Let Your Life Speak Interview: Everybody's Got A Right to Live
An interview with Tim Shenk, Educator & Community Organizer
Sharing the words and stories of other people who are working daily to live lives of conviction so that we can all learn how to do the necessary work is one of the greatest joys of this Let Your Life Speak project for me.
Integrity is a habit, just like any other behavior that you engage in repeatedly. It is not an attitude or a belief; it is a practice. I depend on surrounding myself with people who are pursuing lives of integrity in order to continue learning how to best cultivate my own integrity. I am always on the hunt for media that also bolsters my learning. I hope this does that for you.
Talking with Tim Shenk, Educator & Community Organizer
Tim W. Shenk is Coordinator of the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (cuslar.org) and serves on the coordinating committee of the New York State Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (nysppc.org). He lives with his spouse Alicia and their daughter Emma in Ithaca, NY. He enjoys snow and toddler-led dance parties in the living room, though not simultaneously.
Can you tell me who you are underneath all of your professional accomplishments, or perhaps as the foundation for all of them?
Who am I? I’m somebody who loves people, and I think I wouldn’t have always said that as a way to introduce myself because I grew up liking books more, and hitting baseballs, and things like that. I think that also, growing up in a Mennonite home and community, I don’t think I would have articulated that I loved people because it was maybe just kind of a given, something that you wouldn’t have bothered to say.
I was talking to a friend who was speaking with another Mennonite guy, sort of about beliefs. He was saying, “Well, I couldn’t really get a lot out of him.” [chuckles] And that sounds about right, because if you’re from a Mennonite community they're often insular and sometimes isolated from the rest of the world, especially if it’s a rural community, and you don’t really know what to say that isn’t “obvious”. You don’t really necessarily know what other people would think was interesting about what you believe, and so I think articulating loving people and loving being in the world, y’know, it comes through being in relationship with a lot of different kinds of people.
I lived in the Dominican Republic for five years before moving to Ithaca in 2010. It was just a completely different way of interacting. And when people are with me in the DR they say, “You have a completely different personality there.” [chuckles] And, yeah, I came of age in that place where people were much louder, much more irreverent, where people were able to show warmth with each other in a much more bombastic way, and there are some ways in which there’s more permission to be that way there, whereas here I don’t give myself so much permission, or something. There’s a little bit more reservedness.
What is a core belief that you carry— about people, about relationships, or about the world— that you feel really shapes your life? How did you come to believe it?
What came to mind is “everybody’s got a right to live”. That’s a phrase we’ve been using in the Poor People’s Campaign, and there’s a song about it. It kind of goes, “Everybody’s got a right to live, and before this campaign fails we’ll all go down to jail.” It’s sort of a fight song in a way, of getting ready for people to be in the streets together, to trust each other, and know what’s in store for us in some bigger ways, too. If our movements for change get big enough then we’ll be considered a danger to the status quo in a good way.
I think the next step beyond “everybody’s got the right to live” is “everybody’s got a right to all of the things we need to live” whether or not we can pay for it, and recognizing that there’s enough to go around. There’s abundance in this world. I was just looking at a statistic from the International Labor Organization that was astounding to me, which says that workers around the world have lost $3.7 trillion in wages in the past year in this pandemic, and billionaires have accumulated $3.9 trillion in wealth. You kind of see [in that] the stark contrast of who is suffering under this system and who is making out like bandits. And so it’s really a political statement to say “everybody’s got a right to live” and it’s not happening because people aren’t having that right fulfilled right now especially.
I think I’m coming to it in a real, deep, genuine way just out of relationship to people, and learning about all sorts of different struggles for liberation in many different senses of the word, in many different places in history, and many different cultures. I’m also getting to recognize that within my own family and history and background, Mennonites really have had to struggle for the right to live at many different points in our history.
Always in our upbringing, in our church, and in our community there was a thing about that sacredness of everybody being God’s children, of everybody being part of God’s family, and yet deepening into that more the more depth and breadth of relationships I’ve been able to have through organizing and through trying to make things right.
What helps you to live this belief?
Being in relationship makes it real, makes the potential of it real. Anybody can have a belief about the world or themselves and it doesn’t really mean much in the whole scheme of things. They killed Copernicus because he said the sun was the center of the universe and not the earth and they got away with it. So the only way to make it true— that everybody’s got the right to live— is through relationship, and through community, and building organization, and building consciousness at a bigger level.
Not only a vague idea of changing the consciousness of the society, but really building organization in the sense that these are the people we’re gonna be in struggle with, and these are the people that we’re gonna really try to make our beliefs about who we are into reality with.
