Emily Bell McCormick: How small acts become sweeping belief systems

Emily Bell McCormick

There is an apartheid museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. Buried yards into zigzagged cement walkways, artifacts, photos and documents, is a wall. A wall that stands stories high, vastly wide. Red and brown brick, covered almost entirely by hundreds of small black plaques, each engraved with white letters. It’s a wall that could be missed, immense as it is, but blended amidst the thronging displays.

Upon examination, the sea of plaques takes form — each containing an “act” or law.

This wall, and each plaque on it, represents the formation and continuation of apartheid. One small “act” at a time.

And thereby, one country’s 300-year history of institutionalized racism, and the almost-complete destruction of a way of life for 90 percent of a population. Destruction that had not been caused by wars, but by ideas. Ideas that became words. Words that became policies. Policies that became laws. And laws that undid lives.

Amidst the constant nagging questions of life, how is one person in a position of freedom and another in captivity? How is one in peace, another war? How is one surrounded by love, another by hatred? Crippling poverty versus expansive, sometimes crippling, wealth? Where did these differences come from? And can they ever end?

And, what can I do?

This wall became a vision.

A call to arms. A commitment to recognize that small “acts” become sweeping belief systems. And the intersection at which change can occur, is at the inception of ideas and the movement of people.

It is a belief that policy, in short, has the power to impact everything. And it is our duty to ourselves, our neighbors and our countries, to ensure that equitable policy is our heritage.

And thus a new question: How? In Wales, Utah, or Midlothian, Virginia, or Dublin, Ohio. How? How does one effect policy.

And the answer is, in ideas. The thoughts one thinks. The choice to forgive, or not. The attempt to understand another’s view, or belief system, or world. Or to disregard them.

Those ideas become words. Words shared with a neighbor while washing a car on a hot afternoon. Words shared with a friend at lunch. Words spoken at a cash wrap. Words in a meeting. Soft words at dusk, tucking in a child.

And although these things are minutia when compared to our institutions and our governments and our earth, they do matter. Because it is from those words that ideas grow and spread. And if there is a consistent enough theme — and a constant enough voice — these ideas reach our leaders and influence our communities.

We individually have ownership over policy. Sometimes that requires grand strides, like those taken to unravel apartheid. Often, it just takes our ideas.

Let us build laws that build lives.

Emily Bell McCormick

Emily Bell McCormick is the owner of a boutique communication and advocacy consulting firm in Salt Lake City. She is also the founder of The Policy Project, a group working to implement healthy policy in Utah and the U.S. Their current project is Stand for Women’s Health in honor of National Period Day, an effort to improve the economy and women’s success by increasing access to menstrual products. Visit thepolicyproject.org for more information.