Men in trench coats arrived before the banquet party. As a waitress in a downtown Seattle private club, I helped finish setting rows of tables with silver and china, water and wine glasses. While I expected the affluent at the club, never before had a function required a security team. Usually, the banquet information sheet listed the name of the party, but not this night.
My curiosity aroused, I asked the manager who we would be serving. He told me the party attending the banquet would be officials from the South African government.
It was January 1991 and apartheid was still a ruling policy in that country.
Years earlier, I petitioned, rallied, and sent letters advocating divestment from South Africa. For me, most global and political issues are complex, but apartheid was simple. It was wrong. American corporations and our own government should not profit from an inhumane policy - the tenet of divestment.
The night of the banquet, my finances vested with apartheid. If I served those officials, I would be doing business with South Africa. While I did not know what might happen to a corporation trying to divest, I knew exactly what it meant for me: If I left during my shift, I would lose my job. Sustenance and my college studies would be jeopardized.
Co-workers, Beth and Chris, found me slumped in a chair, head in hands. "I don't think I can work this party," I said. Blocking the manager's view of my predicament, they rallied around me. They would personally support me no matter what, but to ensure my decision was solid, they played devil's advocate.
Beth said then-President Frederik de Klerk "might end up being a good guy. He's working to end apartheid."
Her point was valid, but apartheid bowed to no one person. As long as it reigned, divestment must continue.
Offering his own perspective, Chris asked, "If you lose your job, how will that help? How does the loss of your education change South Africa?"
No one's life would improve if I walked out, including my own. A solo protest would be futile. If every waiter refused service based on the moral goodness of the clientele, very few restaurants would be in operation. No one else in the club had worked for divestment, just me. My friend's concern for my welfare crystallized the issue. I told them, "This isn't about South Africa."
To have asked others to divest, but then refuse to do so myself would cast me as a hypocrite. If I worked the banquet, how could I ever again promote my beliefs or trust in my own mettle? No matter the outcome, I had to follow my convictions to the end.
Beth and Chris released me from their protective cluster. On my way out of the club, one of the men in trench coats said, "If you leave now, for security reasons you will not be allowed back in the building."
I nodded my consent. I left the building and was later fired from my job. For a long time after that evening, I endured the difficult ride of consequences - the anxieties of unemployment and a frustrating hiatus from school. Now, I have a secret treasure of verve, tenacity, and even faith in myself. And, when in his 1994 inaugural speech, Nelson Mandela said, "As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same," I understood that's what he had done for me.
* Lesa Quale waits on tables in a Seattle waterfront restaurant.