By Kenneth White
A few months ago, I came across a New York Times op-ed piece from August 2011 entitled, “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.”
Brian Morton, a fiction writer who penned the editorial, lamented the misquotation of Mahatma Gandhi on an increasingly popular bumper sticker, which implores everyday citizens to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
At first glance, this catchy phrase does sound exactly like something Gandhi would have said.
But as the words sink in, they begin to feel like a borrowed line from a cheesy high-school graduation speech or a poster hung on the wall of the Student Activities office.
It’s a noncommittal phrase that ties direct action and personal responsibility to the tragedies of the world, in a manner Morton characterizes as “apolitical, and a little smug.”
In reality, this is the closest thing to the words on that catchy bumper sticker Gandhi ever really said:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him … We need not wait to see what others do.”
Now, for the first time in my life, I think I’m beginning to understand what that all means, and I have you, my fellow students here at Union, to thank for it.
When I came to Union for my first visit in November 2011, I was a kid with a blank résumé.
Having spent the vast majority of my free time on a lake at crew practice during my high school years, I made little effort really to do much of anything else.
My daily routine required only that I go to class, go to practice, study, rinse and repeat.
Through the years, I had done a few volunteer hours here and there for National Honor Society, and I maintained a short list of “influential experiences” to draw upon in admissions interviews, but beyond that, I could claim little else among my achievements.
On paper, I came across as exactly what I was: an intelligent high school student with absolutely no ambition, no passion and no real desire to “be the change I wished to see in the world.”
Thankfully, in spite of all that, someone in the admissions office at Union must have seen some potential in me and taken a chance.
Over the past three years, I’ve watched Union transform before my very eyes.
When I arrived here as a first-year student on Sept. 2, 2012, along the rest of the Class of 2016, I couldn’t help but wonder just how we would all fit together.
This wasn’t our home — not yet anyway. We were newcomers entering a world we hadn’t built but would be expected to maintain.
For a while, I felt like someone had taken a big puzzle with over 2,000 unique pieces, removed the oldest quarter or so and replaced them with us, 592 parts, all from different boxes.
I couldn’t tell whether my edges were round or square, let alone who was supposed to be in charge of trying to put us all together.
Eventually, I began to understand that this new place wasn’t so different from the world I knew, except that now I felt the urge to make a real change. I watched in awe as my peers began to establish themselves as leaders on campus, fighting to improve their community — our community — wherever they saw an issue that required their attention.
I saw food and clothing drives, fundraisers for cancer and campaigns to raise awareness for environmental issues.
I watched as welcoming initiatives expanded to include students of all types, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.
I saw students do everything they could to promote a sense of unity on campus, some by hosting late-night Minerva cookouts, others by selling $10 garnet Wayfarers featuring the Union logo.
I thought I’d seen it all until just a few weeks ago, when dozens of students gathered to wobble around the Nott for “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes,” an event to raise awareness of sexual assault.
Today, instead of simply watching those events and wondering where I fit into the picture, I’m one of the many people participating.
Active in several different organizations both on and off-campus, I regularly coordinate Minerva events and student activities.
I’m not sure that high-school me would even recognize college me, but that’s an amazing feeling to have.
At first, I worked as a tour guide and a host to incoming first years, hoping to ease the transition that hadn’t been too easy for me.
As a sophomore, I took up a position as a Minerva Mentor to advise students struggling with coursework, organization and time management.
Somewhere along the way, I developed an interest in equity and equality; how could it be that such a small school could draw students of such varied experience and opportunity?
For me, the answer has been a political one. The world I see is one where government holds the key to solving the world’s greatest dilemmas — most of which it has also caused.
If only more people voted, if only more people understood who they were voting for, then maybe we could change the world.
Democracy Matters, a nonpartisan, campaign finance reform group that I’m very proud to lead, has already helped register voters this year and held a very successful event about the environment and money in politics.
Next week, I hope everyone will join Democracy Matters in Reamer on Friday for our “Turn Out for What?” event, and tell us what issue you’ll be voting for on Nov. 4.
If my peers can do so much good in the world, then maybe, just maybe, I can do something, too.
But even if I fail at “being the change I wish to see,” I know that all those around me have already changed me.
I see my experience as a chance to remind anyone I can that “we need not wait to see what others do,” as I once did; we only need to decide how we want to better the world. Everyone has a role to play.
Maybe “if we could change ourselves” to understand the importance of inspiring the change we wish to create together, then “the tendencies in the world would also change.”
If you ask me, truer words than these were never spoken.