Last week my mom came over with a big jar of coins. She wanted my nine-year-old son to sort through them and pull out any pennies minted before 1982. Those are made of real copper. Then my kid could roll up and keep the rest of the change for himself. This was a good task for my son, who likes money a lot. He is our little Alex P. Keaton.
As he was sorting through the pennies Xan noticed that one had the words e pluribus unum on the back. He asked Siri what it means and Siri pulled up Wikipedia. Wikipedia told us that e pluribus unum was the de facto motto of the United States until 1956 when Congress formally adopted “in God we trust.” E pluribus unum means of "out of many, one.”
Tomorrow is a Moth speaking event and the topic is "weak." Prior to this coin-driven history lesson I wasn't sure what I was going to talk about, but then it became clear. The back of a penny told this week’s story, the story of the weak and the downtrodden, the underdogs and disenfranchised, the poor and oppressed. The story of the many who in becoming one create a revolution and transform society toward greater equity for all.
I have always loved this story. This is the story that maybe I love the most. There are specific points in my life when I felt the power and importance of this story.
The first time I was 13 and saw Les Miserables. After the performance I listened to the soundtrack obsessively and although I know Fantine’s lament by heart, it was the anthem of the barricade that moved me to tears every single time. Do you hear the people sing fueled me with the fight for justice. It told me that people who are oppressed must come together and demand, with powerful conviction and at times with loss of life, what is right and what is fair. It told me that when the many become one, the weak are strong.
The second time I felt the power of the many was in high school when I went to my first protest. It was an anti-apartheid rally in downtown LA. My mom, an ex-hippy who attended many a rally of her own, dropped us off and my girlfriends and I took to the street. It was an incredible sensation to be in the midst of all of these every day people, people who had absolutely no power to overturn apartheid or change the rules of a nation half a world away. And yet Nelson Mandela had called to all of us, to our hearts and our sense of justice. We were there together chanting for the world to hear a message of equality. And soon after apartheid was dismantled. It obviously wasn't because my girlfriends and I showed up to chant, but it was because the many came together as one to call for a transformation in the policies of South Africa.
This experience drove through my college years to a profession of political organizing. My first job out of college was with the California Public Interest Research Group where I managed the LA office and organized young people, mostly, to knock on doors and get people to sign petitions and join the group as members so that when we lobbied legislatures the voices of the many would speak as one and promote policies that benefited people and environment, rather than powerful corporate interests.
There was a poster on the wall of our office, that must be standard issue to any activist organization. In the center there is a big fish, this one was orange. And surrounding this big orange fish were little white fish in the shape of an even bigger fish. The little fish were gobbling up the bigger fish in the middle and on the bottom there was one word: Organize. It was a representation of our country’s de facto motto: out of many, one. Proof that a big orange fish is no match for the organized many.
A couple weeks ago I had a chance to hear Mary Robinson speak. I had actually never heard of her but she is a former president of Ireland and worked with the UN and Kofi Annan for many years on human rights issues and is totally impressive. She was part of the recent climate talks in Paris and told us what happened when the gavel came down at the end of the meeting to confirm that 195 countries from around the world had reached an agreement to keep our warming below 2 degrees. “People cried,” she told us. People cried not just because they had a resolution, but because this resolution treated developing nations fairly. Something happened during the Paris talks that had not happened before. Developing nations stood together and they told their stories about how climate change is already impacting their people and the developed nations listened. The powerful heard. When the many stood as one, they received a fairness she hadn’t expected and a deal that gives her hope for our future.
Today my kids had the day off school in honor of the man who best embodies the path towards justice. Martin Luther King Jr. personifies the civil right movement and brought together the many as one in peaceful demonstrations to dismantle policies of injustice. My kids wanted to watch a movie on their day off so I let them watch videos about Martin Luther King Jr. and together we listened as people shared stories of how he inspired America to rise to a challenge that it didn’t think could be handled. With his everlasting faith in humanity and force of conviction Dr. King united the meek in a movement of righteousness and moved this nation closer to the great principles upon which it was founded.
Dr. King's vision was not just for racial equality but also income equality and watching the Democratic debate this weekend I was inspired, yet again, by an old man’s call for political revolution. At this time in American history we face great wealth inequality and the influence of money is leading to policies that benefit the few, not the many. And so it is time once again to stand together.
This story of e pluribus unum will always inspire me, just as the fight for equality and justice will always lie in the hearts of those considered weak.
There is a Mexican proverb that has become a favorite meme among the Bernie Sanders fan club: "They tried to bury us. They didn't know we were seeds.”
Our nation may have formally changed our motto, but at the root of this nation e pluribus unum remains. It is the seed. It is the reminder that together we can rise up and transform our society again and again to become more just and more fair and more inclusive. It is the reminder that when the many are one we move ever-closer to that great American ideal: a nation of, by and for the people.
A Bit About Me
I am Tenaya, a communications strategist and public speaker telling stories that connect, inspire...and laugh.