The future of social justice: An interview with Senator Richard Durbin
UCAN believes in the young people of Chicago, and in the power of their potential. Nowhere is that power more clearly self-evident than in this series, where Chicago’s future leaders – UCAN participants – interview current leaders in the fields to which they aspire. Recently, Isabel Gaspar, now a sophomore at Agnes Scott College, sat down with Richard Durbin, the senior U.S. Senator from the State of Illinois, to discuss her passion for, and path toward, a future in social justice.
Senator, when you were my age, did you know you wanted to be a U.S. Senator?
Nope. I never had a clue when I was your age. I was still trying to figure it out. Like most young people, I had different things I thought I might want to be. I liked dogs, so I thought I might be a veterinarian. I liked to draw things so I thought I might be an architect. But I knew that I was going to college, and I thought maybe things would be clearer as when I got there.
So, I went to Georgetown, in Washington, to the School of Foreign Service, thinking maybe someday I would enter the Foreign Service. But then, as I finished that course, I thought maybe there’s some other path. And that’s when I happened to find an internship in an office of a U.S. Senator. And that was really the first time, when I was a senior in college, that I thought I wanted to work in government. I didn’t believe I would ever run for office, but I wanted to work in government.
You obviously have a challenging job. What gets you through your days on a day-to-day basis, to get through those challenges?
Well, sometimes I ask myself the same question. Is it worth it? But when you finally do something that helps somebody, whether it’s an individual or a group of people, there’s a real satisfaction that you’ve changed lives for the better. Eighteen years ago, I introduced the Dream Act so that those who were undocumented young people in America might have an opportunity someday to be legal and to have a future and be citizens.
Today, 780,000 people in the United States of America are protected by DACA, which is a version of the Dream Act that President Obama managed to make an Executive Order. I had a role in leading that to where it is today, and I hope to even expand it in the future.
That’s awesome, thank you for that. So, young people like me always want to find a way to change the world. Do you still think politics is a good path to create this change?
I think it’s one of the best. It’s not the only one by any means, but it’s one of the best. because when you are successful and you’re involved in politics, a good idea, an idea that moves us toward more justice, really affects more people.
You know, as an individual lawyer, before I was elected to the House of Representatives, I liked to help my clients, and sometimes I felt that I helped them reach justice. And that was a satisfaction. But in this job, when I do things of importance and I’m successful, then many more people can be helped. So, I’d say politics and government are the best way to help the largest number of people when you’re successful.
And what would you say defines being successful in government?
Well, I remember a fellow named Paul Simon, who was a Senator before me, and I thought he put it together when he said, “When it comes to public service, there are two things you should be focused on. Be honest. And secondly, help the helpless. His belief was that wealthy people in America will always find a lawyer or a lobbyist or some influential person to help them. But helpless people who are standing by the sidelines wondering who cares about them, they’re the ones who need a voice. So, I’ve tried to focus on honesty and helping those who otherwise wouldn’t have a helping hand.
My passion isn’t necessarily politics, but it is social justice. I know you’re a member of the Judiciary Committee, and a past chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Who have been some of your social justice heroes?
I was thinking about this as I prepared for this interview. And I thought, well, I’ll tell you the ones I’ve met personally. There are many in history I could point to, starting with Abraham Lincoln of course, but here are those that I’ve met personally who are really my heroes.
Nelson Mandela. Mandela, who spent 24 years in prison and then came out to become elected president of South Africa. I thought one of the most significant things he did –that spoke volumes about his view of justice – was when he invited the man who had been his warden, the person who locked him in a cell for 24 years, to his inauguration as president of South Africa. That to me was such a magnanimous, caring act on his part.
The second person I met who I thought was significant was Mother Teresa. She was a Catholic nun in Calcutta, India, who dedicated her life to the poor, who really didn’t care if she ever accumulated one penny of value in her life. She just wanted to help people and she helped thousands and inspired more.
Another, Muhammad Yunus. Muhammad Yunus, an economist in Bangladesh, dreamed up the idea of Grameen Banks. These were micro banks that would lend money to the poorest people in Bangladesh, small amounts of money that were life-changing. He started by putting his own money in and lending it. He believed they’d pay him back — and their lives would be so much better.
Now we’re involved in this crisis on immigration and our borders, and in just the last few weeks I’ve met two extraordinary people on social justice. Ruben Garcia in El Paso, Texas. He has a place called the Annunciation Project. When immigrants have moved through our system, and they’re finally in the United States, but have no place to turn, they turn to him. And for 42 years, 42 years, he has helped them start a life in America. And he’s never taken a penny from our government.
