From Venezuela to the Ukraine, the world is embroiled in protests. People looking to better their living conditions, gain freedoms in the press and at the ballot box and provide a future for their children are standing up at great personal risk to speak for truth.
But not every revolution is political and far-reaching. Social movements aren't always top-down, and we don't need celebrities or politicians to tell us they're legitimate. Sometimes movements start in the little spaces, in the common vocabulary we share as a culture.
In Duluth, we've seen young people banding together for good. It's not as obvious or as crass as a bumper sticker or a protest sign. It's subtler than that. They're using the Internet, usually so cold and anonymous, to create humanity.
We've seen this before. Twitter hashtags provide a way to group topics. Sometimes they're banal or even corporate, pathetic attempts by companies to hijack personal conversation by injecting their brand into a private discussion.
But other times hashtags are powerful markers of humanity. Hashtags like
#endmalaria and #darfur bring attention to social causes and bring people together to help desperate needs. Closer to home, the University of Minnesota Duluth sorority Phi Sigma Sigma rallied the community around
#kidneyforkelsey to raise money for medical expenses for Kelsey Krautkremer. Even last fall's #votelola movement (disclosure: I was involved in the campaign) could have been considered activism, a way to get sustainable Duluth farm Locally Laid and the causes it stands for on the national stage.
Now, a new movement has started in Duluth and spread around the world. There's a core group in Texas using it, day in and day out. It's been seen in Wisconsin, Montana, England and Spain. It started with my brother and a few friends but soon spread far further.
The movement is simple but powerful: #joshbiles.
Who is Josh Biles? Mostly, a symbol of a greater cause. There is a real Duluthian behind the name, and he's like a lot of us: an aspiring musician, a sociable college student and loyal to his friends and family. The most important thing, though, is how normal he is. Any one of us can be
#joshbiles is not about how much money you have or what kind of a job you do. It's not about how you score on an IQ test or how good you look according to conventional norms. #joshbiles is about how you treat people.
So the real question is: WHAT is #joshbiles?
#joshbiles is not standing by when someone is being bullied but stepping in to stand up for what's right. #joshbiles is recognizing that all people, no matter what their background, are worthy of respect.
#joshbiles is the little things, like shoveling a sidewalk for a neighbor with mobility problems or donating to the food shelf or putting money into the Salvation Army kettle.
And #joshbiles is the big things, too.
When we saw survivors banding together after Hurricane Katrina, that was
#joshbiles. The revolution in Tahrir Square was #joshbiles, too (in its spirit of freedom, not in the grave abuses that followed). When dictators are deposed, when war criminals face justice, when democracy reigns, that's #joshbiles.
But the spirit of #joshbiles is really found in the day-to-day. It's the single mom fighting to keep food on the table for her three kids. It's the volunteer who reads every week to the people at the nursing home. It's the firefighter who risks his or her life to save total strangers, day in and day out.
With the Internet, you don't have to be a mover and shaker in Washington, D.C., or old money in Hollywood to start a movement. Change can come from anywhere, even right here in Duluth. Because caring about people and making a cold world just a little less cold knows no geographic boundaries. We saw it with
#kidneyforkelsey. We saw it with #egypt. And now, in 2014, we'll see it again.
#joshbiles is all of us. And the world is a better place for it.
Robert Lillegard lives in Superior.