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When I tell people I walked 500 miles (800km) across Spain in 2013, the first thing they ask (in a slightly astonished voice) is: How long did that take you? The answer to this question is surprising, and it parallels how we proceed toward equality for all people.
It took me 49 days. Some people complete the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in 30. But—and this is important—no one really knows for certain how long it will take. Even with a plan, the map is not the territory. I found steep hills more challenging than expected. A fresh rain would leave the path slicked with mud. An acquaintance injured his knee, stopped walking, and bussed to Santiago. Unexpected events require reconsideration of the plan.
The same holds true for civic engagement. Even when we make a plan, obstacles arise. Elected officials vote unexpectedly. Hearts change. We have an idea of what justice is, but we can’t conceive of how long it will take to get there.
Some of us don’t cope well with not knowing, especially if unaccustomed to uncertainty. I’ll never forget how a pilgrim friend grew irate the day he discovered the Camino’s mile markers were misnumbered, putting us almost 10 miles (17km) from our day’s destination. He fumed, but we still had to walk.
We feel this anger in civic engagement when things don’t go as planned. Or someone moves the goalposts with new laws that restrict voting access to millions. Too much frustration makes most people want to stop.
One example of this uphill journey is reflected in the LGBTQ+ community’s story (of which I’m a part). Back in 1969, the Stonewall Riots arose in response to police arresting the gay residents of New York’s Greenwich Village. In 1970, four US cities had their first ever Pride marches. By 1973, parents founded PFLAG to support their gay kids’ rights. As people organized, no outcome of justice or equality was ever guaranteed.
Gradually, little by little, people came out, stopped hiding their identities, and advocated for their rights. The people who loved them woke up to injustice. Each action, each conversation was a step toward freedom, even when met with fear, hatred, and violence. 30 years of wins and losses later, public sentiment finally changed enough to make marriage between people of the same sex legal and equal in the US. Thirty years.
Change is slow. When it comes to movements that stretch over decades, the question of “how long does it take?” isn’t the most useful one. Instead we can ask: how do we get there? What small act can I do today that brings us incrementally closer?
On my pilgrimage one afternoon, the wind pelted me with slush balls as I hiked up a mountain. I took that hill one step at a time. Near Santiago, I met a pilgrim in a wheelchair who took her journey one roll at a time. Just as a journey of 500 miles begins with a single step, progress is made up of thousands of small steps.
Today, the U.S. Constitution still doesn’t protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people. While many states and smaller jurisdictions do protect against firing and eviction, LGBTQ+ folks do not have federal protection. This week’s Checklist includes an action to advocate for legislation that will change this. Will this bill pass? We don’t know. But experience shows that advocacy works over the long term, and the more people engaged, the better.
How long does it take to get there? As long as it takes.
It’s important to note how many people feel weary about what’s happening in the world. We marvel at Ukrainian courage and leaders we admire, but some days it feels like too much. If this sounds like you, consider what Sharon Welch wrote in her book, Ethic of Risk,
“Responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible…”
We can’t achieve everything we want instantly—any more than a 500-mile pilgrimage can be completed in a day. Small steps. Taken frequently. We need you on this path, taking steps, and celebrating efforts on this long but worthwhile journey.
What can you do today to ensure further action is possible?
Please write your reflections in the comments.
Also, I’m preparing a talk this month about climbing steep “hills” like climate, injustice, and polarization. Please join me on Friday, April 8, 2022 from 10:30-12pm Pacific. There is no cost to attend, and contributions are welcome. To get details, send a message to https://jenniferhofmann.com/contact/.