Transforming Tragedy Into Action: Candace Lightner

Over time, my efforts helped incite others to action. You kick a few pebbles, you turn a few stones, and eventually you have an avalanche. ~Candace Lightner

In 1980, a grief-stricken mother sat down at her kitchen table and picked up her telephone.

Just days before, her 13-year-old daughter had been killed by a drunk driver.

The man who had been found, arrested, and charged with her daughter’s death was not a first time offender. In fact, he had been convicted of drunk driving three times in four years – which should have landed him in prison.

But he had served just 48 hours in jail. His license had been reinstated every time, after probation.

Gut-wrenchingly, two days before striking and killer her daughter, he had been arrested for another hit and run. And once again, he had been released on bail.

Even with that history, the police doubted the driver would see any jail time.

That’s just how the system works, the police explained to her.

No. No, she wouldn’t stand for that.

As she explained it, “If my daughter had been raped or murdered, no one would say of the killer, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Death caused by drunk drivers is the only socially acceptable form of homicide.”

So, using her local newspaper’s obituary page, she began calling community members whose friends and family had been killed by drunk drivers. Soon enough, she had a mailing list. The mailing list grew, and grew. And then it grew some more.

Even though she was a single mother, she used some of her savings and the insurance money from her daughter’s death to quit her job and dedicate herself to advocating for stricter laws against drunk driving.

A friend came up with a name for her fledgling organization – Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And that’s how MADD was born.

The rest is history that you probably have heard of or remember.

Candace Lightner – a 35-year-old divorced mother of three who wasn’t even registered to vote – started MADD in 1980…

And by 1984 successfully lobbied Ronald Regan to increase the drinking age to 21. MADD’s efforts with state and federal lawmakers stiffened penalties for drunk driving across the nation. MADD has been credited with decreasing drunk driving and increasing public awareness of the dangers of driving while intoxicated.

Were there people who thought she couldn’t do it? Did some people think that she was wasting her time? Oh, absolutely.

But when traffic safety experts told her it would take at least ten years to change public opinion and behavior, she didn’t give up. She took it as “challenge.”

And then she met that challenge in less than five.

In just a few years, a woman with no advocacy experience and no political education successfully changed public opinion and the political landscape, and in doing so saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

All because she sat down at her kitchen table … and picked up the phone.

*Note: As I explained in last week’s post, this is the first in a month-long series of stories of people who became activists not necessarily by choice, but because their circumstances pushed them in that direction. The goal is inspiration, but each story offers slightly different takeaways. Let’s reflect on those (briefly).

There are a few lessons that I take away from this week’s story:

Big things start from small things – don’t be discouraged because you’ve got a small list or social media following.

You don’t need a political science – or law – degree to make a difference. You don’t even need experience; you gain more along the way. You just need passion, dedication and focus. Candace used grief and her love for her daughter – two powerful forces – as motivation. The GOP uses strong emotions (especially fear and anger) to direct their movement. What powerful emotions/themes can you use to center and intensify your work?

The importance of changing attitudes is underrated. Changing attitudes toward drinking was just as critical as changing laws. Today we’d cringe if someone offered us “one for the road,” or if the person who was the most intoxicated was charged with driving everyone home. That was standard before Candace helped change attitudes about drunk driving. Now drunk driving is addressed as a public health issue, and there are targeted efforts every year to discourage drunk driving around the holidays. Are there attitudes that you/we should focus on changing? (I’d argue that focusing people on the precarious state of democracy is the obvious target here.)

Okay – now it’s your turn to let me know what you learned. Post a comment or send me a note at!

Now, friends: let’s get to work.

Actions for the Week of January 4, 2022

The Big Push for Voting Rights: This Week!

You have likely seen the news that voting rights legislation is finally getting serious consideration – with some of the strongest statements from Senate leadership about modifying the filibuster that we’ve seen.

In fact, if you’ve not yet read Leader Schumer’s Dear Colleague letter, you should!

I will note that in his Dear Colleague letter Schumer specifically discussed the importance of YOUR help: “Given the urgency of the situation and imminence of the votes, we as Senate Democrats must urge the public in a variety of different ways to impress upon their Senators the importance of acting and reforming the Senate rules, if that becomes a perquisite for action to save our democracy.”

Over the coming weeks voting rights legislation will be at the forefront, and if Republicans will not “change course” then “the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections.”

I gave that Dear Colleague Letter a standing ovation at my dining room table.

But here’s the thing: he’s signaling there that he needs you to keep pushing your Senators. This is not the time to stop calling – it’s actually time to call more often, and include your Republican Senators if you haven’t already. This is an all-hands-on-deck push, so this week please call your Senators and urge your network to do the same.

**If you have Democratic Senators, call them THIS MORNING (Tuesday) because they will be going to their weekly Democratic luncheon this afternoon – and will be discussing voting rights. Let them know that you care deeply about this issue.

Script: Hi, my name is ___ and I’m a constituent at ___. I am urgently asking the Senator to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act by any means necessary, including changing Senate procedural rules so that these bills can receive an up-or-down vote. Our democracy is under attack, and I am asking the Senator to defend it: pass federal voting rights legislation now.

