Editorial: How Change Happens; Why It Must

  • Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley celebrates victory over U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., in the 7th Congressional House Democratic primary, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

  • Ayanna Pressley, who won the 7th Congressional District Democratic primary Tuesday, speaks at a Massachusetts Democratic Party unity event, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

  • A young spinner in a North Carolina cotton manufacturing company poses for Lewis Hine, the documentary photographer who inspired the creation of laws to ban child labor. MUST CREDIT: Library of Congress

Saturday, September 08, 2018

“Change can’t wait.” That’s the urgent slogan of Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, a progressive who pulled off a stunning upset of a well-regarded 10-term Democratic congressman in a primary election last week. She is now poised to become the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her signature phrase prompts reflection on how change that can’t wait can actually come about.

A prime way, of course, is by winning elections. As Donald Trump has amply demonstrated, elections have consequences in a democracy. No one who cares about their community, their state, their country or the planet can afford to stand aloof these days, if ever they could. The message seems to be resonating with many, as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont noted at a Labor Day rally in White River Junction. “More and more people — young people, people of color, women, people in the LGBT community — (are) getting involved in the political process, running for office and winning elections,” Sanders told the crowd. This is unquestionably a bright spot on the dark horizon of American life.

Speaking at the same event, Hartford Selectman Jameson Davis highlighted another way that change is brought about, recalling how the civil rights and labor movements advanced together to the benefit of all Americans. “I stand here today to remind you that the human rights struggle and the workers’ rights struggle for years have been one and the same,” said Davis.

Sanders also alluded to this theme: “The only way that I know how we can take on that wealth and power is to educate and to organize and to bring our people together.” Indeed, for social movements to succeed, they must educate, organize and unify. They also must seek to make common cause with like-minded partners, even those with whom they do not agree on everything. “Stronger together” is not only a rallying cry; it’s a fact.

Not all efforts to change the country need to be collective to prevail, however, as the Labor Day edition of the Valley News reminded us. It carried a Washington Post account of how the efforts of a single individual effected fundamental change in the nation’s economic and social relations in the early years of the 20th century. It told the story of Lewis Hine, an investigative photographer who traveled across the country documenting the shocking face and horrifying conditions of child labor in America: long hours, unsafe working conditions and lack of educational opportunity.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that at the turn of the 20th century, at least 18 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 15 were employed. Working undercover for the National Child Labor Committee, Hine gained entry by subterfuge to coal mines, textile mills, tobacco farms and meatpacking plants. The images of children at work that he produced with his large format camera are unforgettable: The young workers are often looking directly into the camera. It is almost painful to meet their gaze even now; it must have been much, much harder a hundred years ago.

Hine’s heartbreaking photographs sparked outrage and eventually remade the public’s perception of what was then a widely accepted practice. Laws banning child labor followed, albeit slowly.

“It was Lewis Hine who made sure that millions of children are not working today,” Jeffrey Newman, a former president of the National Child Labor Committee, told the Post. In fact, Hine did his work so well that years later, in 2017, the committee declared victory and shut down, Newman said.

This story is a satisfying testament to the power of a gifted, determined and resourceful person to improve the material conditions and moral outlook of the whole country. And it should be an inspiration to a new generation of practical idealists, equipped with far more sophisticated documentary tools, to bring Americans face-to-face with the misery so many people endure each day.

The fight goes on, on many fronts.