Commentary: Time to Show Up and Speak Up For Our Communities


It’s time to show up and speak up. Too many of us have been quiet and inactive for too long when it comes to the dual public health and safety Newtown-ribbon-sandy-hook-12/14/12-speak-up-show-up-for-change-good-neigbor-storiescrises, gun violence, and mental illness. Too many of us have been in a type of waking slumber, waking up occasionally after nightmares like Columbine, Tuscon, Aurora, only to fall back asleep after some cry, ‘Too soon! Look away! Nothing will ever change anyway!’

Friday, Dec. 14, 2010, we woke up as a country to a terrible nightmare. The date “12/14” is now our “9/11” when it comes to the realization that we have been inactive for too long in dealing with our gun culture, as well as the very broken system that is supposed to help the mentally ill. The twin towers came down on Friday in Newtown, CT, and nothing must ever be the same.

Each of us as members of our communities, has a responsibility to make those communities strong and safe. We can’t wave it off and say, ‘someone else will do it.’ We all have to show up and speak up.

On both Friday and Sunday when President Obama spoke about the tragedy, he referenced neighborhoods and communities.

“These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children,” he said in his brief comments on Friday.

Then on Sunday at the interfaith candlelight vigil in Newtown, he expanded on the theme, talking about the role of parents, and how we are all parents of the children in our communities.

“It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself.  That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation. And in that way, we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children.

“This is our first task — caring for our children.  It’s our first job.  If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.  That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.”

Showing Up

On Saturday, Dec. 15, thousands of Americans showed up to remember the children and staff of Sandy Hook School and to voice a call to end gun violence at hundreds of candlelight vigils sponsored by I attended a candlelight and prayer vigil at St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Cupertino, CA. About 20 people gathered to pray and light candles.

St-Jude's-Cupertino-candlelight-vigil-Sandy-Hook-Newtown-Good-Neighbor-StoriesShowing up is important. It is a demonstration to those directly impacted by injustice, or tragedy, or difficult circumstances that others care. We as Americans are generally good at showing up. We are generous when it comes to donating money after disasters. Many of us extend messages of concern and caring actions to our neighbors when they are going through loss.

Showing up can be a way of speaking up, demonstrating through numbers that it’s time for change, and something needs to be done. And yet, sometimes more is required.


Speaking Up

At the St. Jude’s vigil, we spent the hour mostly in silent prayer, with the Rector Wilma Terry Jakobsen reading at three intervals the names of the children and staff who were killed, and sharing written prayers and messages. As the hour of memorializing came to a close, Jakobsen turned the assembly’s attention toward next steps. She read comments by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns:

“With all the carnage from gun violence in our country, it’s still almost impossible to believe that a mass shooting in a kindergarten class could happen. It has come to that. Not even kindergarteners learning their A,B,Cs are safe. We heard after Columbine that it was too soon to talk about gun laws. We heard it after Virginia Tech. After Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek. And now we are hearing it again. For every day we wait, 34 more people are murdered with guns. Today, many of them were five-year olds. President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown. But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem. Calling for ‘meaningful action’ is not enough. We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership – not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today. This is a national tragedy and it demands a national response. My deepest sympathies are with the families of all those affected, and my determination to stop this madness is stronger than ever.”

Jakobsen encouraged people to sign online petitions, like, or

Since Congress and the White House have been ineffective in years past, it’s time we all speak up and demand change from our leaders, including our state and local leaders. And not just for stricter controls on guns and ammunition, but for real help for families dealing with mental illness. As a society we abandoned our mentally ill, and in the absence of effective help, many wind up behind bars, on the streets, or dead. We must speak up and demand healthy, effective, early interventions.

It is easy to be cynical and say that in a few weeks time, we will turn our national attention away from Sandy Hook School and Newtown, and nothing will change, because we’ve done it so many times in the past. However, we have made meaningful change on important public health and safety issues in the past.

Change is Possible

About two decades ago I worked for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in San Diego County. I was not a survivor of an alcohol-related crash, nor had I lost anyone to such a tragedy. I answered a help wanted ad for a coordinator of volunteers. I was deeply humbled working side by side with people who had lost children and other family members to crashes (and note, I call them “crashes” and not “accidents”, because when you choose to get behind the wheel of a car intoxicated, it is not an accident).

MADD changed attitudes in this country from one of, ‘What are you going to do? It happens sometimes,’ and, ‘Hasn’t the driver suffered enough? Why treat him/her like a murderer?’ to, ‘Drunk driving is unacceptable, and must be punished to send a message that it’s never O.K.’

Thanks to MADD and its partners, the drinking age was raised, and the legal blood alcohol level was dropped. Legislators and judges began heeding victims calls for stiffer sentences. Alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped dramatically. Horrific crashes of teens on graduation night, or of families during the holidays became less commonplace.

MADD succeeded because victims and survivors showed up and spoke up. They gave speeches and talks in community centers, schools, at public rallies, and on television and radio. They showed up in person and spoke up at legislators’ offices, state houses, and the halls of Congress. Often they sat silently with victims in courtrooms to offer emotional support, but also to show solidarity. They took the worst possible thing that could happen to them, and turned it into a life-saving cause so that others did not have to suffer what they did. And because they showed up and spoke up, thousands of others who were not victims realized it was important to show up and speak up, as well.

Were drunk driving deaths eliminated? Of course not. But they were drastically reduced, and thousands, if not millions, of families were spared the heartbreak of burying loved ones. We can do the same by regulating guns, as well as through more effective mental health care.

How You Can Show Up and Speak Up

Each of us can make a difference, even in small ways, to make our communities safer and stronger. And it does not have to be focused solely on the two issues I’ve mentioned here.

Besides gun violence and mental health, other issues weaken our communities—domestic violence, hunger, poverty, illiteracy, animal cruelty, pollution, racism, and more—all these things need to be addressed and changed. The great thing about humanity is we’re all wired with different interests and passions, and with different skills and abilities. If we each contribute what we’re good at toward an issue care about as individuals, our communities benefit as a whole.

Here are just a few suggestions of how you can show up and speak up on the specific issues of gun violence and mental illness:

I leave you with more of President Obama’s words to the community of Newtown:

“We can’t tolerate this anymore.  These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true.  No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

“But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.  Surely, we can do better than this.  If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.”



  1. Pam Marino says:

    I’d like to hear from folks. How are you going to show up and speak up for your community in 2013?