In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel stated, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.”
A Romanian-born Jew, Elie was 15 years old when he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. His family was murdered, and he suffered under those whom Anne Frank described in her diary as “the cruelest monsters ever to stalk the earth.” But the “monsters” did not work alone.
“Some Were Neighbors,” the national exhibit produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, points out that in countrysides and city squares, in stores and schools, in homes and workplaces, the Nazis found countless willing helpers who collaborated or were complicit in their crimes. Many supported the suffering and humiliation of others just by being silent.
George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis — by one man with his knee on his neck, three who stood by and watched, and the scores of complicit throughout the country who have failed to A.C.T.
A.C.T. is an acronym the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights uses in the “Be an Upstander” program.
An upstander is defined as a defender, advocate, and supporter of human rights and human dignity; an upstander acts when witnessing inequality, injustice and oppression. The A.C.T. is just that. It is a call to action.
“A” stands for ask. When you hear someone tell a joke that belittles others or use a word that is demeaning, ask, “Do you know what that word means? Did you intend to be hurtful?” How many dinner or watercooler conversations have ended in uncomfortable silence for lack of candor or fear of confrontation? If not with our family and colleagues, when and where do we begin to confront implicit bias and racism?
“C” stands for choose. Being an upstander is a choice, just as being a bystander is a choice. Doing or saying nothing in the face of injustice implies agreement. How often have we heard, “It’s not my problem, that wouldn’t happen here, I don’t want to get involved, or I don’t know what to do?”
Even the choice to be an upstander comes with choices. Today, individuals and businesses alike are using social media to publicly voice their commitment to social justice; others are protesting in the streets; many are donating to support organizational efforts; some are educating themselves; others are having tough conversations.
“T” stands for teach. Teach by example of how you live your life. “Upstander” is a verb, as well as a noun. I cannot call myself an upstander if others do not witness me as such.
During the June 4 vigil at the Statehouse, one man took a selfie with the crowd behind him; he captioned the photo “My city standing with me” and the photo went viral. It captured a very poignant moment of our shared humanity. I posted Jason’s photo, noting yes, we stood last night with our neighbors of color, but today we commit to speaking out whenever and wherever we hear or witness injustice. We will stand up; we will speak out.
We commit to A.C.T. and are reminded of the quote by Dr. Seuss that is etched into the stone of the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
I care — and I swear never again to be silent.