"Travel abroad. Take a Greyhound bus. And work with immigrants."
Those were my parting words in April of 2007 as I imparted my wisdom upon a room full of nearly 70 young men. I was in the process of wrapping up my senior oration, a time-honored tradition of all senior fraternity members being given the floor to rant, ramble, and reflect upon our collegiate experience. The topics discussed were broad from widescale changes to our fraternity structure to which kind of beer should be provided at all our social events. Contradictions were apparent, oftentimes with the current speaker immediately disagreeing with his predecessor. Some reflections were absurd, others hilarious, and others still being so emotional that they drew tears from an emotional speaker and audience alike. In the end, the 70 young men were given advice from all 22 of us and were free to pick and choose whose advice they'd follow long after we graduated.
Unfortunately, not everyone took my advice.
In fact, few, if any, of my fraternity brothers followed my advice to a T. But that was to be expected. After all, these were my recommendations based on my personal experiences. I knew that my peers wouldn't make the same choices I made, but I still wanted to plant that seed. Because for me, those three experiences helped define who I was. By spending a semester studying abroad, I was able to acquire the confidence to freely travel and communicate in a foreign land. By traveling on a Greyhound bus on a weekend trip to Washington, D.C., I was able to see how those folks lived and traveled who weren't attending a private liberal arts college. And by working with immigrants at a local plant nursery over the summer entering my senior year in college, I was able to see just how hard these people worked and how truly talented they were.
These experiences also gave me perspective on my own life and upbringing. While studying abroad, I realized that despite language differences, people abroad weren't that different from us at home. My host family, who only spoke Spanish, dealt with the same concerns that my parents at home did. While traveling by Greyhound bus, I realized how fortunate I was when the first person I saw at the bus station was a teenage mother in tears after she was told she could only bring two bags onboard. She was clearly running away from something or someone and she felt the only way to improve her situation was to get out, never to return. And while working with immigrants, undocumented ones at that, I was able to put a human face to an often controversial issue. For me, Fito from Guatemala was more than simply an "illegal alien"; he was a hardworking husband who was doing everything he could to provide for his family located 4,000 miles away.
If I hadn't had these experiences, I most likely would have come to have different worldviews. If I hadn't spent a semester abroad, I wouldn't have appreciated many of the freedoms we take for granted here at home. I did not come back overly patriotic, but rather with a sense that America was great and that there were ways she could be even greater. If I hadn't had my Greyhound experience, I don't think I would have had as much sympathy for folks on food stamps or welfare. This was my first experience in this regard and I was forced to see that young teenage mom as a living, breathing person rather than a statistic. If I hadn't had my experience working with undocumented immigrants, I don't think I would have been as effective a teacher as a was later on. Working with undocumented immigrants showed me the human side of the immigration issue and I was able to again see and understand this same issue when I worked with undocumented students in the classroom.
All of this is what we call empathy.
Over the past two weeks, we have had multiple shows of empathy across this country. Tens of thousands of people marched in the Women's March who weren't women. Tens of thousands of people traveled to airports even though they weren't immigrants. We've also seen protests against the potential Secretary of Education by people who aren't educators, protests against the potential Secretary of State by people who haven't left the country, protests against the potential Secretary of Labor by people who haven't worked a minimum wage job, and protests against the potential Secretary of Health and Human Services by people who aren't at risk of losing their health insurance. In all of these cases, the overwhelming force behind the protests is an empathy for our fellow citizen. An empathy that goes hand-in-hand with support for the modern-day Democratic Party.
And an empathy that modern-day Republicans simply don't have.
The idea behind a conservative party in first-world democracies has always been to maintain the status quo. To protect those systems in place that allow for systemic advantages for a select population. With the Republican Party, that select population is rich, White males. Every single policy they promote is designed to ensure their success. Tax cuts for the rich. The privatization of education. No environmental regulations for corporations. A for-profit health care system. The weakening of labor unions. All of these policies are in place to maintain and advance rich, White males at the expense of all other groups because these are the policies that Republicans benefit most from.
Because Republicans simply don't have empathy for their fellow human beings. It's why someone like Dick Cheney only supported marriage equality because his daughter came out as gay. It's why Chris Christie only supported President Obama when he dispersed FEMA to aid his state. It's why Mitt Romney only supported universal health care in his state because it was a Republican idea and why he didn't support the Affordable Care Act which would implement that very same system nationwide. For each of these Republicans, they had to experience something deeply personal before committing themselves in support of a cause or idea. Dick Cheney had to see the way his daughter was treated. Chris Christie had to see the president's compassion firsthand on behalf of the residents of his state. Mitt Romney had to see the benefits of an improved health care system for all of his state's citizens.
And that's the difference in American politics today. The Republican Party simply cannot empathize with their fellow citizen. It's what happens when the average congressman or woman has a net worth of over $1 million. It's why millionaire Congressman Paul Ryan can gleefully advocate for the gutting of the social safety net despite only being able to afford college thanks to Social Security. Ryan, like his congressional colleagues, is more beholden to the Koch Brothers and other big donors than he is to his constituents. His home district is 89% White and thanks to rushed efforts by a Republican-controlled state legislature in 2011, his district became gerrymandered in a way that put Ryan in a position to keep his seat for the foreseeable future. With no desire to improve the lives of the lower working class, except when it's for a convenient photo op, Ryan has proven himself to be more than willing to turn his back on the very same policies that helped ensure his own personal success.
Republicans like Paul Ryan don't have empathy because they've never had to be empathetic. They don't tour the downtrodden parts of their districts because those areas don't have political clout. They don't care about keeping the ACA because they don't know anyone with a preexisting condition. They don't care about raising the minimum wage because they don't know any fast food workers in their mid-30s. They don't care about Planned Parenthood because they don't know any women who rely on the organization for its services. They don't care about the Black Lives Matter movement because they've never been to a community that has experienced tension between residents and local law enforcement. And they don't care about Muslims, refugees, or immigrants because they've never taken the time to get to know even a single member of those communities.
The protests we've seen over the past two weeks have been the best of America. There has been a broad coalition of people joining together, standing against a tyrant and his tyrannical policies. It has led to the viral sharing of stories of those affected by the recent executive orders. These stories have been defiant, inspiring, and heart-wrenching all at once. But with these stories has come a renewed sense of belonging. A sense that we all should support women's health, women's rights, and women's equal pay. A sense that we all should support our Muslim friends and neighbors and reject the hatred and bigotry displayed against them by the current administration. A sense that we all should support refugees, regardless of where their point of origin may be. It is this sense, this overwhelming empathy, that will be not only invaluable, but absolutely necessary to have in the face of a bigoted, racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic administration.
And it is the one thing that not even Republicans will be able to take from us.
"Travel abroad. Take a Greyhound bus. And work with immigrants."