This past weekend, we lost an equity warrior, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. All night, I vacillated between feelings of sadness and anxiety around her departure and gratitude for her lived example of dedication to justice and equity. In the spirit of inspiration and urgency to honor RBG’s legacy of activism, I now share my personal journey of processing my thoughts, with an invitation for you to answer these questions for yourself:
- What is RBG’s legacy? What does it mean to you?
- What can you contribute to the movement? What is your highest and best offering to a vision of equity for humanity and care for our planet?
What is RBG’s legacy? What does it mean to me?
It is not just her resilience, be it through the Great Depression, or her teenage trauma of losing her mother to cancer, or the later loss of her husband and best friend, that defines RBG’s legacy. Nor is her legacy explained by her perseverance through having been one of nine female law students of the 500-person Harvard class and chastised for “taking a man’s spot” by the authorities there, all while parenting and taking care of her ill husband, to then graduate top of her class in Columbia Law School in 1959. It isn’t even only about RBG’s brilliant legal mind crafting winning gender discrimination arguments in landmark cases, and her tireless service as a Supreme Court Justice to unify the liberal block of that court in 1993 that make her legendary. It has to be about her dedication of body, mind, and soul to living her values with purpose and meaning, as a true professional, until her dying day! Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy is enshrined, not in what she lived through and endured, but what she lived for and embodied.
When asked her opinion on what leads to a “meaningful life,” Ginsburg told a Stanford University audience in 2017:
If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself. Something to repair the tears in your community. Something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is – living not for oneself, but for one’s community.
And RBG lived her meaningful life in a meaningful way. Below are some of the most quoted maxims that RBG offered others in explaining how she lived:
- "Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time."
- "So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune."
- "Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one's ability to persuade."
- "When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out."
- "Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."
- "You can't have it all, all at once."
- "I'm a very strong believer in listening and learning from others."
- "Reading is the key that opens doors to many good things in life. Reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true."
- "Don't be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time."
- "You can disagree without being disagreeable."
What can I contribute to the movement? What is my highest and best offering to a vision of equity for humanity and care our planet?
I am grateful that my work in the nonprofit sector allows me to contribute daily, in the fight against systemic inequities pertaining to education, homelessness, employment, poverty, policy, and the legal system itself. However, given the daunting challenge in these areas, I would not even consider my contributions impactful if it were not for RGB’s reminder that “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time."
Personally, I recognize the privilege that my partner (Kapil) and I have in raising three children who, God willing, will have a longer runway to effect change than us. Perhaps our highest and best contribution is sensitizing them to systemic injustices, so they may be change-agents in their own ways.
Ironically, within hours of learning of RBG’s passing, I received a video recording of our 10-year-old daughter, Kenza (featured in photo above) sharing her speech for “Class President” of her fifth grade classroom. Kenza, a big fan of RBG, had taken an emotional risk of failure by running and I was proud of her gumption and drive. On this very same night of deep loss, I was now listening to this child affirm to her class that she sees the job of a president to be one that will “listen,” “earn your trust,” and “ensure that all of your needs are met.” She suggested that they as students have a responsibility to care for the environment and “to leave this planet better than we found it.”
I could not help seeing how we as the Earth’s current stewards have failed these children, when I heard Kenza acknowledge “how hard it is to be learning online.” She said, “many of you are sad, alone, and feeling terrible right now…if any of you are feeling anything close to this, I am sorry. You don’t deserve any of what you are going through,” and ended with a resolve to work together with her peers to make this the best year possible, so to enter to middle school in stride. I saw Kenza as a “Ruth-in-the-making” in that 1 min 51 sec video clip.
Raising more “Ruths” of any sex or gender is hard and no parent fully controls the outcome of his or her efforts. All I can control is my own intention to embody the how of RBG’s living. So, the next time my high-schooler seeks to “rebel against [family values of] kindness and liberalism,” as he once retorted in a fight with me, I’ll need to heed RBG’s wisdom in my own internal chatter: “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one's ability to persuade” and “Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Or when I learn that my youngest hurt another boy’s feelings with mean and unkind teasing, I’ll remember that, “so often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune,” and will be sure to let him feel the discomfort of his regret and apology. And when my daughter tells me that I work too much, I’ll be compassionate with myself and will recall RBG’s caution, “you can't have it all, all at once,” and reevaluate the pace and sequence of my priorities. In trying my best to raise “Ruths,” I’ll remind myself that RBG’s legacy is about effort, persistence, and intention…
RBG, I honor your legacy by recommitting to living with meaning as a true professional in co-creating and advocating for equity, inclusion, and kindness in our community, alongside (and sometimes as a nag behind) my family.
May your memory be for blessing in peace, power, and pride.
For more thoughts on parent activism visit www.AilaMalik.com and connect via social media (links on website).