March 17, 2004 — In a world where communities across the globe are "interrelated, interdependent and mutually vulnerable" due to issues ranging from terrorism and global warming to the AIDS pandemic, young people no longer have the luxury of inaction, Ronald V. Dellums, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Tuesday night. The former 27-year representative to Congress was in the Virgin Islands as the inaugural speaker in the Alfred O. Heath Distinguished Speakers Forum.
"You have to do it [get involved] for the sheer necessity of survival," Dellums said, adding that one's involvement must be done with "fidelity" and "integrity." "You have to be willing to show up every day for the fight," Dellums said.
A progressive Democrat who served as the chair of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Dellums called upon the audience assembled at both campuses of the University of the Virgin Islands Tuesday night to see him as an "early warning system."
He said the lines between nations — between "us and them" — are being blurred, and as a result "the definition of community has been radically altered."
Dellums, who has authored several books, including the highly acclaimed "Lying Down with the Lions; A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power," minced no words in describing the responsibility he feels and wants other to feel toward community and leadership.
"Each of us must assume the responsibility for the knowledge we possess. What you know forces you to act," he said, adding that "part of leadership … is to burden people with knowledge and information."
Dellums did his part to that end. After the forum he told reporters that in the 2000 presidential election a mere 5 percent of African Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 voted. "Imagine what would have happened if that number had been 55 percent." It would have resulted, he said, in a completely different outcome to the election.
Dellums, who makes no bones about how he feels about the current administration in Washington, said they are on the wrong side of almost every issue — but especially foreign policy and global issues.
"They are willing to spend billions of dollar waging war, but when it comes to poverty and hunger, we throw a mere pittance out there."
Dellums reached back into his 31 years of activism and told a story of his start in politics — against his will. He was drafted, during a late night meeting of black community activists, to run for Oakland City Council. He described himself at the time as being more of the "guy in the back of the room taking notes," reluctant to be on the front line.
After much soul searching, however, Dellums realized he couldn't turn his back on his community — and thus began his stellar career leading the fight for issues he believes in.
On the AIDS pandemic
Dellums, who since his retirement from politics in 1997, has been deeply involved in the AIDS crisis, described in chilling numbers how AIDS has decimated sub-Saharan Africa, where as many as 5 million people die every year from the disease — 9,000 per day, he said.
The disease is "marching around the world," he said. "We're all in a circle of AIDS, either infected or affected."
Noting that cures and vaccines are still somewhere off in the future, Dellums said that affordable medication is needed. While medications are available, Dellum noted that most are financially out of reach for most poor people — a wrong which he believes needs to be corrected.
"People should not have to die because we lack the will to reach out," Dellums said.
Additionally, Dellums pointed out the stark inequity between the sexes, a contributing factor in the spread of AIDS. "We need to challenge cultural orthodoxy. Women need to be empowered as equal sexual partners."
Dellums, a life-long activist, said 9/11 did something all of the activists of the 1960s, and since, couldn't.
"It unified America… . On 9/10, we were a country divided, by 9/13 we were drawn together," he said.
Dellums noted that after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, there were more flags being flown in Harlem, New York City, than at any time in history. "We can never go back to 9/10," Dellums said.
According to Dellums, the new "asymmetrical warfare," which he described as no longer "tank to tank or airplane to airplane" has made the world a "tiny place."
He said it is naive and a mistake to think, "I live here in paradise, they won't touch us."
On the global economy and the environment
"If you cough in one country, someone catches cold in another country," Dellums said. "Corporations go offshore and take jobs away … you call a number for technical support for your computer and you get Bob in India."
Speaking about pollution and global warming, Dellums said there are no borders to stop their spread.
"It's everybody's problem, and you either address them [the problems] and survive or choose not to address them and not survive," he said.
Dellums was clear: "Wherever we are, we need to make sure a progressive leadership emerges."
Democracy and Haiti
Closer to home, Dellums said he expects the Congressional Black Caucus to have a lot of questions about what has happened recently in Haiti, which he said is not in keeping with the definition of democracy. In a democracy, "you don't put a gun to someone's head," he said.
He faults the U.S. for not stopping the armed rebellion which forced Haiti's elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to recently flee the country.
The United States needed to "go in, secure the ground and disarm the rebels," Dellums said.
Noting that until 1990, Haiti never had an elected president," Dellums said, "We should have stayed there long enough to train a cadre of people who could run the government and deal with the poverty" and other issues. "Democracy is not just about an election," he said, adding, "Are we really committed to the ideals we espouse or not?"
Life in politics
Dellums makes no apology for his years in politics, an arena that often gets a bad rap.
"Going into the system does not require that you sell out," he said. "You can fight with integrity on the inside."
And when you do fight with integrity and engage in the battle every day, with conviction and fidelity, Dellums says it can have "unforeseen potential results."
"You could actually win."
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