It’s not only about “is my household going to live by a certain set of beliefs and values” because there are much bigger forces at play that we can’t control. Like, we could say that we believe people shouldn’t have to work so hard in this country, but we can’t control that. We could believe that everybody has a right not to be laid off during a pandemic, but we can’t control that. So, how do we get to that point, and what are the stages? Because we can’t bring about that end goal— that everybody’s got a right to live— we can’t make that a reality just by wishing it. So, what are the stages that we need to go through, and how do we build to get to the next step on the ladder?
That [work] really brings me life, taking it seriously enough that, okay I have this belief. I think it’s necessary that other people have it so that we can survive as a species, and so that our kids can have something better than what we have. But it’s not only an idea that needs to live in our heads. Through collective action, we can take the next steps to actually make it happen. Our individual beliefs can only take us so far. We actually have to do [the work] in concert with other people.
What gets in your way of living this belief?
Partly it’s the daily life of being someone who has to work for a living and being part of a family of people that needs to do that. I don’t put childcare in that because I think that’s part of what gives life too, and yet I also look around social movements and social justice and I don’t see as many people who are raising young kids who are front and center in that work.
We don’t have as much time to throw ourselves into this, into our deepest beliefs, and so there’s some part of the deep belief that just knows that, Okay, we’re not alone in this. This is also part of the deep work— raising kids, playing, and having a pace of life that makes sense for our families as well.
But that’s a struggle because there are days when I’m kind of like, Just give me some more time to work! I need to work! And then there are days when it flows a little differently.
What is the joy, or satisfaction, or benefit, for you in doing the work to live into this belief?
I don’t know if a few years ago I would have known what to say in answer to that question. It’s still a little bit hard. Here’s something about the Mennonite tradition that I was laughing about with my parents the last time we were there. It’s that it wasn’t something you were asked as a kid in a Mennonite world: “What makes you happy? What makes you joyful?” It was much more about “How are you being useful?” That’s not to blame any one person. We’re part of our times and our environment. It just wasn’t something that came up.
I think it really comes back to those relationships and communities and being able to do it with other people. It’s really a satisfaction to see other people grow and learn, and come into more commitment and more trust of each other. I think there’s something that comes alive in actually trying to do the work.
I can tell that my life is so much richer from having a diversity of relationships with people with a ton of different backgrounds, of experiences A-Z that weren’t what I grew up with. I think it gives me both more joy and more conviction about what the tasks at hand are. Especially seeing where each of us is hurt by a system that’s bigger than any one of us, and seeing the necessity of revolutionary change, which is really what you’re talking about when it’s really that deep of a transformation that’s necessary. We’re not talking about a tweak here or there, or one piece of legislation that’s going to fix it.
There is this joy of seeing people come into their humanity, and find their calling and their ministry, and finding a way to be an encouragement for others and others be an encouragement to me.
[I’m also] just thinking about the timing and bigness of our projects. I’ve learned more, since coming to Ithaca, about the history of this area, and specifically about abolition and the Underground Railroad. All the groundwork that was done in the 1830s and ‘40s and ‘50s—establishing the Underground Railroad, having harrowing escapes, escaped, enslaved black workers moving up through up to Canada through Buffalo with Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass being an anchor in Rochester, and there being a strong abolitionist community here in Ithaca, and in Elmira, and in Syracuse.
All of this work for decades that seemed painstakingly slow, and legislation after legislation would be coming down that would make it harder and harder. They were just losing left and right, for decades on end! Things were getting worse and harder, and all of a sudden, in a few years, the huge contradiction of the founding of this country— that we would found a democracy based on genocide and slavery— the contradiction blew up into Civil War. The war was the context in which hundreds of thousands of enslaved Black workers could liberate themselves, walking off the plantations and into Union camps all over the South. This forced Lincoln to recognize the emancipation that was already happening, and it changed the whole point of why the war was being fought.
It’s the question of the slow build and then sometimes there are opportunities to move at a different pace, to make a decisive move collectively for liberation. There’s enough of a groundswell, enough of leadership or indignation that has been built, that there are these moments where all of a sudden things move more quickly than you expect and you have to get on board and ride that, too. I kind of feel like we’re at one of those moments, or we’re coming upon one of those moments of rapid change at a material level because of the inability or unwillingness at the federal level of the government to actually give us what we need.
I think that’s where the Poor People’s Campaign has so much potential because a lot of the people who aren’t poor today might be in that condition tomorrow— in terms of the looming eviction crisis, in terms of the crisis of healthcare. This is going to be a prolonged period of real difficulty, whether we call it recession or depression or whatever.
[It’s] drawing strength from our ancestors in struggle working together on something that was totally politically impossible when they started out. And then to actually see it happen, though it was successful in some ways and not successful in others. There’s something to be learned from these histories of big-time upheaval, that I think we’re in again, and we didn’t choose to be in this time of history, but we get to take it on with that joy of being alive.
Thank you, Tim! And thank you to all of you, my dear and wonderful readers. None of this would be possible without you. If you enjoyed this, please feel free to like (click the heart!), share, and comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts.