I had the great pleasure of hearing Rick Steves speak about travel as a political act at BookPeople on Sunday. I’ve enjoyed his European low-budget and close-to-the-ground travel series on PBS since high school, but I couldn’t have guessed how passionate a speaker he would be.
His talk centered around his recent trip to Iran and travel’s potential as a political act. As the possibility of the U.S. going to war with Iran became louder and more insistent in our country, he realized that he knew nothing about Iran or its people. He wanted to go there, meet Iranian citizens, and learn more about them and their lives. At the talk, he said something like, “I’m of the mind that if you’re going to bomb a country, you should know about the people that you’re bombing. It should hurt you when you kill someone.”
His talk dovetailed well with something I’ve been thinking about a lot: relational activism. The night before the election, I heard Betty Burkes, a life-long educator and activist, speak about women and politics. She introduced this phrase into my world, “relational activism.”
She gave a powerful example of this activism: on her six-year-old daughter’s first day of school, another child on the bus called her a racial slur. When Betty found out, instead verbally attacking the other child’s mother, she approached the situation with a relational point of view. Instead of saying, “This is my problem,” she said, “This is our problem. What is going on with your daughter that she would want to hurt my daughter in that way?” Betty offered the perspective that it is not our ability to agree that makes change; it’s our ability to embrace those with whom we disagree. (Another beautiful illustration is this sentence from her website bio: “Betty and her partner Cathy Hoffman are working to find the ways in which their love partnership can nurture social justice work and social justice work can nurture love.”)
This theme is clearly resonant for me lately. When Steves was asked by an audience member if there were any countries to which he wouldn’t travel because he disagreed with the government, he said no. In fact, in countries whose governments are misinforming their citizens about the rest of the world (especially Americans), traveling as an American and making genuine connections with people in those countries is an especially powerful act — for both parties.
He also emphasized that the U.S. makes up only 4 percent of this planet’s population, and that the other 96 percent of the planet are coming up with different solutions to many of the same problems we wrestle with. By traveling, by opening ourselves to other people who think and live differently than we do, we can develop a much broader perspective that might allow us to contemplate another person’s disagreement, instead of disdain or dismiss it.
Of course, this activism can take place much closer to home, in our most intimate bubbles, as Courtney talked about yesterday. How we stand in respectful disagreement with our closest family members and friends can be deeply moving and revolutionary. I think it’s often the hardest kind of activism to achieve, but among the most rewarding, too.
Rick Steves ended his talk by describing the privilege of watching a dervish in Turkey whirl himself into a meditative trance. The dervish explained the movement this way: he raises one hand toward heaven, reaches the other hand toward earth, and plants one foot in his home land, while the other symbolically walks through the world, regarding with respect the traditions and values of the entire planet. This, to Rick Steves, is a perfect metaphor for travel. And for me, it is a beautiful metaphor for activism that can live in each one of us.
Beauty in a Wicked World is a weekly column by Jennifer Gandin Le. It appears on Wednesdays.