The power of yes

Photo By Larry Dalton

My mother taught me compassion, how to care for those outside my family circle. Cesar Chavez, founder of the civil-rights movement for migrant farmworkers, taught me how to turn that compassion into effective action. From both, I learned how rich life becomes by saying yes.

My four siblings and I were well cared for by both our parents. But my mom believed that we were no more important than the rest of the world’s children. Her idea of family extended far beyond our household, and this defined how she lived. She struck up conversations everywhere, in grocery lines or on the bus. We were embarrassed, thinking, “Mom, we don’t even know these people.” But now I appreciate what she was about. Everyone was just someone’s child. She once read about a young man who lost an arm in a farm accident. The next day, she was at his hospital bed, encouraging him and leaving money for his family. In the ’60s, when she read about the Mississippi church bombing that killed three black children, Mom sent sympathy cards to their families. She still has the letters they wrote to her. My memory is full of stories like these. When anyone needed help, Mom said yes.

Her example inspired me. After college, I left Indiana to volunteer for the summer as a boycott organizer with the farmworkers’ union in California. I loved the work and believed in the cause, but I planned to return home in August to meet my sister’s new baby and start graduate school. So, I was torn when they asked all of us to stay through November for a critical ballot-initiative campaign. I had spent the summer “talking the talk” about the sacrifices Chavez made to build the union. Now I realized I might have to “walk the walk,” to say yes when it would be more convenient to say no. During a half-hour car ride back to our boycott house, I made the decision to stay. I recall thinking, “Ten years from now, I probably won’t remember whether I went home in August or November. But I will remember whether or not I did the right thing.” That single decision changed the direction of my life. I worked 18-hour days, seven days a week, in the following months, and it lit a fire in me. Until then, I had dreaded speaking in public, but at age 21, inspired by Chavez and “La Causa,” I spoke to classes, to church congregations and, on one occasion, to thousands of longshoremen packed into a union hall. When we won the ballot campaign, I knew Chavez’s rallying cry, “Si, se puede” (“Yes, it can be done”), was true. My volunteer summer stretched into 15 years with the movement, first as an organizer and later as a lawyer at the union’s headquarters.

Today, I represent indigent clients on death row. My mom, now 89, wholeheartedly approves. The world’s children still have so many needs, and I still say, “Yes.”

Ellen Eggers is a capital defense attorney. She has two children: Tomas, 24; and Teresa, 19.

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