Closing Remarks from CEO Stosh Cotler at Pursuing Justice 2020 Online

Closing Remarks from CEO Stosh Cotler at Pursuing Justice 2020 Online

May 14, 2020

I want to share a story from our tradition. A person, named Honi, is out for a walk on a spring day. They see an elderly neighbor planting a fruit tree. “Why would such an old person be planting a tree,” Honi thinks. Honi asks his neighbor, “what kind of tree are you planting?” Their neighbor says it’s a carob sapling, which won’t bear fruit for another 70 years. It’s not for himself, he explains, it’s for the generations to come.

In the story, Honi then falls asleep and wakes up 70 years later (because who couldn’t go for a really good nap), to witness the neighbor’s grandchild harvesting fruit from the carob tree.

Friends – I know in this moment it’s hard to imagine what our world looks like 70 days from now, let alone 70 years. But imagine with me that you’ve fallen asleep for 70 years. You wake up. What seeds have you planted that are now, finally, bearing fruit? What kind of ancestor have you been?

Over the past two days, we’ve heard incredible stories of justice work around the country. We’ve also heard stories revealing intractable challenges with no simple or singular solution. But at the most basic level, the common thread that unites these stories is power. Who has it, and who doesn’t. Who’s abusing it, and who’s building it in service to social transformation so that all of us may live lives of dignity, safety and belonging.

That’s why we are here. We don’t get to choose the historic moment we live in, but we do get to choose how we respond.

We could choose to say, our historic moment has not been easy. What’s the point of planting trees whose fruit we’ll never see in our lifetimes?

But that’s not who we are. We are a people who hold fast to the tree of life. We are a people rooted in justice. And in this moment, we are choosing to rise up as one, in solidarity.

Our organization’s name is Bend the Arc. It comes from a sermon by a 19th century Unitarian Minister named Theodore Parker.

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one,” he wrote. “My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Parker was an abolitionist. He was writing about the belief that one day it would be apparent to his country that human beings shouldn’t be slaves. His words would become popular later, but he wouldn’t live to see Abraham Lincoln or Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. say them. He wouldn’t live to see the end of chattel slavery, and the long cycles of progress and equally long experiences of racial terror that continue to define our country.

The arc is a long one, indeed. And yet — right now, I’m not satisfied to wait. I see that a more just country is possible- immediately. A society defined by justice, inclusion, and equality for all. I’m willing to fight with every fiber of my being to make that real. And, I know I’m not alone- I know we’re in this together.

While Pursuing Justice 2020 is ending, by no means will our work together end when we sign off today. We will each be carrying the seeds of our growing movement back to our communities, to our organizations and chapters and synagogues and family and friends. Because the act of pursuing justice is not limited to two days, or one year, or even our lifetimes.

While we are seeing how tectonic change can happen in an instant, our people also know that the ripples of transformation span generations. And we each have a role to play.

Tonight, I am asking all of you to join Bend the Arc as we take up that challenge over the next six months and far beyond. Our voices will ring out, offering clarity in the face of chaos, ringing in the ears of those who would rather see us silenced, to say that the country we want, the country we believe in, is a democracy where we — all of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from — are safe, healthy, and thriving. We won’t settle for anything less — we have everything to lose if we forget that.

We called this conference “Pursuing Justice.” That’s because we all know that justice — it doesn’t just happen. Justice isn’t passively coming to us, justice isn’t coming to the United States on its own accord. We have to pursue it. We have to go get it. We have to cultivate it. Let’s get to it.

We know this has been a grueling four years of the Trump era. And for many of us, 4 years ago wasn’t the start of the pain, but a moment when more people finally began to take notice. 

We also know that no matter what happens on November 3rd, we will need to draw on every bit of physical stamina, mental fortitude, and collective sustainability practice we have in order to move our agenda forward. I hope we’ve learned new skills and built new relationships that will help us dig deep for resiliency and strength no matter what future we face after November.

History has shown us that pandemics like COVID and other major crises create space for the seeds of foundational change. Let us face this moment together, shoulder to shoulder, fingers intertwined, no gaps between us. The opening is here — we will rise, and move toward it, as one.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart- sending you love and strength. Onward!