And Sister Norma, the Catholic nun in McAllen, Texas. She does the same thing there with thousands and thousands of immigrants who come through. She gives them showers and food and clothing and a loving, caring hand when they need it so desperately. So, those five people are the people I’ve met recently, and over the years, that really made an impression.
And they’re definitely amazing people. What qualities would you say are very important to being a leader?
Well, first you start with the golden rule. You know, not to do anything to another person that you wouldn’t want to have done to yourself. That is just so basic. Then, as I said, to be a caring person and realize that some people just need a helping hand to make a better life. And listening carefully to the people you represent. Realizing many of them don’t see the world the same way you do, but to be respectful and listen to their point of view, try to understand where they’re coming from, weigh carefully in your mind whether they’re right and your right. And then even when you disagree, do it in a respectful way. I think that’s an important part of leadership.
Having that in mind, what is one of the sacrifices you had to make or one of the most challenging things you had to?
As public official, whether you want to or not, you give up a lot of your privacy. You have to tell the average person you represent more information about yourself than most people like to share.
I started with some political figures who said, “You should tell the world how much money you make so that they know that you’re not doing this job for the money.” So, every year I’ve been involved in politics I’ve disclosed my income tax returns, my total net worth. If people look at one of my votes and they disagree with it, I want them to say, “Well, I disagree with the way Durbin voted, but I know he didn’t do it for the money. He did it because of what he believes, and I happen to disagree with it.” I think that’s important for the integrity of our political system and in the hope that when it’s over they’ll have a positive view of what I’ve done with public service.
Thinking about the future, what would your advice be to people like me, still in school, who want to be a part of change, whether it be in politics or other careers?
Well, first finish school. I know that’s on your mind and I’m sure you’re going to do that, but your education’s important. Not just because of what you learn, but because of what it means to your life.
It isn’t just that you’ve stored all this information in your head. It really molds you as a person. As you read, as you learn, you establish a set of values, and those values will guide you in life as a person, in a relationship with other people, in the work that you do with your life, whatever it may be.
I think you can be a champion for social justice and be a businessperson. You can be a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, almost anything. Those who have no profession but raise a family are going to teach social justice in their family, to their children, for example.
So, each of us has an opportunity and a calling. There are so many places to turn to to help in the area of justice. We automatically think of judges and courts and law, and of course they’re the most important. But there are other areas where you can fight for social justice in your neighborhood.
A family is invited to live in your neighborhood and runs into a negative reaction of hate from some of the people. Will you be the one to knock on the door with a plate of cookies and say, “Welcome to our neighborhood”? That new immigrant, that new refugee…will you be the one to say, “Thank you for coming to America?” That is an effort, small as it might be, that moves us towards social justice.
And that’s very much appreciated. Thank you. So, what should young people right now be studying and what experiences should we be seeking out?
Three things that are important. History is very important. It repeats itself. Some people say it doesn’t repeat itself, it just rhymes. Meaning that there are many parallels in history that you can find.
What we’re going through now, with this president, and the negative reaction toward immigrants that he is pushing, is not new in America. It’s happened over and over and over again in this nation of immigrants. Once a group has come to this country, settled in, and taken the reins of power, they’ve pushed back and said, “No more of those strangers. We don’t need those people anymore. They’re not like us.” That’s happened over and over in history. President Trump is really using a tool which has been used to divide America over the years. So, history is an important part of public service and understanding the context in which we live.
Secondly, look for those people who are an inspiration to you. They could be writers, or philosophers, or religious leaders. Find those who write and speak in a way that inspires you to want to do something better with your life.
And third, I’m a liberal arts person, and I believe that there is a lot to be said for trying to expand your horizons, always. Read things that aren’t expected of you. A few years back I decided to take an online course at Coursera and I picked poetry as my subject. Poetry. I knew nothing about poetry, and I thought, “I should know something about that.” And I learned a lot in that course. So, expand your horizons, push yourself in the areas that you wouldn’t ordinarily be studying.
Get out of our comfort zone and be open-minded. I go to a liberal arts college and I see that, and I appreciate that, too.
Exactly. The other thing that’s really important is travel. Get up and go all over the world. Don’t rule out any part of the world.
They say that you can’t appreciate another country until you’ve visited it. And I say as well, you can’t appreciate your home until you leave it. And when you leave America and go see life in another place, there may be parts of it that you think, “That’s interesting. I wish we were closer to them.” But I always come home saying, “This is still the best place for me and the best moment in history to be here, even though we have all these great challenges.”
I will keep your advice in mind. It’s helpful to hear from a leader like you, and you’re definitely an aspiration. Thank you for being with us, and for taking the time out of your busy day.