On the Thursday before Baltimore burned, Mr. Lee went to Washington.
He didn’t have far to go. Rev. Tony Lee is the 46-year-old pastor of Community of Hope, an AME church housed in a shopping mall in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland, just minutes from the D.C. line. Under the auspices of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, a Washington-based advocacy group, he led a delegation of 200 African-American men to Capitol Hill. They went to their capital to talk to their legislators about issues that impact their lives: racially stratified policing, education reform, voting rights and more.
It was not about protest. It was about policy.
“Protests,” Lee told me in a telephone interview, “are one way that pushes people’s feet to the fire. Whatever the issue is, it’s brought to the forefront. But...there’s still need for people to do legislative advocacy, dealing with policy, whether it’s from the national to the local, showing people how to be engaged and [affecting] the policies that have such direct impact.”
Too often, said Lee, African Americans have focused solely on protest — an important element of social change, but not the only one. He used the analogy of weightlifters who focus solely on building upper-body mass while “their legs are toothpicks...In many ways, our policy legs are like toothpicks. Most people don’t know how to engage that. What you find in the policy area is more the politicos, more the people who have been doing this stuff a while. But we want just everyday brothers — and sisters — to see how they can get engaged in policy and to make sure that their legislators, whether it’s federal, or...local, city, state, know who they are, hear their voices...”
Full disclosure: I’ve known Rev. Tony Lee for about eight years. He christened my granddaughter. And I couldn’t think of a better person to respond to Tracy. As I said in my last column, she is a reader from Austin, Texas, a 55-year-old white woman, who wrote me that she is heartsick about police violence against unarmed African-American men. I decided to focus a series of columns — open-ended and running irregularly — on finding answers to the question she asked me:
What can I do?
“I have a framework for people like her and for others,” said Lee. “It’s educate, advocate and participate. Educate means to get educated on the issue. A lot of times, what will happen is...you can end up having a lot of blind spots because you haven’t educated yourself on the issues...Some of those local and national organizations have a great wealth of information that you can be able to educate yourself on what’s happening around some of the issues.”
Nor, he said, should she keep what she learns to herself. “As she’s becoming more informed, start talking to the people in her life. She should never minimize what it means to talk to people who are around her, people that she daily deals with. It sounds like that would be white people. She can talk to her friends and her neighbors and...educate them on what she’s learning.”
Having educated herself, he said, she should advocate, i.e., start “to deal with and talk about these issues and how she feels about them to people who are in decision-making authority in her region, whether it’s her local lawmakers or even her national representatives.”
Tracy, said Lee, should understand the advantage her skin color affords her. “It’s one thing for some of her lawmakers to hear from some of the usual suspects. It’s another thing for them to hear from constituents that aren’t black, but are white...to hear from some of their constituents who say, ‘Hey, this is wrong.’” Even the Civil Rights Movement, he points out, included white Americans of conscience who realized it was not just a struggle for “black” rights but for human rights.
Which brings us to the third leg of Lee’s model for civic engagement: participate.
“Just get connected,” he said. “All organizations can use volunteers, [even if] it’s just to come in and say, ‘I’d love to work the phones for you all for a couple of hours a week.’ But find a space to participate. The other piece of participation is to be able to give. Many of the organizations in her region and nationally, need resources to be able to do the work...Never think that any gift is too small.”
Nor, he said, does giving stop there. “You may be in a position of fund-raising. It may be that you are able, not just to give, but to shape sessions among personal networks to be able to raise funds for some of these organizations.”
Educate, advocate, participate. It is, admittedly, not an agenda as immediately and viscerally gratifying as street protest. But it highlights a salient truth about American social transformation.
On the street is where the change is demanded. At the table is where it is made.