Celebrating great artists and activists who have come before us

Martha L. McCoy
June 23, 2014

Quote from Maya Angelou

As we move forward on this journey towards building an equitable democracy, it’s important to remember those who have helped build the foundation we stand on. We celebrate the life of Maya Angelou, an influential icon in both the art and civil rights world. She has had a profound impact on our country’s journey and on Everyday Democracy’s path as an organization.

Maya Angelou demonstrated the possibility and power of voice in the midst of oppression and injustice. She modeled joy, love and respect for all human beings. She courageously called out racism, while never giving up hope that people can change themselves and commit to dismantling systems of oppression.

She made it clear that the work to develop and use one’s voice was never done, and that all of us – no matter our background – had essential roles to play. She helped me realize that I, as a white woman, had critical work to do in the fight against racism; her work encouraged me to find and use my own voice in that fight.   

In our early years of working to address racism as an organization, I devoured Angelou’s writings. She inspired me and challenged me, and made me think about the connections between equity and democracy.

I will never forget a beautiful June evening in 1997, when I heard Maya Angelou speak at the Civic Center in Lima, Ohio. Beginning in 1993, we had begun to work with the Mayor’s office and an emerging multi-racial coalition of civic groups, who engaged hundreds – then thousands – of Lima residents in dialogue and action to address racial divisions and inequities. As deepening interracial relationships and collaboration were transforming the community’s sense of itself, the City and the coalition invited Angelou to help them celebrate the progress that they were making.  

A standing-room-only crowd of all ages and backgrounds filled the Civic Center that night. Angelou watched and listened as the coalition first took the stage and talked about their difficult journey from racial separation to connection; they and the Mayor spoke of some of the institutional changes emerging from the individual and collective voices of Lima. A multi-racial group of faith leaders, which had formed through the dialogue process, joined hands and sang “Amazing Grace.”

As Angelou took center stage, she spoke forcefully and lovingly to the people gathered there: “You are doing something powerful and unusual here, and you must not give up.” She then mesmerized us all with her performance. I clearly recall her dramatic recitation of her poem “Phenomenal Woman.” Seeing her in person is a moment that continues to inspire me today.

Recently, we’ve also lost another icon, Ruby Dee, whose artistry and passion for civil rights and racial equity shone brightly for our country. I never had the chance to see Ruby Dee in person or hear her encourage thousands of people to stay in dialogue with each other to address racism. And yet I could imagine it happening. We take her work to heart as we continue our journey to address structural racism.

We will never forget what we learned from these great artists and activists who have come before us. We are committed to carrying their lessons forward and forever “giving birth again to the dream.”


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Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process, using a racial equity lens, can help.