Opinion | Ady Barkan shows us that we have no excuse not to engage in activism


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Activist Ady Barkan recently endorsed presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

By Devi Ruia, Senior Staff Columnist

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, everyone is focused on what the candidates can do to beat Donald Trump. While that’s important, we also need to think about what everyday Americans can do — and that’s where activism comes in.

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., landed an endorsement from progressive activist Ady Barkan a couple weeks ago. In a powerful video framed as a message for his newborn daughter, Barkan detailed the reasons why he and his wife, Rachael, are supporting Warren. This endorsement is crucial, not only because of the clout Barkan has gained among progressives, but because of who he is as a person.

Barkan has spent his entire career advocating for social and economic justice. This hasn’t changed in recent years, even though Barkan’s health has been deteriorating as a result of ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The life expectancy for people with ALS is about two to five years after diagnosis. Despite being diagnosed about three years ago, Barkan hasn’t slowed down his activism. He’s fighting harder than ever to affect positive change — and we could all learn something from him.

Prior to being diagnosed with ALS, Barkan worked as a lawyer. Alongside the Center for Public Democracy, he ran the “Fed Up” campaign designed to advocate for economic justice, as Barkan believed that the current economy wasn’t working for most Americans — particularly minorities. The purpose of Fed Up was to confront the Federal Reserve to get members’ concerns heard, and after several protests the Federal Reserve finally agreed to listen to Barkan and other Fed Up participants and sit down with them to discuss their concerns. This was a huge victory for Barkan and a large step forward in the fight for economic justice.

A little over a year after being diagnosed with ALS, in 2017, Barkan went to Washington, D.C., to protest the GOP Tax Plan that could have resulted in severe cuts to health care. The bill ended up passing, despite the efforts of Barkan and many other individuals, and it is one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation to date. While activism wasn’t new for Barkan, being in a wheelchair was. However, he was using his newfound disability to bring more attention to the health care cause. Luckily, the country started to pay attention to Barkan following the protests.

On a flight home after the protest, Barkan happened to find himself on the same plane as then-Senator Jeff Flake. In an emotional exchange that went viral, Barkan urged Flake to vote against the bill in order to protect health care for vulnerable Americans like Barkan. While Flake ended up voting for the bill, the events in D.C. and on the plane still helped Barkan discover a newfound purpose for the remainder of his time left.

“It was through collective struggle, I began to realize, that I could find my personal liberation,” Barkan wrote in his memoir, “Eyes to the Wind.” “I could transcend my dying body by hitching my future to yours. We could transcend the darkness of this moment by joining the struggles of past and future freedom fighters.”

A lot of people in his situation would have given up, not done something as courageous as Barkan in dedicating his time to activism. Many individuals don’t even vote, much less organize to create change. Barkan is an inspiration and more people need to join him in the fight to affect change.

In the almost two years since his viral confrontation with Flake, Barkan has refused to give up fighting for positive change. From testifying in front of Congress to advocate for Medicare for All to protesting Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, Barkan is out there giving everything he has to make our country better.

“In terms of your legacy, Ady, I think it will be very clear that even with the terrible illness that you’re struggling with right now, that you didn’t give up, that you understood that — especially given your illness — that you could play a significant role in rallying the American people toward a sane and humane health care system,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in a conversation with Barkan.

Barkan’s legacy will be that despite everything he has dealt with, he has not given up the fight. Hopefully his story and his activism will help inspire others to fight as well, as we are at a point in our country where the need to stand up for what is right is incredibly crucial.

While it may be easier to just ignore politics, it is imperative that every American pays attention and at minimum shows up to vote. However, taking steps to get involved beyond voting are just as important. More Americans need to start engaging in activism, whether that be through protesting, calling elected officials or encouraging others to get involved. If Ady Barkan can dedicate the remainder of his time on Earth to fighting for democracy, average Americans should at least join him in that fight.

Devi primarily writes about politics for The Pitt News. Write to her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter for more hot takes @DeviRuia.