These women – Ada Hewell (a.k.a. Mother, back row, far left), Helen Voyles (a.k.a. Mama Helen, back row, far right), and Opal Howell (a.k.a. Mama Opal, seated in front) – worked together for a long, long time. At first, their office was in the red brick building at the corner of Hwy. 54 and Hwy. 85 mere feet from the Fayette County Jail. If a prisoner was deemed trustworthy, he was given the title of Trustee and sent out into the town to perform various duties like emptying trashcans, sweeping floors, moving furniture, carrying heavy things in from trucks, etc. Barring illness, Mother, Mama Helen, and Mama Opal saw the Trustee every single work day. These women got to know the Trustees. They baked them birthday cakes and bought Christmas presents for the Trustee and his family members. When the Trustee was on the eve of release, they bought new clothes and shoes for him to wear out into the world. If the Trustee became a law-abiding citizen, these women beamed with happiness for him and his loved ones. If the Trustee broke another law and wound up back in jail, these women sighed, shook their heads, and expressed their disappointment before returning their attention on the current Trustee. They were sometimes disappointed in an individual Trustee, but they never gave up on Trustees as a whole.
Here in Cashiers, N.C., a few residents quietly bought up the land at the major intersection (and site of one of our two traffic lights) and donated it to the town to form the Village Green. Local merchants and service organizations host arts and crafts shows and concerts there during the summers. There are grills, picnic tables, playgrounds, restrooms, walking paths, and more. Every other year, sculptors are invited to display one of their pieces in the Village Green. Local folks vote on their favorite, and the sculpture with the most votes is purchased and goes on permanent display at the Village Green.
Another family donated land and money to build a lovely, well-appointed library that rivals facilities located in much larger towns. During the winter, a fire burns in the fireplace in the comfortable reading room that’s located across the hall from the lovely conference room. Both rooms are available for local residents to use as needed. On the other side of the library is a large room with a raised stage that local residents can use free of charge for all sorts of things.
Citizens like this exist everywhere, but often you have to dig for the stories or maybe you just stumble across it by accident because these ordinary citizens aren’t looking for attention. They are just doing what they know is Right and Good.
When I was in undergraduate school, there were sit-ins and flag burnings and marches – all attended by people as far as the naked eye could see. A few decades later when I went to graduate school, there was much talk of activism and “the greater good”. Protests and demonstrations had to be big, involve large numbers of people, and capture media attention.
But let us never forget that:
Societal change doesn’t have to mean disruption and destruction.
Making the world a better place can mean making your community a better place.
Enkindling change doesn’t have to be splashy and noisy enough to make the 6:00 news.
Quiet activism is still activism.
And quite often, in changing one individual life, many are changed in the process.