Equality Activist Evan Wolfson on Generosity, Government and Mending the World

This article was originally published on November 2, 2015 in Chicago Community Trust. Read the full article here.

Serving as co-counsel in the landmark Hawaii marriage case Baehr v. Miike , which paved the way for the global freedom to marry movement, Evan Wolfson has been a fierce advocate for the rights of gay people for decades.

In advance of his special talk at the 2015 Chicago Humanities Festival , the founder and president of Freedom to Marry  shared his thoughts on why he gives back and why being involved in civic affairs is not only important, it’s essential to ensure that our community, and our nation, live up to our ideals.

Q: When did you start giving back? Tell us about your first experience with giving or receiving.

A: I remember learning even in Hebrew school that charity, or as it is called in Hebrew tzedakah, is part of being a good person; that everybody has an obligation to give back. And so every week, we kids would donate to the tzedakah box. And likewise, when I was in public school, where I was during the day before going to Hebrew school after class, I remember the campaign to raise money for UNICEF with the little orange boxes. That made an impression on me as well. So I was lucky that, right from when I was a little kid on, it was always clear that it was important to contribute to the community.

And not just money—also volunteering time and being involved. I remember as a kid, volunteering at a rehabilitation center that was near my home and working with kids who had physical disabilities or challenges part time. And, I also got involved in a variety of causes politically as well. So [giving back] has always been part of my consciousness—from childhood on.

Q: What impression did those experiences make on you?

A: Well, it was part of my larger interest in politics, history and making a difference in the world. And it really came naturally. It wasn’t just something to read about or something that others should do, but something that I should do and that really mattered to me and stuck with me from early age. It was part of my larger engagement with the world. I loved to read history and learn about politics. I followed the news and was always drawn to making a difference.

Q: What inspires or motivates you to give back?

Well, the Hebrew concept is called tikkun olam, which means “to mend the world.” It always resonated with me that our precious time on this planet is limited, and the most satisfying thing is to make a difference and leave the world a better place.

Q: What is one of the greatest acts of kindness or giving you have witnessed?

A: One of the greatest acts of kindness that meant a lot to me was my non-gay co-counsel in Hawaii, Dan Foley, who first took up the case for the freedom to marry and stepped up because he believed that it is wrong to deny gay people something that he, as a non-gay man who is married, has and treasures. Dan’s vision and commitment in taking the case, and bringing me in as co-counsel, launched this whole ongoing global movement.

At the time in the 1990s when he started the case, there were zero countries in the world where gay people could marry. There were zero states. And now of course, we have 50 states and we have 22 countries on five continents. So, his living up to his ideals and stepping up as a non-gay person to advance the rights of gay people has made an epic difference around the world and certainly put me on the path that has become my life’s work.

Q: How has giving changed the way you think about receiving help from others?

A: That is a hard question to answer—I don’t think I have ever had trouble receiving help. I do think that giving and receiving are part of what connects us as human beings and it is part of what is necessary in a political sense. We must all do our small part to make a more perfect union and to advance human rights around the world.

Those sound like lofty phases, but they were very meaningful to me even as a kid. As someone who is a great lover of history and has always felt a sense of political engagement, they always felt really natural and real to me—not just abstract. You can’t have a successful country without people relying on one another and working together in community. I am a strong believer in freedom and I am also a strong believer in civic investment, the shared civic space and being there for one another—that is part of the mission of government and part of the mission of people in a successful society.

I don’t know if giving has changed my feelings about receiving, but I have been in the lucky position to have already received a lot from my family, from my community and my society. My obligation is to appreciate what has been given to me and to give.