Lessons Learned from Trombone Shorty

April 27, 2022

Right to Complain by Trombone Shorty

Songwriters: Troy Michael Andrews/Paul S. Morton

Everybody says they want change
But nobody wants to do what it takes
To make it better
Everybody complains
But nobody ever wants to take the blame
And nobody ever does anything

I wake up in the morning
And what do I see
I see my reflection in the mirror
Looking at me
Telling me what you gonna do
Now you say you want change

But if you don’t change yourself
You have no right to complain
So what we gonna do
To stop all this talkin’
And start to do some walkin’
We gotta practice what we preach
And not just look from sidelines
Lettin’ more time just pass by

The first time I heard Trombone Shorty’s song “Right to Complain,” it spoke to me. As the lyrics and the title suggest, the song is about earning “the right to complain” by working hard to effect change around us and remembering that often the most impactful change starts with ourselves.

Over my career, I have tried to “stop all this talkin’ and start to do some walkin’” and, most importantly, “not just look from sidelines.” I know what it’s like to work as an outsider within, working to change systems that weren’t meant for me, and learning and applying all that knowledge to effect change. I buttressed what I learned from my lived experience with resources from the literature, consultation with social science experts, connections with other members of marginalized groups, and information from other relevant sources beyond my own discipline. And I took on every opportunity that presented itself to lead and to serve.

While attending a mentoring retreat many years ago, I learned that there’s a name for this kind of activist: tempered radical. Debra Meyerson, in her book “Tempered Radicals,” coined the term to describe a person seeking evolutionary and lasting change by pushing against the status quo, challenging inequities, making visible the invisible and employing disruptive self-expression consistent with one’s own values. But I find people often put the emphasis on the “radical” part and ignore the “tempered” part. It is the tempering, in my view, that allows us to have a better chance of being heard and avoid being pushed out of the very system we are trying to change.

Change is admittedly difficult. Seemingly, we could not be more challenged than we are now. We remain in the midst of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, a war rages in Ukraine, climate change threatens our planet and well-being, and the war on truth, science and information seems never-ending.

But there is reason for hope, much of which rests with our youth and the power they possess as activists intent on having an impact on the world. Former President Obama recently spoke at Stanford. In his speech, he presented a call to action to combat disinformation and gave a nod to young people: “Young people everywhere are recognizing that this is a problem. They’re not just griping about it; they’re doing their part to fix it. And the rest of us need to follow their lead.”

On Thursday, we welcome Olin alumna Frances Haugen to campus. Frances, a member of Olin’s first graduating class, is doing her part to fix what needs to be fixed when it comes to the negative impacts of social media platforms.

In that spirit, let’s all do our part to practice what we preach, to do what it takes to make the world better, and, as the lyrics suggest, to earn our right to complain.



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