Nelson Mandela Taught Us Tenacity

In 2000 I was just starting my career as a community organizer with CALPIRG, a California-based public interest advocacy organization. I was charged with organizing students on UC Campuses, starting with UC Davis. One of my mentors, Dan Jacobson, had started a book club and we were reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. At that time I was struggling with the responsibility of trying to make an immediate impact on my local community and getting students involved on a state and national level. I felt such a sense of impatience and believed that if I just worked harder the changes I sought would come faster.

Reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography put everything into perspective for me. He was a great leader, who had changed the world in profound ways, but who had struggled to make those changes in tedious and laborious daily and momentary actions. His life-long struggle resonated with me back then, and does today in my work as an attorney working with nonprofits and social enterprises.

I’ve come to realize that change occurs in small increments and without a clear linear trajectory. Sometimes the change is progressive and in the right direction, and sometimes the change is a setback. Mandela writes of his time in prison:

“The graph of improvement in prison was never steady. Progress was halting and typically accompanied by setbacks. An advancement might take years to win, and then be rescinded in a day. We would push the rock up the hill, only to have it tumble down again. But conditions did improve. We had won a host of small battles that added up to a change in the atmosphere of the island.” [1]

Mandela’s words are encouraging for anyone who seeks to make a positive impact in their community on a daily basis. His life is a reminder that positive change comes through the accumulation of many small moments of victory, and that one must be patient through the ups and downs.

Today we are fortunate to live in a world where millions of people can instantly mobilize around the causes that they care about through social media and technologies that did not exist when Mandela was fighting for freedom and equality for the African people. As we reflect on Mandela’s legacy, it is so important to remember that the daily tedious work that activists, leaders and innovators undertake is not small, and that collectively it adds up to real change.

If you have not yet had the opportunity to read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, I encourage you to. It is so relevant to the challenges we face today. There is no greater way to honor Mandela’s legacy than for us to know his life’s work and to foster within ourselves his dedication and tenacity through our daily battles to make a positive impact.

-Becki Ueno

Sustainable Lawyer