up to Christmas. I know it plays throughout the season on TV ad nauseum, but I haven’t owned a TV in decades, and for this particular tradition it’s important to me that I enjoy it in a crowd of people.

Because as much as Frank Capra’s classic, sappy, sentimental movie is about the spirit of Christmas, finding hope in the face of discouragement, not entrusting your scatterbrained uncle to make large cash deposits, and Jimmy Stewart’s crazy eyes, the movie is also about people, humanity, and our flaws. It’s about the working class banding together. It’s about community in a deeply integrative sense.

Of course that’s also, in a twisted way, why at one point the movie was under investigation by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as Communist propaganda (with a little help from Ayn Rand).

And this year, what struck me the most were those themes of giving power to the people. I posted this quote last night to Twitter:

A year is a large container of miscellany from which to try to sift patterns. But amongst other trends in 2014, it’s pretty clearly been a year of great awakening to injustice. In a year dominated by stories of dangerous inequality, where patterns of violence against women became a national discussion, where institutional racism finally became sickeningly visible to many whose privilege previously obscured it, this simple idea from this sappy movie resonates strongly with me. The people who do most of the working and paying and living and dying are not afforded equal justice and protection, genuinely equal rights, or even equal pay for equal work.

I ask myself again and again, what can I do now? I imagine you do the same. I don’t run a building and loan company; it’s not for me to give impassioned speeches to my townspeople about their money being invested in each other to stiffen their resolve and buck them up during bank runs. But I do see related opportunities for us to invest in each other, to recognize one person’s suffering as connected to our own. I see opportunities for us to join or support each other’s movements for justice. (Not to try to lead them, mind you. We have to be careful not to let our exuberance for showing support become outsized presumption and appropriation.) We can help just by being awake and aware.

A few days ago, I also tweeted this:

I think that’s still the closest I’ve got to any kind of distilled insight from all this. We need to move forward with a baseline of compassion for people, if for no other reason than that we’re so likely to get so much else wrong. The details that emerge on social media and breaking news in the wake of tragedy are often misleading and judgments are rushed, and the least — the very least — we can do is hold out compassion. And THEN on top of that baseline of compassion, we can question our privilege, and the privileges of the society and structure that created the context for the situation we’re observing. And on top of that baseline of compassion and that framework of privilege-questioning, we can examine power to make sure it’s in the right hands, distributed appropriately, and doing the most good. It’s probably not. It rarely is. But the more we can evaluate it as a system, the more we can approach that imbalanced system with a mindset for constructive change.

The thing about constructive change, though, is it still distributes along a spectrum of near-term to long-term. All of my chips, admittedly, are invested in long-term change. I serve on boards and committees committed in one way or another to improving education and employment pipelines for women and minorities, for example. Over 10–20 years, I have no doubt that those kinds of actions will help distribute opportunities more equally. But the here and now is trickier. And I’m working on resolving my role in that.

As I type this, it’s Christmas morning. We’re a week away from 2015, and the turning of a new year always has the potential to feel like a fresh start. You of course must decide for yourself how you want to invest in your community, and what shape that takes. I know watching a feel-good movie isn’t activism, nor even is writing about it afterwards. But it reminded me of how each of us depends on the other, and how we have the opportunity to help make each other’s lives better. I couldn’t possibly conclude with a better thought than Dr. King’s:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Happy holidays, and happy new year. Here’s to a more just and equal 2015.

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Kate O’Neill, founder of KO Insights, is an author, speaker, and “tech humanist” consultant solving strategic problems in how data and technology can shape more meaningful human experiences. Her latest book is Pixels and Place: Connecting Human Experience Across Digital and Physical Spaces.