January 6: A Candle in the Window

COVID cases are at record levels and weather across the country is bone-chillingly dangerous. If you had planned to attend a candlelight vigil for January 6, your plans might be in disarray – or you may be considering other options.

It’s with that backdrop that reader and Small-Deeds-doer Ann M. sent a suggestion: putting a lighted candle (or one that works on a battery but looks like a candle) in a window visible to the street on the evenings of Jan. 5 and 6, just as a way of saying metaphorically, “I want to keep light and democracy alive.”

I think that’s brilliant.

As Ann said, “Lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness is a very old idea, maybe as old as Confucius. It is also a reminder to keep kindness and gratitude alive.

We all need those reminders to retain our softness while steeling our resolve. The warm glow of fire against the cold and darkness certainly sends that message. So on January 5 and January 6, put a candle in a window facing the street.

If you are on social media, take a photo of it and post with the hashtag #lightupdemocracy.

Other groups across the country are going to be adding this action to their lists this week, so please spread to your friends and neighbors. Let’s light up democracy!

You’re A Media Mogul. Yes, You! So Let’s Spread Some Good News!

Democrats have a tendency to rely upon the media too much to get our message out. A few decades ago Republicans figured out that the media was not an effective tool for message generation/dissemination – so they created their own. (See the Fox News action following this one.) We’re seeing the impact.

Dan Pfeiffer (whose newsletter is wonderful, and you can and should subscribe here) pointed this out recently by reminding all of us that “[e]very person with a smartphone has the ability to spread good news to our networks — our Facebook friends, Instagram and Twitter followers, and the contacts in our phones. We can share good news and better information. We can take it upon ourselves to make sure the people in our lives know what was in the American Rescue Plan or what Joe Biden has done to make sure everyone who wants a vaccine can get one.”

I could not agree more.

The action here is actually pretty fun.

Your mission is to share at least one good news story about Democratic accomplishments with your friends, family, social media network, book club, work colleagues – what have you – every week.

C’mon. We can all do once a week.

I did so with a grocery store manager that I often see, and who usually strikes up a conversation with me somewhere around the gluten free bread. While he often complains about politics in general, I used that opening a few weeks back to talk about what was in the Build Back Better plan and how the Child Tax Credit had cut child poverty in half. He’d not heard any of it! And it was as pleasant a conversation as could be.

You can make it even easier on yourself by sharing info via text, social media, or email.

Here’s a great way to get started. Axios did a short piece about the Biden camp’s list of accomplishments (coupled with helpful statistics from the White House to back them up). It’s full of helpful facts, like:

  • At this time last year: less than 1% of Americans were fully vaccinated. Today: More than 71% of American adults are fully vaccinated.
  • At the start of the year: just one-third of adults were eager to get vaccinated. Today, 85% of adults have had their first shot.”
  • The economy added nearly six million jobs this year — the most of any first-year president in history. When POTUS took office, unemployment was 6.3%. Today it’s 4.2%.
  • The average number of Americans filing for unemployment over the last four weeks is at its lowest level since 1969. When POTUS took office, over 18 million were receiving unemployment benefits. Today, only 2 million are.
  • Because of the [$1.9 trillion] American Rescue Plan and historic economy recovery, child poverty was cut in half.
  • Without the ARP, Moody’s estimates 2021 growth at 2.9%. After ARP: On pace for growth of 5-6 percent — best since 1984.
  • U.S. was only G7 country [U.S., U.K., Canada, Japan, Germany, France and Italy] to surpass pre-pandemic output by Q2 2021 and keep growing. No other G7 country had reached pre-pandemic output by end of 3Q 2021.
  • In President Biden’s first 10 months, long-term unemployment fell by 1.8 million — the greatest drop in long-term unemployment in U.S. history.

These are the kinds of stories that most people will never hear. So let’s make sure that our networks do!

Take Action Against Fox! (January 6 Call to Action) H/T Jessica Craven at Chop Wood Carry Water

Many of us want to counter Fox, and on January 6 at 7PM EST, Defenders of Democracy Against Disinformation, Hear Yourself Think and others will mark the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Capitol with a webinar on countering one of the most significant sources of the disinformation that created the conditions for the Jan. 6 attack: Fox News. 

There’ll be a keynote video from Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD), and breakout sessions with live training on actions to reduce the normalization and revenue of Fox News.​ To register, sign up on the DDAD contact us page and include a message about this event.

Not free on January 6? No worries – go to Defenders of Democracy Against Disinformation’s website to learn about other ways you can counter Fox on your own time.


P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at or via paypal at
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every e-mail. (Really! I really do!) We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

2 thoughts on “Transforming Tragedy Into Action: Candace Lightner

  1. Hello! A small deed we can all do is to ask the people whose mask does not cover their nose, to put it up. It puts a spotlight on them and enables others to expect a mask us worn correctly. Sometimes I have to call a manager, but I am polite and I ask them if they are aware that most children are not in school, lonely and losing precious time and brain power due to the Pandemic That takes some of the pressure and glare off the culprit off them, and puts the emphasis on the kids and who is really all about anyway.


    1. Yes! We can and should expect people to wear their masks properly by now. Although I’d add that folks should be careful with who they approach, and be careful. (Of course.)


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