This I Believe: Jess Banks (2017)

So, I had this teacher in high school (don’t the best stories start this way?). Judy Zigler was a social studies teacher, and she was our yearbook advisor, so I probably spent a thousand hours with her in that school.

She was and is an amazing mentor. And when the school tried to say that boys couldn’t wear headbands like this one, made from the cutoff sleeve of a t-shirt, and we were outraged because it discriminated against our friends while we girls could wear them without incident, she threw down a copy of Title IX on the table where we sat and asked, “What are you going to do about it?” For plausible deniability, she left the room while we planned to get every girl we could to wear a t-shirt headband the next day and drafted a letter to administration threatening a Title IX lawsuit.

When I was invited to share a This I Believe speech, I was equally flattered and panicked. I mean, sure, I believe and believe in a lot of things. But how do I say what I believe when I can’t even give a top 5 favorite movies without instant agonizing regret and revision? I dragged my moral lagoon for beliefs I hold without qualification. But rather than a belief, I kept coming back to that question: “What am I going to do about it?”

Over the years, the “it” has been a lot of things. Many of them boil down to two of our UU principles, though I didn’t know it until we started attending a UU church in 2000. The inherent worth and dignity of every person: LGBTQ, HIV+, black, immigrant, disabled, incarcerated, impoverished, exploited; and the interconnected web of life: the spirits of our planet, our people, and our future. When I see injustice, I hear my teacher loud and clear: “What am I going to do about it?”

My family has answered this question in the way most people answer this question: they help the ones they can reach through service. My mom and my grandma taught me what faith looked like in action, acting on their values as Sunday School teachers, Girl Scout troop leaders, Red Cross first aid and swimming teachers, nature center docents, and many other service leadership roles.

You may know the anecdote in which a cynical adult tells a child that their effort to throw starfish into the sea can’t save the thousands of them stuck on the beach. The child replies that they can make a huge difference to the single ones they save. My family believes in the starfish model of change, which is a good and generous one. But I was never content with just throwing starfish. I was thinking about what to change the next time the tide came in.

I’m not sure why I’m compelled to do things differently. Part of it might be one of my autism superpowers. I experience other people’s stories and emotions with a vividness that’s hard to adequately explain. And, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I like winning. My testimony helped save MinnesotaCare when Obamacare was implemented in the state, and playing a small part in bringing same-sex marriage available to thousands of people will be an overwhelming joy for the rest of my life. Big problems like systemic racism aren’t “winnable,” but small successes that bring greater justice like banning the criminal background box on Minnesota job applications and keeping for-profit prisons out of our state motivate me to keep working. My physical disabilities often complicate this work, but I can’t NOT do something.

What I do based on my values and that driving question comes down to two main actions: staying open and showing up.

The tv show and source of cosmic wisdom Doctor Who puts it perfectly: “You know, nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.” Being open to people and experiences reveals the inherent worth and interconnectedness of the whole human family. I love people’s stories, so I ask questions or confess things that tend to blow past small talk without being invasive (I hope!). Every person has something I could learn, and I’m genuinely curious. Sometimes, the thing I learn is that this person is deeply unpleasant, and I don’t want to be around them. But most of the time, my faith in people is absolutely validated. I’m not afraid to tell people their worth; we all need to hear what’s unique and precious about ourselves; and sometimes the most believable person is the one we’ve just met.

This isn’t without its problems. It can be pretty embarrassing when your mom is laughing and making friends with a perfect stranger in public. When I asked my son Connor about staying open, he had this to say: “You make friends too easily. You just start talking to people and all of a sudden you’re friends, and we’re stuck there another 20 minutes.” He’d like you to be aware of his distress signals as we talk after the service.

Staying open isn’t all about being a relentless extrovert, though. One of the most important ways I stay open is to stay quiet. When Paula Cole Jones from All Souls in DC visited our congregation a few years ago, she said that people should approach communities that are new to them with an “attitude of apprenticeship.” I look at others as the masters of their own view of the world who can teach me new things about humanity. More chances to be helpful and supportive have presented themselves when I’m quiet than ever would if I concentrated on making my own voice heard. And defending the space for a person to speak whom society silences is a gift to everyone who hears that person’s wisdom.

