Last week, I spent some time on the campus of Washington State University in Pullman. I was invited to deliver the keynote address at the annual Women of Distinction luncheon, the theme of which was “Forming a More Perfect Union: Women in Public Service and Government.”
Believe it or not, I don’t talk about politics very much. It’s not in my wheelhouse to convert intuition and passion into the law of the land. I wish it was, but I know I would worry about losing my way, my self, to the process. As I prepared for the WSU event, my mind was buzzing and my heart ached with the political crises we face here and around the world.
I thought about my travels in India 5 years ago. There I had the opportunity to meet with activists whose strategic approach to political organizing I will never forget. Their belief that access to a toilet is central to a woman’s dignity was the centerpiece of the “water taps and toilets” campaign, in which they visited rural, impoverished, unplumbed communities and installed water wells and toilets. They also educated women about civics, registered them to vote, and encouraged them to bring their voices to the demand for women’s rights and equality.
Here in the U.S. the relationship between politics and access to toilets appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Here we have a political system being used to control and restrict access, to deny what should be a fundamental right, to violate the dignity and privacy of transgender people, and to undermine our collective humanity. Witness what happened last week in North Carolina and Kansas. We must ask ourselves not only about the content of these policies, but also about the political maneuvering that produced them.
It’s easy to say that’s North Carolina and that’s Kansas and that’s NOT Washington. But the only way to be sure is to be vigilant. Our political muscle can be flexed with more than voting. We can make sure that our elected officials remember that WE elected them and they represent US, and we can do everything in our power to make sure that what they do is who we are.
I never imagined my work would lead me to think so much about toilets. I didn’t know they could be so inspiring or so troubling—either way a source of political organizing and, for me, irony.
I didn’t talk about toilets at WSU—people were eating lunch—but I did talk about politics. Here is some of what I said:
“I hope we will form a more perfect union, and deliver on the constitutional vision of justice, domestic tranquility, a common defence, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty for ourselves and for the generations to come. In the formation of this union, we should heed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that begins with “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” We have the power to refashion our union. We do. There’s no doubt it’s a heavy lift, and I know it will not happen in my lifetime. But for the granddaughters of my grandchildren, I keep this union in front of me every day.”