By Donella Meadows
–May 29, 1986–
The official Hands Across America line passed 200 miles south of Vermont, but people up here wanted to express their concern for the homeless and the hungry too. Somehow they found each other and formed their own lines—2000 people in Burlington, 6000 in Barre-Montpelier, 250 in Strafford—and about 50 in White River Junction.
Katy Chaffee called me on Saturday morning to invite me to Hands Across White River Junction. It was a last-minute idea, publicized only by phone calls. No celebrities, balloons, or bands. A small thing, but I knew I wanted to be in that line.
We gathered the next day by the old railroad engine downtown. When we joined hands, we reached nearly around the parking lot. We didn’t quite know what to do next, so we improvised.
We clapped and sang, with the help of three guitarists. To the Hands Across America tune we made up our own verses, some of which rhymed but didn’t scan, some of which scanned but didn’t rhyme. We sang “This Land is Your Land” and “God Bless America” and “Cumbaya”—to which we also made up verses. “Someone’s hungry, Lord.” “Someone’s homeless, Lord.” “Someone’s lonely, Lord.”
Children ran around in bunches. There were short speeches. One lady was wearing a straw hat, which we passed around to collect money for our own local helping efforts—the community dinners and the food station and the emergency shelter. We cheered and thanked each other for being there. It was corny, and fun.
Afterward, watching the news about lines of people in Washington and California, in the Western deserts and reaching the whole length of Manhattan, I felt jubilant. I’ve been trying ever since to explain why. How can a line of well-fed people holding hands help the hungry?
Hands Across America did raise money to provide food and shelter directly to those in need. But it also worked in a subtle way at the root causes of poverty and hunger. People are not hungry in this rich country because there is too little food or money or organization. They are hungry because food, money, and organizations are not used for the purpose of once-and-for-all ending hunger. What is lacking is public commitment, or as some call it, political will.
Political will is easier to point to than to define. China, very much poorer and more crowded than the United States, has almost no hunger, because meeting everyone’s basic needs is the highest social priority. To choose a more ideologically acceptable example, most of the countries of Europe have no poverty or hunger. They have social programs, job programs, and income distribution measures, but above all they have a deep, shared, commitment that no member of their society, not one, shall live in material want.
The commitment is what is important. It can be worked out in many ways, different in China than in Europe, and probably different again in the United States, if we ever took such a commitment seriously and began to implement it.
Why have we no commitment to end hunger in a country that is full of generous, neighborly people? I think our individual nature is overcome by a set of unexamined, cynical, social beliefs, which keep us from expressing the real compassion nearly all of us feel. Beliefs such as:
- People don’t really care.
- I care, but I can’t make any difference.
- People who speak for the poor are suckers, bleeding hearts, slightly unAmerican; at least they are perceived that way, so I had better keep quiet.
- The government is just unreachable.
- Working against hunger is a grim, serious business; it requires great sacrifice; it can’t be any fun.
A nation that harbors ideas such as these is not likely to summon the political will to end hunger.
Hands Across America challenged most of these debilitating beliefs, and that was its power. It showed that millions of us are willing to take a public stand for the hungry and homeless. It created an appropriate, upbeat, all-American way to express our commitment. It captured the attention of our reluctant government and even swooped up the President in its momentum. It was fun. And, though we will never be able to trace its full effects, it probably made a difference.
People who stood in that line were moved in different ways, and will go on to do different things to help the poor. Some will do nothing; some will do something magnificent. Some discovered their commitment to this cause for the first time, and their lives will never be the same. Lots of us, now that we know the others are there, will find it easier to express our determination publicly, again and again, until our government and society expand their focus of concern to meet the needs of every last one of us.
In Hands Across White River Junction we chose as our last song what was, we found out later, the last song in other places too. When you think about it and focus on the meaning of the words you know so well, you’ll see that it was the obvious conclusion for Hands Across America.
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea.
Copyright Sustainability 1986