Working in the nonprofit world can often be discouraging. So much to do, so little time. Not to mention fewer resources, less money, not enough people. Try to address one issue and five more take its place. Like I said, discouraging. And I haven’t even been around that long.
So, what keeps us going? Obviously, it’s a lot of things – optimism, idealism, determination, our “Save the world!” complex. But, really, it’s the moments. Those moments when you can see the difference you are making, when you realize you are a part of something larger.
I had one of these moments recently. I have been working at GAP for less than a year, and so this was my first time attending the Ridenhour Prizes. For those of you who don’t know, the Ridenhour Prizes honor people who speak truth to power – whether whistleblowers, lawmakers, authors or filmmakers.
Countrywide/Bank of America whistleblower (and GAP client, it so happens) Eileen Foster and Afghan war whistleblower Lt. Col. Daniel Davis co-won the Prize for Truth-Telling. The film Semper Fi: Always Faithful about one marine uncovering the military cover-up of contaminated water won the film award. Ali Soufan won the book prize for his memoir, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. Finally, Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) was honored with the Courage Prize for his endless work in the civil rights movement.
Having those kind of people around will, of course, make for an inspiring event. But the ceremony was more than a sum of its parts. Being reminded that people like this exist renews your faith in the system. The corrupt ones will eventually be revealed. The military can’t hide behind “national security” forever. The disenfranchised won’t always be voiceless. Isn’t this what we’re working for?
It’s hard, sometimes, to take non-ironic sentimentality seriously. In the age of micro-blogging and digital immediacy, we tend to shroud ourselves in cynicism because snarky one-liners are often funnier – and more likely to trend and go viral – than heartfelt moments of renewed inspiration. That’s not to say snarkiness isn’t useful; it is. I, certainly, would land on the “more snarky” edge of the spectrum.
And yet I found myself cheering and tearing up by turns throughout the ceremony:
- Eileen Foster calling on the Justice Department to prosecute the corrupt financial industry executives? Cheers.
- Lt. Col. Daniel Davis talking about his drive to protect the uniformed men and women in Afghanistan? More cheers.
- Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger (subject of Semper Fi) detailing his search for the truth after his daughter died of leukemia? Tears.
- Ali Soufan exposing the use of torture as ineffective and un-American? Cheers.
- Rep. John Lewis, and journalist John Seigenthaler before him, speaking to their fight to end segregation and rally the civil rights movement? Tears. And cheers. And more tears.
About that last award: the Ridenhour Courage Prize. The honor went to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga), who was introduced by John Seigenthaler. Lewis and Seigenthaler, now in their 70s and 80s respectively, both worked in the civil rights movement. In fact, both nearly died in pursuit of these rights. Lewis, recognized as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the movement, is one of the last people alive who spoke at the historic 1963 March on Washington (the “I Have A Dream” rally). That these men have maintained such dedication to serving the voiceless is truly inspiring.
For many, they stole the show. But I don’t want to diminish the impressiveness of the other recipients. When the nation was reeling from the financial meltdown in 2008, Foster was trying to alert her company to the pervasive fraud. She may as well have been talking to a wall for all the good it did her, albeit a wall that had her fired.
Lt. Col. Davis took the extremely unpopular stance of telling the truth about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. And it’s not as “Mission Accomplished” as military leaders have been telling the public – and Congress.
Semper Fi is a story of the Marines’ cover up of contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and the fight of one Marine to find out the truth. For Master Sgt. Ensminger, his dedication to the truth stemmed from what he learned in the Marines.
Soufan was one of the lone voices during the Bush administration who was saying that torture did not work, while everyone was saying the opposite. His book combats the idea that anything is okay as long as it’s “national security.”
Hearing what all of these individuals endured to fight for what is right is stirring – legitimately, non-ironically inspiring. Could I have done what they did, if I had been in their shoes? I hope so. I do know this, though: this year’s Ridenhour Prizes ceremony was one of my moments.
So, where do we go from here? Well, I plan to keep fighting the good fight, basking in my moment.
As the videos of the speeches become available, we’ll be sure to share them. And then maybe you can have your moment.
Hannah Johnson is Communications Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.