Recalling Pete Seeger and others, David Schwinn addresses the need for courage to speak up about things that matter.
Pete Seeger died last month, and because he was one of those artists so important to me in the 60s and 70s, I asked my students if they knew that he had died. Some did. As I probed a little more, I found that most had heard of him, a few knew something about him, but most did not. Maybe you do not. I remember Pete Seeger as the folk singer who protested for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. He was honored by Bruce Springsteen with his 2006 album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” The arts lead the way, as we all know. It’s okay to remember that. As I was discussing this month’s column with my wife, Carole, she reminded me of another passing that we recently heard about—that of Heidi Holland.
My guess is that most of you never heard of Heidi Holland. We found her in our sabbatical journey several years ago. As we were looking for a place to stay in Johannesburg, South Africa, we ran across the Holland House as an eclectic place where interesting people stay because of the nightly soirees that Heidi Holland hosted. We signed up. A little research and we found that Heidi Holland was a well-respected author and journalist on the African condition, although not well known in America, which is, of course, so common about so many of the brilliant people around the world.
In her regular newspaper columns and her definitive history of the ANC (100 Years of Struggle: Mandela’s ANC, 2012), Heidi Holland boldly took on South Africa’s leaders for what they were failing to bring about for their people, but she is most famous for her interactions with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and the book she wrote about those experiences (Dinner with Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter Who Became a Tyrant, 2010). It took Heidi two years to set up her well-known face-to-face interview with Mugabe, who, at the time, was generally known, she recalls, “as the biggest monster on earth” (personal communication, April 2011). When it was finally arranged, Mugabe then kept her waiting in a hotel room for two weeks, awaiting a call to say that he was ready to grant her an audience.
In preparation for the interview, Heidi actually asked a psychologist friend, “How can I hang in there? I don’t want to toady to him and I don’t want him to tell me what he wants me to know. On the other hand, I don’t want to have a fight with him. I know that if I ask him anything that touches his sensitivities, he’ll just get rid of me.” The psychologist suggested that she prepare a number of unexpected questions that might throw Mugabe off. When Heidi saw Mugabe becoming annoyed during the interview, she followed the suggestion and asked him, “Have you ever been deeply in love?” The question defused the situation, and Heidi had an historic and unprecedented 2.5 hour interview with the fearsome Mugabe (personal communication, April 2011).
By now, you may see that the theme of this month’s column is taking a turn. Heidi Holland was not an artist so much as a writer, but what she held in common with Pete Seeger was her courage and ability to stand up against and speak out against power. She obviously risked her life in Zimbabwe and, if you did not already know it, South Africa is also a dangerous place. People disappear when speaking against the establishment. There is a long history of that even though the ANC would argue that those times are over.
Pete Seeger’s actions were also courageous, even revolutionary. While America has a history (perhaps a myth) of nonviolent revolution, it is always scary to go up against the establishment. Some of us may remember that, during the McCarthy era, Seeger’s political connections led to a subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee where he stated, among other things that, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” He was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in prison, but the next year, an appeals court dismissed the indictment as faulty.
Pete Seeger and Heidi Holland were two heroes who spoke out. Six Sigma is a most powerful approach for doing things effectively and efficiently. Sometimes that requires that we speak out. Sometimes, we become aware that there are issues in our organizations that are not being treated as part of our Six Sigma initiatives, but deserve to be dealt with. I believe those are the issues that Seeger and Holland would have spoken out on. For most of us, that speaking out is risky business and, as Pete Seeger and Heidi Holland have shown us, speaking out takes a special kind of courage.
May we all be a little more courageous.
As always, I treasure your comments and questions.