My Father Made Me an Activist: A Tribute to Walter Van Slyke

On December 30th, I lost the greatest man I have ever known. I know it’s cliche, but my father was my hero.

Before the age of 29, which I turned on Sunday, my father had organized in the civil rights movement, fought against the Vietnam War, organized workers, and so much more. My father was a storyteller, and I grew up on his stories – from the silly (the bear story!) to the serious (how he helped uncover the corporate corruption behind the demolition of a hospital serving primarily low-income people) to the silly-serious (how he accidentally ended up leading a 10,000 person anti-war march). But he was also a listener: he wanted to know your story. He always made people feel like they were being heard. And even through his last day, I was learning new, fantastic things about him. My mother told me about the time he saved a little girl’s life just by being compassionate and inquisitive. He told me about the time he was driving through the south with other civil rights activists and had to fend off an attack against his companions. A family friend told me about how he had to take charge of a strike in the city of Chicago and eventually helped the workers win better pay – even after one of their fellow strikers was killed. I always thought I knew my dad’s stories, but during those last months, and following his passing, I continued to learn new, powerful, and inspiring things about him that will stay with me and shape the decisions I make for the rest of my life.

I consider myself lucky, because I got to hear many of these stories as I grew up. And even some of my earliest memories are of being taken to rallies and protests by my parents. It wasn’t until I’d gotten a bit older that I realized my dad was not a typical father figure to have. But what was most amazing about my father is that he didn’t have that same luxury. He had to discover for himself what it meant to try to make his community and the world a better place. Born in 1947, he came from the deep south, from an incredibly conservative part of the country that practiced segregation. If he had followed any normal trajectory, he would have become a very different man – probably the type of man he spent his life organizing to overcome. But at his core, that was never who he was. It started at an early age when he threw himself into helping the striking cafeteria workers at his university, and before you knew it he was driving through the south fighting against segregation, moving to DC to organize against the Vietnam War (and eventually meet my mother), and then continuing that struggle in Chicago. After settling down and raising a family, he kept his efforts going by organizing to fight against racist practices in the local school system, and then later on providing support – through childcare and so much more – to my mother’s activist group. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of everything he did.

My dad was the most kind, compassionate, and loving person I have ever met. He cared about his family, and his friends, and strangers. He went out of his way to help everyone he knew and especially those he didn’t. His kindness and generosity was never constrained to just his family. Besides expressing this through his activism, he tried to be warm towards everyone. One example is that he’d make sure to give money to people who were living on the street. As a kid, that left an impression on me. And now I have a personal rule because of him. When I pass someone on the street, if I have money in my pocket, and they don’t, I give them something. Because if I have enough money to be out and enjoying myself, I have enough money to give to someone who has nothing. My father didn’t instill this lesson in me by telling it to me, he showed it to me. And that’s what my father was: a living example of kindness and compassion to everyday people.

He was also a great counselor. He advised me through my own activist endeavors. He advised me on launching my organization and played my board games. He play tested Rise Up several times, and gave me some of the best advice for improving the game. He’s the reason that storytelling is so integral to Rise Up. After each playtest, he’d tell me he wanted to know more about the movement you were trying to build during the game, why we were organizing, what we were fighting for, why we had a protest, and so on. He kept encouraging me to find ways to get players to naturally flesh out the story, to ensure that the group storytelling was a key piece of the game. And because of him, that’s now the case – when you play Rise Up, you’re not just playing a game, you’re telling the story of the movement you’re building and how you’re fighting to make things better.

My father during one of the times he playtested Rise Up, with his partner in activism for over 45 years, my mother.

Rise Up, and so much more, wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the love and energy he brought into the world. He was a huge advocate for this game, and he spent countless hours supporting it. As one example: even while we were in the hospital due to complications from his cancer treatment, he kept on supporting it. To be honest, at first, things started off slowly, and I was worried that the Kickstarter campaign might not be a success. But he strategized with me and counseled me and kept me level headed, even while he couldn’t get out of bed. That’s just a glimpse into the kind of caring person he was.

Something it took me a while to truly grasp is that my father’s activism came from his place of deep compassion. He cared about everyone. He wanted his home, his community, his country, his world to be full of love and kindness for everyone in it.

Don’t get me wrong. My father was capable of getting angry. But besides telemarketers and crappy customer support, the only thing that really brought out his wrath were politicians and corporations who were making life miserable for everyday people. What I learned from him – again, by example – is how to channel those feelings of compassion and anger into action. Action both on the large scale, when I’m trying to change the world with my work and my activism, and on the small scale, when I pass someone on the street who has far less than me.

Brian hugs his father at his wedding

With my father at my wedding, after his toast.

One of my father’s last wishes was for us to “keep up the good fight.” In many ways, I think that one of the things that dismayed him the most about his imminent passing was that he wasn’t going to be here to keep fighting for what he’d always been fighting for – a better, more just, more free, more equitable, more loving world. Especially since things were about to get so dark in the age of Trump.

And so even though his loss is still fresh, and it’s still hard to get out of bed in the morning, I know that the right thing to do is to keep his spirit alive by getting up and getting out there and fighting that good fight he dedicated himself to, and that he so wanted his friends and family and allies to carry on.

So I’ll see you in the streets, and I know my dad will be right there with us.

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