From “Me, Myself, and I” to “Us, Ourselves, and We”

In the land of the free, where “me, myself, and I” is more actively promoted and praised than “us, ourselves, and we,” it is oh, so nice and refreshing to be reminded by Ms. Ella Baker that, while being “self-sufficient” is indeed good because it means less dependence on “charismatic” leaders, being a helpful member of a community is of equal importance.

“In my organizational work, I have never thought in terms of my ‘making a contribution,’” she clarified during a December 1970 interview with historian Gerda Lerner. “I just thought of myself as functioning where there was a need.”

Ms. Baker was a civil and human rights activist, a visionary who dedicated her life to educating, organizing, lending a hand, and demonstrating that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

Brave and resolute, she made her way and shined in a male-dominated environment.

She networked successfully and didn’t need any “feet of clay” pioneer to tell her what she could or couldn’t do or when was the right time to denounce an injustice or speak out for the rights of the voiceless and most vulnerable.

She was a brilliant woman, a wife, a true active member of her community, and a critic of even the most prominent, revered figures.

“I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed people to depend so largely upon a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight,” Ms. Baker said to Ms. Lerner.

“It usually means he has been touted through public media, which means that the media made him and may undo him.

“There is also the danger in our culture that, because a person is called upon to give public statements and is acclaimed by the establishment, such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement.

“Such people get so involved with playing the game of being important that they exhaust themselves and their time, and they don’t do the work of actually organizing people.”

Her words and actions are an example of fine and noble leadership. But now, in a time when social media provides a fantastic forum to talk and write about anything, have armies of deadbeat friends, follow tons of loose-tongued, loud-mouthed tweeters, live in anonymity and create a false sense of belonging, can there be, realistically speaking, a balance between the “me, myself, and I” and the “us, ourselves, and we?”

As of right now, it is rather the norm not to go out and interact with neighbors or friends, or discuss issues related directly to their communities.

I’ve seen this apathy epidemic first hand. Many of my own friends, family members, and coworkers do not know their neighbors and show very little interest in learning what’s really happening in their own community, let alone others’ communities.

They’re willing to extend the “me, myself, and I” factor to their immediate family, but beyond that, they’d much rather spend their time, energy, and resources on reading or posting rants on facebook, watching trashy television shows, fantasizing about being rich and famous, or getting their brains fat with stupid news of a newborn prince or some new smart device.

Anything or everything that has to do with helping others does not appear in their calendars. And if it does, it gets postponed or deleted.

Even those who’ve faced adversity, who’ve felt the toxic pinch of discrimination or know someone who is going through a hardship, do not have the will or cannot find the time to “function where there is a need” as Ms. Baker did.

“Let them fend for themselves,” their facial expression or total silence seems to say. “Let others worry about it.”

But them, like the 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants who live in constant fear of deportation and the 2.3 million souls imprisoned, with Blacks and Latinos constituting a majority mainly because of their race, can’t really fend for themselves—the system is structured to prevent it. They’re the most voiceless, vulnerable, oppressed, and least popular members of society.

So I say, let’s all worry about it. Let’s all truly worry about it. Let’s all think of ourselves, at least once in our lifetime, as functioning where there is a need. Let’s all mix our “me, myself, and I” with our “us, ourselves, and we.”

“I just thought of myself as functioning where there was a need.”  --Ella Baker

We don’t have to wait until we personally experience an injustice or affliction to feel sympathy or relate to others. Let’s all use our time, energy, and resources to end mass incarceration and to fight for tolerance and justice for all, including our undocumented parents, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors… Directly or indirectly, we all know someone who can use our help.

I’ve a feeling that if Ms. Baker were alive, she would be willing to jeopardize her own freedom in order to give a voice to undocumented immigrants and their families, like civil rights veteran John Lewis and Congressman Luis Gutiérrez. How about us?

I’ve a feeling that if Ms. Baker were alive, she would be joining forces with Dr. Angela Davis and Dr. Michelle Alexander to dismantle the monstrosity called the prison industrial complex, abolish felony disenfranchisement, and eliminate the legalization of discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and so on. How about us?

I’ve a feeling that if Ms. Baker were alive, she would declare, on behalf of those who’ve lost their human and civil rights in the land of the free: “We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon, and even suffer physical violence to obtain first-class citizenship.”

How about us?

Has Ms. Baker's example inspired you to take action for justice or to approach leadership in a different way? Please share your story in the comments below!