Be the Challenger: How Muhammad Ali and NASA Reeled Me Back In

I’m not going to spend time talking about why I’ve stepped away from this blog for the past year. I’d rather talk about what brought me back.

Since Sandy Hook, since Trayvon, since Charlottesville, since [fill in your own moment of “whatthefuckishappeningtous”], I’ve been looking for people and ideas and groups which provide myself with hope and purpose. Along with my family; some dear friends; some small-but-mighty organizations within my community; music; nature, and writing, I found Common Power, and its educational branch, The Institute for Common Power, both of which I have written about.

For the last three years, I’ve gone deeper into action to protect and extend democracy, mostly through phone-banking and donations, but also writing letters to elected officials, and, last October, canvassing in my home state, North Carolina.

This is VA, not NC, but you get the idea–this kind of thing (photo by Charles Douglas, CP)

But canvassing requires travel, and phone-banking (besides being NO FUN) feels pretty limited. I was looking for other ways to plug in, when I tuned into Common Power’s 24-hour Teach-in for Truth in Education in Florida, and heard Dr. Yohuru Williams.

Dr. Williams is a History professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, and founder of their Racial Justice Initiative. It was his part of that 24 hours of teaching that got me back to Wing’s World. He talked about two “challengers,” starting with NASA’s Challenger Space Shuttle, which exploded live on TV in 1986 (which many of us remember all too well).

R.I.P. (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

Dr. Williams reminded us how Ronald Reagan went on TV to tell American children the tragedy:

“We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way democracy is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.”

His message: Ron DeSantis, anti-“woke” Republicans–are you LISTENING? Democracy means FACING UP TO BAD STUFF. Like, you know…U.S. History.

Dr. Williams closed by talking about Muhammad Ali, of whom actor/director Ed Begley Jr. said, “Ali’s secret was that he was always the challenger.”

Ali in 1976, filming The Greatest (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

And this historian/activist then looked at the camera and asked us listeners to find ways to continue to be the challenger. To do more than what we’ve been doing to help our country be its best self.

And I thought: okay. At the very least, something I can do is to expand Dr. Williams’ message.

So in the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of the talks from that incredible 24 hours. I’ll be sharing, amplifying, extolling the messages I’m absorbing about how to help our country. And if just a few of you reading this decide to do the same, consider yourselves challengers too.

My New Furlough “Job”: Fun With Elected Officials

Even though, like many Americans, I’m furloughed from my job at the moment, I recognize that I’m in the 1% of ridiculously lucky people who has no one in my home demanding care nor worry; ample resources; and lovely outdoor space close to hand.

I’m sorry, New York–I wish I could send you some!

What I also have? A sense of helplessness. When we finished quarantining after our road trip, I signed up to deliver food around our island. But then I had to go off-island again. Twice. I understand the reason for the quarantine rule, but still I chafed. What can I DO to HELP?

Enter University of Washington professor David Domke and Common Purpose. I’d already attended an Orientation with this impressive group dedicated to promoting voting, and signed up for national get-out-the-vote work next fall. But next fall is so, so far away, and the daily COVID news weighs heavily. So I was thrilled when the email call came to ADVOCATE FOR EXPANDED VOTING OPTIONS FOR NEXT NOVEMBER,* from my own living room.

*Notice I’m not saying voting for whom? That’s not what this push is about. You don’t have to dig too deep to find which party supports more voting and which party wants to limit it…but that ain’t my affair. I just happen to think America has had about enough disenfranchisement for our past couple-plus centuries.

Plus, Professor Domke said it would be fun!

27 of our 50 states don’t allow for any way to vote except in-person on one single day. Which, in a pandemic, sounds pretty CRAZY, right? Right. Just ask Wisconsin. So I signed up to contact elected officials in those 27 states. Two senators. One governor. And one person in charge of elections.

Oh dear. That’s 4 x 27…128 people. Fun, huh?

I decided to treat this task like a job. You have the option to call, email, or tweet, and since the only thing I loathe more than making political calls is receiving them, I chose email as my medium. I tweaked the form letter Common Purpose sent to make it sound more like me. Okay. Ready for fun.

For the past 2 days, I’ve emailed for approximately an hour. Because there’s a Senate bill coming up now (Thank you, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden!) I started with Senators. 

Copy email letter. Open provided link to given Senator. Autofill all my details. Pick topic. Paste letter. Make sure I’m not subscribing to any newsletters! Prove I’m human. Click Submit. Next…

Y’know what, Professor Domke? This is NOT fun. This is boring as all get-out. I hate this.

So I started embroidering a little.

I let the two senators from North Carolina know I’m a Tarheel born & bred, and finished my letter with “Go Heels!” (Too bad for me if they’re Duke fans.)

I congratulated some of the senators who recently (or less recently) dropped out of the race for being so stalwart.

I started noticing stuff. Like: Some senators make you choose a prefix for your name; others let you opt out. Some senators have “Abortion/Right to Life” on their Issues list; others, just one or the other. Some senators don’t have anything on their Issues list that covers the topic at hand–Elections? COVID? Civil Rights?–forcing me to choose “Other.” Hmph.

And Cory Booker has the most adorable website, which asks for your first name right off the bat, then goes to “Hi, Gretchen!” Awww…Miss you, Cory.

After thirty minutes or so, I noticed something else: I was actually having a kind of nerdy fun. Go figure.

Hey, time’s up. I contacted 40 senators. Only 14 to go. And then all those Governors and Secretaries of State…

Wonder if any of their websites will tell me “Hi!”?

If you’d like to join this fun enterprise–no, really, in all seriousness, if you’d like to participate in the push to keep voters safely at home without being deprived of their right to help elect our next President, click here.

Woohoooo! Democracy! At least until I get to back to work at the bakery.