There’s a danger in constantly staying open to others, at least for me. Facing outward all the time can help you avoid facing inward with the same openness and compassion you give others. My depression and anxiety are grounded in abuse and distortions about my own self-worth. Often the only value I allow myself is based on who I can be and what I can do for others. When there isn’t anyone around to help, though, I’m left with a mental loop that says that I’m not worth loving for myself, and sometimes that the only thing people would miss about me if I left was what I do for them. I’m trying to work on this by keeping a little book where I write nice, unsolicited things people have said about me, but opening that book is never as easy as opening outward to others.

The second way I answer the question, “What am I going to do about it?” is to show up for the things I believe in. I can’t afford to act on every unjust or unacceptable thing that I see; I’d be spread too thin to be of use to any one cause. I’m intensely grateful for the people who pursue the causes I can’t find the bandwidth for.

Some causes draw me more powerfully than others, and that draw has changed over time based on new experiences. As I started showing up for things as a teen, many of the causes impacted me directly. When I received help in college for the PTSD related to an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship in high school, I decided to pay it forward by becoming a counselor at the crisis center where I found support. As a new parent, I added more political action to my priorities. When I put down serious shoe leather in 2008, Griffin would plop his butt down and moan “No Obama!” when I pulled out his teddy bear jacket and my door knocking clipboard. Joining the campaign for marriage equality established the life-saving roots I needed after Minnesota became our new home.

My approach to engagement comes from the philosophy of intersectionality, coined by black UCLA professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, in which our different identities meet and interact to create an integrated person. My bisexuality and my disabilities and my femininity and my whiteness don’t stack to create a score in the Oppression Olympics, but they mix together to create an alchemical identity that connects me to many while retaining my unique imprint.

So I show up for the rights of the oppressed, because I can’t accept that my privilege comes at the cost of other human beings. I take fierce joy in smashing the patriarchy and tearing down white supremacy from the inside. But as an autistic disabled adult, I also feel compelled to hold these causes accountable when their marches, rallies, and galas are neither accessible nor inclusive. For example, I fully support the ideas behind last weekend’s March for Science. But the disability seating was behind the rally stage, literally invisible to the speakers and the rest of the marchers. I was told by organizers that those arrangements were a generous inclusion in the big event. Sometimes, I feel like it’s my only job in activist spaces to fight for the idea that showing up in different ways indicates as strong a commitment as being present in the streets.

The extent of my involvement has grown in proportion to the sense of love, connection, and power I experience in these communities. I’m incredibly grateful for the unconditional support from my husband Cam and my sons. When I asked my kids about showing up for our values, they had very different answers. Griffin, who sometimes comes with me to a rally or march, said he always feels safe because he knows “everyone there believes the same things and will take care of each other.” While Connor said, “The more you do this, the less weird and dangerous it feels. It’s like someone who starts bungee jumping. At first you’re like ‘Be careful! Be safe!’ But by now, we’re all like, ‘Can you make a weird face at the camera this time?’”

Showing up for something you believe in doesn’t have to be public and directed at social problems. I’ve taken no greater risk in my life than deciding to show up for love when I imported my Internet dream guy from New Zealand over 20 years ago, and it’s a risk that pays dividends every single day. I do my best to show up for friends who need support, whether that’s being a friendly face in the audience, sitting on the end of a phone line or chat screen in silent support when people are in a dark place, or being a nonjudgmental listener when situations call for both whine and wine. These more private ways of showing up build community too, and I need both personal connections and activist connections to fulfill my whole self.

I’ve found friendship, unity, and belief that each of us can truly change the world by staying open and showing up. When we show up for a cause, we leap over many of the most uncomfortable parts of meeting new people. We’re all there because we share common values and a level of commitment that draws us to take action. And in those spaces, we catch a glimpse of the beloved community that otherwise only exists in our minds.

I’m constantly motivated by my teacher’s demand, so now I’m challenging you. Think of the beliefs that matter most in your life. Now turn to the person next to you and ask them: What are you going to do about it?