‘Get a grip or get out of the way’: Candid remarks from humanitarian Melanie Ramey
Recently it was my pleasure to be invited as Melanie Ramey’s guest to the luncheon where she received the Swarensky Humanitarian Award (named for Rabbi Swarensky) from the Downtown Rotary Club for her lifelong commitment to humanitarian issues. I was pleased because, as I wrote to her in a congratulatory note after learning of her selection as recipient, she was one of the first folks to catch my attention in Madison. Melanie Ramey, now CEO of The HOPE of Wisconsin, was the panel moderator at one of the first functions I attended – a mayoral debate – and then, it seemed, she emceed or moderated about 90% of all events in 1996.
“I want to be the next Melanie Ramey,” I confided to friends. “She inserts a little personality into otherwise dry discussions, she’s candid with her remarks, and she finishes on time. She engages the audience where possible and she doesn’t use notes. She’s what I’m going to aspire to become as a public speaker.”
In the time since, as Melanie has become more submerged in social causes, I’ve become quite involved in keynoting or emceeing events. I’m glad she found other things to busy herself with, or I’d probably still be waiting in the wings.
I never really “befriended” Melanie. I’ve watched her career with interest, but always from an arm’s distance away, because while our causes are similar, our workdays rarely intersected. And then there was the status thing – I have always put Melanie on a bit of a pedestal, and sometimes role models are more fun to emulate from afar. Anyway, I was thrilled when she answered my note with an invitation to join her on her special day.
As per my expectations, Melanie did not disappoint me or her fellow Rotarians with her acceptance speech, which received a standing ovation and much appreciative tabletop chatter afterwards. How often does a speaker tell her audience to get a grip or get out of the way?
During her introduction by Moses Altsech, who nominated Ramey for the award, I learned that she was behind the lawsuit, as plaintiff, to stop Wisconsin from demanding a photo ID to vote. I was not surprised by that fact; she’s one tough cookie on the subject of human rights.
I was so moved by Melanie’s remarks that I asked her to forward a copy of her acceptance speech to me, and I’m including it in this blog. It’s passionate, it’s moving, and it really introduces the woman far better than any words I could find.
After you read it, I think you’ll well understand why I was initially so drawn to her, and why I continue to be lifted up, just knowing she’s a part of this community that has become my hometown, too. And I think you’ll understand why I whispered “amen” at the conclusion of her remarks, as Melanie stepped forward to accept her award.
Melanie Ramey’s acceptance speech
The real reasons I am receiving this award have little to do with anything I have done, but much more to do with the facts that I had the good fortune to be born in this country, born with white skin, born a woman, and born into a family that valued me and taught me by word and example that if you knew of someone who needed help, you should help them.
At my insistence, my mother taught me to read when I was about 3 years old. That opened up a world to me and I became a lifelong voracious reader. One day I came across a book about the suffrage movement and how some women went to prison, staged hunger strikes, and persisted for 50 years to get the 19th Amendment passed giving women the right to vote. I was fascinated by their tenacity and determination. These women became heroines to me.
As I grew into my teens, I became aware of the fact that I lived in a segregated society. I came to know that some people couldn’t eat in any restaurant they wanted, and that when I rode the bus to school each day, the same people always sat in the back of the bus. When I began to ask about these things, I learned that the reason was that people who did not have white skin were limited in many ways in what they could do. I’ve got to tell you that seemed like the most stupid, idiotic thing I had heard of, and so when the day came that I could sign on to march, ride, and protest against these inequities, I did.
The Voting Rights Act was finally passed, which granted the full rights of citizenship to all Americans regardless of gender or the color of their skin.
And so, in 2011 when some Neanderthal politicians decided they wanted to make it more difficult for people to vote, I had the memory of the long and difficult battles that had been waged to ensure everyone had the right to vote. When it became clear that there could be a way to stop Neanderthal creep, I was glad to become a plaintiff. In addition, I asked the board of the League of Women Voters to also become a plaintiff, and they did.
In all of the activities in which I have been involved, I have learned that if someone will take the first step, other people of goodwill also will join in. We often hear people speak of wanting a just society. It is important to understand that justice is “just us.” And it is just us who need to do something when we are aware of a wrong that needs to be righted.
That is why I am so proud to be a Rotarian for these past 21 years. When polio was eradicated in this country, it would have been easy to say, “Good, now no American children will ever have to suffer growing up crippled by polio or living in an iron lung.” Then someone asked the question, “Why should any child in the world have to suffer that disease?” And so Rotary stepped forward and took a leadership role in an effort that has resulted in virtually eradicating polio from the face of the earth.
As we sit here today, there are 84 young people from our community who went off to college this year enabled, in part, by scholarships this club gave them. There are two remote villages high in the Andes where the people had little hope for any kind of job training or economic development to make life better – until this club went to help them.
Two things are important to remember: it is just us who can help bring about a more just society, and as we move along in our life, we should not close the door behind us, but reach back and extend a helping hand so that others can come through.
These are the values that Rabbi Swarsensky stood for, these are the values that I embrace, and these are the values that I hope everyone in this room embraces, and if you don’t, get a grip or get out of the way. For the rest of us are committed to continuing to work to ensure that every person in this world can have the hope of a decent life regardless of their gender, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of their religion, or regardless of their sexual orientation. For this, I believe, is the birthright of every human being.
Jody is extra thankful this week. Read her bonus weekly blog here.
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