When I was a high school student in suburban Connecticut in the late eighties, I came across a letter on our family kitchen table one evening about an upcoming school board election.
The writer complained about what she referred to as a decline in “Christian Values,” and provided her own handy voting guide. She listed all the candidates, noting which ones were Jewish and thus to be avoided.
The contents of the letter itself horrified me.
But what struck me as far worse was the fact that my parents didn’t personally know the writer, so it was reasonable to conclude that copies of this letter had made their way to kitchen tables all over town, and so far no one had spoken out against it.
Even as a teenager, I’d studied enough history to know that some very bad things had started exactly this way, so I wrote a letter to the local paper expressing my concern.
It was my very first experience speaking out publicly, and I found it more than a little scary and uncomfortable. Being willing to voice an opinion can be extremely inconvenient – especially in a small town. But the letter was published, along with a front page story about the anti-semitic voting guide, and some of the Jewish candidates won seats on the school board.
Decades later, that experience helps me remember why I remain committed to engaging in public debate. It’s my North Star. I try to share my opinion respectfully and take criticism in stride as part of the bargain.
I hope other members of my family won’t be judged for what are my own personal views, but I can’t, in good conscience, disengage - because these days, there’s so much to discuss: civil rights, voting rights, LGBTQ and reproductive rights; healthcare access and the treatment of immigrants, and frequent mass shootings - in schools, churches, movie theaters, and recently a newspaper office.
In my own tiny Town Meeting last March, one of the debates was actually of planetary magnitude.
We were wrangling about whether or not to commit to reducing our municipal impact on climate change when a wise person reminded us that future generations will most certainly ask what we did to address such seemingly insurmountable challenges.
It’s a reasonable question – and given the obvious degree of difficulty involved, it's one we should make every effort to answer today.