By Katie Stone ’09
“Civic duty” is, strangely enough, a loaded term.
We say that if we vote, that we are then entitled to complain. We say that jury duty is annoying, and we do everything we can to avoid it. We say that “duty” sounds too much like obligation, so we scoff at those who oblige us to anything other than what we want to do. We show up to complain when we don’t like outcomes, and do little to be proactively engaged. And in a country where our society is cracking under the weight of collective apathy and our lack of social responsibility, a sense of “civic duty” may very well be the best way to start building a better future. One incredible cure for such apathy is a transformative leader, one who dives into the pool so joyously they inspire the nervous dreamer — the one waiting for a reason to leave the shallow end to swim a little closer to that board.
The first time I met Eric Gudz ’15 was at an SSDP chapter meeting at UC Davis. I’d just made some pretty big life transitions, like switching majors so I could focus more time on changing the policies that harm our communities, rather than blindly perpetuating them like so many like me with good intentions. From the moment I met Eric I knew that our chapter was going to actually change some things. We were a group of young people united in a cause bigger than ourselves, and we were dedicated to having a tangible, positive impact on the world — a world that we’d both seen horrific glimpses of throughout the course of our lives.
From my position, I had a tenuous relationship with the military, and had just realized the extent to which the War on Drugs destroys the fabric of humanity. I was deeply engrossed in my own history, knowing that cannabis would have made a dramatic impact on my mother’s cancer, and that federal prohibition was her death sentence. I’d lost friends and family to addiction and prison, and nearly my own life as a result of the drug war. After these experiences at the nexus of healthcare and drug policy, I realized the most important work I can do is change laws and build community. Every day people were dying because of failed drug policy, and I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I wasn’t doing something about it. I was determined, but I was overwhelmed, still hurting, and had barely any clue of where to start.
But Eric did.
Eric had been forging this path of personal and global transformation, consciously building a trail for others to join the effort. Eric joined the Army with conviction, to serve their country proudly because they wanted to alleviate the suffering of others, and knew they had the ability to. There is nothing that can compare with combat experience, and I cannot fathom what Eric witnessed in the Army. In the aftermath of traumatic battles, they expected that the federal policies that honored their peers and fellow service members would follow this same vein of compassion. When Eric realized they did not, and witnessed the extent of suffering experienced by combat veterans being denied access to groundbreaking, life-saving therapies like cannabis and psychedelics, they responded with the same conviction that compelled them to enlist in the first place, and devoted their every waking effort to ending the Drug War.
As Eric began to explore the communities within and around the world of drug policy reform, they became ever more aware of the perverse, expansive impacts of prohibition. They saw troops lose their lives to suicide. They saw friends withdraw as each coped with the symptoms of PTSD. They witnessed others suffering in pain, and saw the struggles of the veteran community returning from war. And through each revelation, Eric’s capacity to bear it and push forward expanded.
As Eric saw the ways drug policy intersects with community development, social justice, local politics, and business, they recognized that good drug policy must not be founded only on compassion, but must also make sense for everyone in the community — especially those who didn’t agree. Eric was the one reaching out to every group on campus and in our community to ask what they could do to help support their cause or call for justice. Eric was the one showing up in full form whenever the call was raised for bodies, voices, or action.
Eric brings circles back into civic spaces, reframing civics from duty and obligation, to stewardship and accountability. And while they might say it was experiences in ROTC and the military that inspired this sense of service and call to give back, I have to say (as a friend and colleague) that I disagree. Being community minded is the foundation of who Eric is as a person, and it’s the kind of environment they build for others. We are lucky that their massive heart and brilliant mind became aware of this other war destroying our society, because it takes a process-oriented, heart-led person like Eric to both inspire others to care and to get meetings to start on time (or to keep a group of wandering SSDPers together at a conference or a campout).
It was Eric’s compassion for their fellow troops, and that unparalleled sense of community, that turned their attention from military service to drug policy reform. And it is the same compassion that compels Eric to run for local office. They live their life in a way that leaves you wondering: knowing what I know, knowing what I am capable of, knowing that I care, how can I not actively participate to my fullest ability to build a better world for future generations?
I met Eric at a time in my life where I was making a choice: step into the role I was born to play and build a better society for others, or stand aside and believe that I have no power to improve myself or the lives of those around me. Eric didn’t know it then, but it was their conviction and integrity that guided my path, and helped show me how compassion and love can change the world — and how to run a proper SWOT analysis.