Democracy: It’s not a spectator sport


March on Washington

The march on Washington in 1963 was one of the tipping points for the Civil Rights Movement.

Democracy: It’s not a spectator sport

By Davia Rivka

Karen Chapman always had her hand up. She said things that were smart, provocative, often challenged the textbook and sometimes even the teacher. It was twelfth grade civics. She had informed opinions about civil rights, women’s rights, and the war in Vietnam. I studied her. Even the way she raised her hand. Strong and straight up in the air. The resonance of her voice. No apology. I didn’t know how to get from where I was — reticent and uninformed — to where she was.

When I was a kid, we didn’t talk politics — or art or culture — at the dinner table. My dad talked about his day, where he had lunch and who he played golf with. Or he lectured me and my three younger sisters on why the sky turns pink and orange when the sun sets, or why it is easier to lift something with a lever and a fulcrum. Math, engineering and chemistry.

My parents considered themselves liberal democrats. They voted for Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy, they had friends who marched against the war in Vietnam, friends who made noise about nuclear energy. They never marched or made noise.

I tried reading the newspaper when I was a kid. It made me feel grown up, folding and refolding the paper on the crease to find the rest of the story buried in the back pages. But the process was messy. I didn’t like the way my fingers turned black from the ink. How every story seemed far away and irrelevant. I tried reading the paper again when I was an adult, even after the ink no longer bled onto my fingers. Still, no real connection. I didn’t know what to do with the news.

So much remained just outside of my reach. As though it belonged to someone else. Even though I was a hippie in the sixties, even though I went to Berkeley, even though my college boyfriend was black. Occasionally there was someone in my life who talked politics, who marched against the war in Vietnam, who was vocal about civil rights. But mostly I was a bystander.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have opinions. It wasn’t that I didn’t think there was injustice. But those opinions were buried. So deep that sometimes I forgot they were there.

I didn’t grow up speaking out. I didn’t grow up knowing the facts. Or exercising my critical thinking skills. Instead I learned how to listen. How to ask good questions. It was safer to stay uninformed, stand in the shadows. It was safer not to care and to keep my mouth shut.

It is only now, that I am in my sixties, that something is breaking open. Standing silent in the shadows is no longer acceptable. Something is prodding me to read, learn, study, form opinions and take action.

I’ll call it climate change. Though the words climate change don’t do justice to the events that are causing the immense disruption to all that we hold sacred and know to be true. It wasn’t the science or the birds, or the trees or even the polar bears that caught my attention. It was the all encompassing, tentacles stretching in every direction, magnitude of the challenge. It was the recognition of the potential loss of life as we know it. This ‘disruption’ includes everyone and everything, nothing and nobody left out. This is about science, this is about politics, this is about economics, this is about religion. Resolving it requires innovation, grass roots mobilization, generosity of spirit. This is about food production, this is birds and bees, this is about disappearing coastlines. This is about health. This is about disease. This is hitting the entire globe. This is hitting home. This includes all peoples, this includes all colors.

I didn’t know the science, I didn’t know the economics, I didn’t know the politics, I didn’t know the religion. But I learned. I’m still learning. One piece of information at a time. I am learning how this is all part of the same fabric, intertwined, like a kaleidoscope, turn the dial and everything rotates together.

And then I remember Karen Chapman. Speaking up without apology.

With practice, I too, have become less reticent, more informed, hungry to learn, to engage. I want facts. I want the big picture. I want to inspire bystanders to action.

It’s easy to be a spectator. Someone on the sidelines. I know. I’ve spent much of my life with my mouth shut. Afraid to be wrong. Afraid I didn’t know enough. Afraid someone would poke fun or criticize.

For many people, democracy is a spectator sport. We sit safely on the sidelines making snarky, dismissive comments. Throwing rotten tomatoes from the bleachers. ‘He’s wrong.’ ‘What a jerk.’ ‘Can you believe?’ ‘I can’t trust them as far as I can throw them.’ Politicians seem far away, out of reach, making decisions that sometimes anger, annoy and baffle us. And yet, most of us don’t even know the name of our member of Congress — let alone what they are doing to address climate change.

What does that get us?

Turns out that politicians are people. Like you and me. People with aspirations, hopes, fears, challenges. Doing the best they know how to do. We might not always like them, or the way they do their jobs. We might value different things. But before we dismiss them, before we write them off, get in there, get your hands dirty. Learn who your member of Congress is — what her passions are, what keeps him up at night, what matters.

Find a way to talk. Find a way to listen. Raise your hand without apology. Speak from your heart. Do it for your children. Do it for your children’s children. Do it for the planet and all her inhabitants. Do it for yourself.

Davia Rivka is a Los Angeles-based climate change warrior who is hard at work on her second book: a collection of inspirational stories about the extraordinary work of Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers. Check out her blog at