On ‘Notorious RBG’

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgNotorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always reminded me a bit of my grandmother. Quiet. Proper. Often wearing a stern look or serious expression accentuated by flawless hair and pearls. And, retorts at the ready which leave all present to hear them slack-jawed and cowering at their own ignorance. In my family, we often repeated a mantra, ‘Don’t cross Grandma’. I would imagine some variant exists for RBG amongst those nearest and dearest.

Notorious RBG is a must-read for any self-respecting feminist or equal rights activist (Is there really a difference between the two?) needing a beacon of hope and a dose of ‘get up and go’. And, RBG the woman is that beacon during very dark times. This woman. Unlike her, rather than seeing nine women justices on the highest bench in the land, I’d like to see nine RBGs at SCOTUS.

Oh, to dare to dream.

Detailing her life as a young newlywed law student, then graduate of Columbia Law (top in her class) unable to land a job, then law professor (needing to hide her second pregnancy)…, she understands not just in theoretical terms but from lived experience what perceived differences mean and how they affect us as individuals and groups. To her, it isn’t simply about disregarding those perceived differences and the ideal roles of men and women; it’s about those institutionalised categories and erasing the various barriers and injustices they unfairly impose upon us. Her weapon of choice, however, is the law and the US Constitution. And, this woman plays the long game.

As I was finishing this brilliant, inspiring book this morning, I wept. Not because of anything particularly troubling that appeared upon the page at that precise moment. But, because so many of us are simply too tired to continue fighting for and working towards what we believe is right and just. If this tiny woman could become one of the most inspiring memes of our times, we—who have benefited from her tireless efforts in classrooms, courtrooms and on the bench—can certainly work just a little bit harder to solidify and make permanent those giant gains she made for us.

RBG inspires for many reasons. And, we do her and all others who have blazed various trails a disservice by simply giving in to despair because it is too damn hard.

One of the appendices features a list of ‘How to be like RBG’. It reads:

  • Work for what you believe in
  • But pick your battles
  • Don’t burn your bridges
  • Don’t be afraid to take charge
  • Think about what you want, then do the work
  • But then enjoy what makes you happy
  • Bring along your crew
  • Have a sense of humour

I’ve got my to-do list sorted then.

RBG. However long she graces the Supreme Court and this world, it won’t be nearly long enough to satisfy me. I’ll still want more. But, her legacy. Long may it guide and inspire us all. And, may we all have red hot pens at the ready to sharpen and hone our words. Because words and how we wield them truly matter.

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Yes, one person can make a difference

Several years ago in a discussion with a colleague after a typical day in the office, a brief snippet of our conversation has stayed with me and inspired much reflection. Discussing the many issues in the world around us which we’d like to see change, a world more socially and economically just and fair, I declared my own desire to make the world around me just a bit better. Whether that difference be at a community or national level wasn’t important; making a difference to the lived experiences of others was what drove me, even if it was on a seemingly small scale.

His response? ‘If you help just one person, you have succeeded, no? You have after all changed the world for the better for at least one person.’

So, so simple. And, so, so true.

Both before and since that after-work conversation and revelation, I’ve thought often about what one person can do to make the world a little better. A little brighter. I’m perhaps in equal measure hopelessly naïve and optimistic enough to believe that one person can and often does make a difference. But, it wasn’t until that conversation several years ago that I stopped worrying about how many people or how large the impact was (something which my day job placed priority on — the number of people reached rather than how much better life was for one person). Yet, one person’s world is still ‘a world’. And, perhaps by helping that one person, others’ lots would improvd as well.

However seemingly insignificant the gesture may be, a single act of kindness, a random bit of support extended to another can create good. From holding a door open to buying a meal for someone who is hungry to clothing a stranger to standing up and speaking for those who have no voice, no act is too small. No act is too insignificant. And, perhaps, those changes and improvements to an individual’s ife can mushroom out as ripples on the water—one person can help another can help another and so on until an entire community benefits.

Like I said, hopelessly optimistic. (It beats the alternative!)

But, what of the more significant, larger acts? Do they take a village or can they be accomplished through the actions of an individual on his/her own?

A single person has made an enormous difference with an amazing impact, as evidenced by Jadav Payeng.

Since 1979, this one man has been planting saplings and growing a forest in Brahmaputra, India. Growing a forest. These saplings have transformed a barren, eroding landscape into a lush, green habitat for various creatures, including elephants, tigers and vultures, which returned to the region in 2012 after a 40-year absence.

Talk about seeing the forest for the trees…

If a single man can create a forest, imagine the possibilities of the seemingly small and insignificant actions we each want to do and don’t for fear it will change nothing. Just as each seed may not on it’s own create a forest, each individual action may on its own seem unimportant and carry very little benefit. Yet, over time and collectively, imagine how much better the world could be? Imagine how much better it would be?

Sometimes, it’s quite alright to focus on that individual tree.


Hope Where There Is None

For more than eight years, Moscow, Russia was my home.

As cliche as it is, I learned more about myself in that time than I ever thought possible, met amazing people along the way, and discovered a place that had been mythological in my post-Cold War imagination. As a child of the ’80s, Russians were ‘the enemy’. At moments during my stay there, they took on that persona to a tee. However, that was the exception, and I loved my life in Moscow and wouldn’t trade any of the time I spent there. So many individuals welcomed me as the ‘silly American’, and I miss the daily interaction with them despite the difficulties inherent in contemporary Russian life.

Perhaps that’s why it pains me to hear of how little things have changed in the five years since I left. Russia has the dubious distinction of being one of the few remaining countries in which the HIV epidemic continues to expand. What’s more, it has occupied one of the worst of all statistics as the country with the fastest growing epidemic in the history of the global pandemic. That is not an accolade any country should aspire to and most governments would take action to remedy it quickly.

That hasn’t been the case in Russia. In fact, the opposite holds true.

Primarily fueled by the sharing of unclean injecting equipment and compounded by one of worst tuberculosis epidemics in the world, the Ministry of Health has maintained its hostility towards ‘Western’ or ‘foreign’ evidence-based practices and prevention methods which could save a generation of young Russians and prevent the further spread of HIV. Many small-scale local-level projects were funded not by domestic sources by but international agencies such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Distributing clean paraphernalia and informational materials on safer sex and drug use, providing counseling and social support services to those who had no where else to turn, and delivering training seminars to local-level healthcare professionals to introduce international experiences and human rights-based approaches have helped immensely. Yet, as obvious as it might be, Russia is huge and reaching every corner without governmental support is impossible. Furthermore, as the funding from international sources has dried up, many of those local-level initiatives have had to close and left a gaping hole for those least accepted and cared for in Russian society.

It’s quite simply heartbreaking.

Much of our news in the West focuses on the Russian elections. However, there are many other unheard stories, both of unimaginable determination and heroism, as well as of tragedy and despair. The Andrey Rylkov Foundation has made it their mission to work towards a humane and just approach to drug use and fight for the rights of those who most need it, and listen to and respond to those most ignored. Engaging with drug users, they provide harm reduction services in and around Moscow. They also work to highlight the extreme positions of the Russian government towards drug treatment and harm reduction strategies which have been proven to help prevent HIV. Spend 20 minutes from your day and watch this video about what they do and why.

Is there hope? There must be. Is failure an option? Not really. Life in Russia is not easy. But, working with individuals who are considered social outcasts, undesirable, and many perceive the best solution is to simply ‘let them die’ is unimaginably difficult. But, it’s well-worth the struggle if it improves the conditions for even a few individuals at a time.

So, as insignificant as it may be, I just want to thank Anya and all those who continue to do this type of work. Keep fighting the good fight!