BEHIND THE STORY | From symbolic gesture to social change


On April 25, I had the privilege of attending the Minneapolis City Council meeting where the local government body voted unanimously to observe Indigenous People’s Day on the day of the federal holiday known as Columbus Day. It felt important and correct that this change was made — even if, as some pointed out, it didn’t actually get rid of Columbus Day, which is a federal holiday. Instead, it was a local government body doing something they could actually control — the resolution paves the way to use Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day in various ways they communicate to the public that it’s a holiday, such as press releases that offices are closed, parking meter signs, etc.

To me, it was an example of how large changes can start small. At times, the wrong in the world can feel overwhelming, especially when so many of the biggest decisions happen without much input from the average citizen. But when you look at something like the act of saying, “Hey, we know it’s a federal holiday, but we’re just going to go ahead and call it something else,” that can lead to bigger changes. What if cities and states across the country take similar stands? Could this holiday celebrating a mass murderer eventually get thrown out? We can only hope. But even if Columbus Day isn’t going anywhere at this particular moment, local leaders taking a stand against it can lead to a bigger change.

Take same sex marriage, as another example. Minnesotans can take pride in the fact that, while we were the 12th state to legalize same sex marriage, we were home to the first court case in the country about the issue. That was back in 1970, when Richard Baker and James Michael McConnell, two student activists from the University of Minnesota, applied for a marriage license. Denied their request, they filed a lawsuit that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was dismissed.

Five years later, a county clerk in Phoenix, Arizona issued the first same sex marriage certificate to a gay couple, though it was later revoked. It wasn’t until 1993 that Hawaii courts ruled that banning same sex couples from getting married violated the state’s Equal Rights Amendment.

Today, DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), which passed in 1996 has been struck down, while 17 states have legalized same sex marriage. The fight isn’t over, but when you look back at that first couple who dared to challenge the courts on this issue, you wouldn’t see them as frivolous, but rather as the first spark on an issue that eventually took to flame.

I feel that way about Seattle passing a $15 minimum wage. When I first heard about the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, I admit that I was pessimistic. I thought, there’s no way that’s going to pass. In Minnesota, we raised it to $9.50 an hour by 2016, which, though still pretty low, is going to make a difference for working people who currently make less than that. When I saw that Seattle had raised it to $15, to me it inspired tremendous hope. It was a city taking a stand for the working poor: to hell what the rest of the country thinks.

The fact is, a lot of change can happen locally, and even when that change is only “symbolic,” that doesn’t always mean it shouldn’t be attempted. Symbols are important, especially when we’re talking about changing attitudes. Remember — it takes one step at a time.